Parenting teenagers can be a stretchy proposition at times

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

The seminar on family life was over. The speaker joined my father as they walked through campus, stopping occasionally to chat with students. One young man followed them, getting in step before interrupting.

“Excuse me, sir,” he began, addressing the lecturer. “Boiling down everything you said tonight, what would you say is the most difficult task in parenting teenagers?”

The speaker paused and turned to face the lad and his question.

“Son,” he said. “After we use all our psychological jargon about being parents to teenagers, I think the bottom line is that we must learn to live with rubber bands.”

There was silence.

“I call it the art of the rubber band,” he continued as their walk slowed, and the three men found a bench to sit.

“Teenagers are really rubber bands. Take a rubber band and put it around your index finger. Stretch it a long way. When you turn it loose, it comes back to your finger.

“Teenagers are like that,” he said. “They are only part-time adults. They must leave the nest, but they have a need to know that the nest is still there when they want to come back to it.

“The difficult task for parents is to allow this rubber band process to happen,” he added. “Kids stretch away from the home many times, but always with the knowledge they can return to the security of home base.”

Standing up and putting his hand on the young man’s shoulder, he said, “Learning and practicing the art of the rubber band is imperative. If stretched enough, it breaks. At some point, it must break. Then, they are on their own but with fond memories of what once was. And those memories move them into responsible adulthood.”

Rubber band parenting — how descriptive and still so true. Although that story was first told 30 years ago, I can think of no better description of the path to maturity for our children.

At times, our teens can make us feel like we are in their world, almost of their world when they gather around a holiday table and share in all parts of both preparation and celebration. Or in a quiet moment they share a personal joy or strife. Or they have a few friends over and let their guard down, talking with them as if we weren’t in the room.

And in those special moments, we feel like our lives more than intersect.

It is also in those moments, however, that we sometimes see our children as others see them. And we marvel at — or are mortified by — the lessons they have learned, or still need to learn. Jolted back into parenting mode, we dutifully make mental notes to find a teachable moment and remedy the shortcoming.

Meanwhile, they stretch away again, retreating to their cars, their friends, their bedrooms or basements where gaming and social network activities consume their lives again.

And we wait for them to come back to security’s nest for advice and counsel — or more realistically, money or a home-cooked meal.