If You Feed Them, They Will Come

It’s a little scary. Okay, a lot scary. Just when they are old enough to drive themselves to practice, you suddenly want them home so you can see what they are doing. They want to have fun; you want them to be safe. How do you do it? How do you keep them in sight, yet let them have the independence they need to grow up?

My goal of having a fun home for teenagers began long before my children were teenagers. It began when I attended a BYU Education Week class and learned that to make your teenagers want to be at home, your home needed to be more fun than wherever else they wanted to be.

Well, I wasn’t sure I myself could be much fun since I had suffered from morning sickness or baby blues during that whole disco era, but I did think that I could make my home a fun place for my teenagers to be. And I think I’ve been pretty successful as a mom to teenagers because, as my children frequently point out to me, none of them have ever been arrested. So here are some ideas gleaned from eighteen years of experience on how to make your home “teen-friendly.”

Learn Your Limits
First of all, teenagers want to be with friends, and parents are not really considered “friends,” nor should they be. David C. Dollahite, Ph.D., professor of family life at BYU said, “Research indicates that teens really don’t want their parents to be their pals, but rather their parents. In fact, they are a bit embarrassed by parents trying to ‘be cool’ or be ‘one of the gang’ and would prefer to have their parents be a stable and responsible force in their hectic lives.”

There is a fine line to walk between being a parent and a friend. Successful parents somehow find a way to walk that line although walking a tightrope without a safety net may seem easier at times! There are times that teenagers want parents, and there are times that teenagers want friends. It usually isn’t at the same time. If they don’t want money, a ride somewhere, or a cheerleader for their baseball games, it’s probably a friend they’d rather be around.

Therefore, it’s good to have a place in your home that teenagers can have to themselves and their friends while you breeze in and out looking for things you have lost, like the car. It doesn’t need to be expensive and equipped with a large-screen television, no matter what they say. A room with comfortable furniture, a television and VCR or DVD player, and pillows to hit each other with will work just fine.

If you don’t have an extra room, turn the living room over to the teenagers and retreat to your room for a quiet evening. Other times, teenagers will be happy to flop down in the living room with you to talk or watch a movie, and that’s even better!

Laying out the Welcome Mat
To that end, always be happy to see your teenagers’ friends and welcome them; your teenagers will appreciate it. I always enjoy the suspense of not knowing who is going to knock on the door and walk in with a cheerful greeting like “Are there any leftovers from dinner?” Another hint: always put an extra baked potato in the oven.

Remember too that teenagers tend to be loud and parents tend to be tired, so be sure to set limits about decibel levels, grilling hot dogs at two in the morning, and turning down their car stereos as they drive away. If they violate the limits, remind them at six in the morning when you are getting up for work.

Teenagers also want something fun to do in their own space, even though they usually won’t end up doing what they have planned. I used to think that when teenagers came to my house to watch a movie they were going to watch a movie. Not. It meant the movie, which cost five dollars to rent, would be playing in the background as the girls squealed and the boys threw pillows and tried to throw each other off the couch.

The Key to a Teenager’s Heart
When I did research for this article and asked my usually monosyllabic son what made our home teen-friendly, he answered with a four-letter word: “food.” That’s the truth. Stock the refrigerator and pantry, and they will come.

I have always let my teenagers’ friends have privileges in my kitchen since it saves me the energy of waiting on them (although other mothers don’t like this idea). According to my teenagers, I get more repeat business this way. Decide what makes you comfortable, let them know what the rules are, and head for the grocery store.

Some good staples to have on hand are pop-tarts, ice cream, sandwich and taco fixings, tortilla chips and salsa, and of course, huge pans of leftover lasagna and chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven.

If you aren’t a cook, use some shortcuts. Find a good brownie mix or learn to make rice krispy bars. Buy ready made cookie dough or fruit. The most important part about having food is not how elaborate the food is, but simply having it around and available to eat. Grilled cheese sandwiches are always good. One night I made about twenty.

One rule to remember: while boys go for quantity, girls will be happy with anything chocolate. Throw the girls a bag of Hershey’s Treasures and you will be their new best friend.

“Mom! You’re embarrassing me!”
Another rule to remember is not to embarrass your teenager, which is nearly impossible. All teenagers go through stages when even a parent’s breathing might embarrass them, but try your best. Here are some things that might embarrass your teenagers at any one time: showing baby pictures of them in the bathtub, talking baby talk or trying to talk “cool,” arguing with them in front of friends, and appearing in pajamas.

One embarrassing thing I do is a little victory dance around the house that involves hip swiveling and arm twirling. According to my teenage daughter, it’s not a pretty sight. She usually reminds me not do to the dance before her friends come over. So far I have been able to contain myself.

Keeping Your Sanity
If you want to keep your kids closer to home, you’ve got to give them a little incentive. The most obvious solution is to make fun activities available. Scour yard sales, second-hand stores, and sales for ping-pong tables, soccer tables, basketball hoops, and other teenage game equipment. Keep a good supply of fun board games and cards on hand for friends to gather in the evenings and play. The classic Monopoly never loses its charm, and Risk in various forms is also popular.

When these evening parties do assemble, make sure your teenagers know that they are responsible for their friends’ behavior and cleanup (while being willing to overlook a little popcorn in the couch cushions). Remember the phrase, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”? Nothing makes Mama unhappier in our home than to wake up to a house that looks like it’s been ravaged by a pack of teenage werewolves. Paper plates and cups help, along with a guided tour to the trashcan and dishwasher. (Don’t worry about embarrassing your teenager at this point. It’s necessary for survival.)

A traumatic experience as a mother came to me when I returned home after leaving several teenage boys alone. Out of all the activities they could have chosen, they chose to hide a nickel in a pile of flour on my counter and find it without using their hands. My whole kitchen was covered with a fine film of flour spread by nose-snuffling. Mama wasn’t happy that night, and they’ve never done it again—at my house anyway.

Establishing a Haven
A few years ago my son’s friend was going through a period of depression and considered our house a place of comfort and safety from his problems at home. Before we knew of his problems, we had often teased with him, sometimes even putting him down. But I made the conscious decision one night that our home would be a safe place for him where he would be loved and welcomed. I always let him know I was glad to have him there and always had his favorite ice cream on hand. I tried to make our home this type of a place for all my teenagers’ friends.

For me, making our home a fun place to be has been about much more than just cookies and games. It has helped our family bond together because we’ve learned to be more accommodating of each other, and we’ve tried to develop a healthy atmosphere of love, friendship, and understanding. I feel loved and appreciated (most of the time!) because they recognize the sacrifices I make for them and they know that I do these things because I’m trying to be a good mother to them. In turn, they are great kids!
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