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REAL LIFE

'90s FAMILY : You Can Be Both Friends and Parents

November 08, 1995|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the world of statistics and widespread perceptions about today's families with adolescents, Jane Haxton of La Palma would seem to be an aberration. She likes her kids. She liked them even when they were teen-agers.

Now they are 20, 21 and 24, and she calls them "my good friends."

This might seem surprising in light of what we typically hear about adolescents as a group. According to a recent Carnegie Corp. report, nearly half of all teen-agers in the United States are "at risk" of seriously damaging their futures through harmful or dangerous behavior: pregnancy, substance use, antisocial activity or school failure.

A major problem, according to the report, is that many parents--busy, stressed and confused about their roles--disengage from their teen-agers too much too soon. Relying on outdated thinking, these parents believe hostility is inevitable and that they should get out of the way to foster their kids' independence. As a result, they often watch their evolving kids drift or sometimes plunge headlong into the youth culture defined by cars, clothes, fast-food, rap music, sex and violence-saturated films and TV.

Parenting wasn't always smooth for Haxton, who was widowed when her children, a daughter and two sons, were in their teens and only recently remarried. Looking back over the lonely years of waiting up for them to return at night, dealing with speeding tickets, attending football games and school plays, she said she kept the nest warm even as they were out trying their wings.

"The most important thing is that they know they are valued," she said. "That you love them. And you like them."

Yes, the family argued and emotions ran high, and Haxton would not describe herself as a perfect parent. But, she said, she negotiated balances with an eye to what really mattered. The kids could have pigsty rooms, but under no circumstances could they drink and drive. They could talk and communicate, but they had to respect one another. They might love heavy metal music, but why not play oldies when they're with their mother? They all loved to laugh.

She knew her children valued her attendance at school plays and football games. But they had rules too. Her youngest son "wanted me to be at the games, but he didn't want me to yell out his name," she said.

Her oldest son is married, working and in college, her daughter engaged and the youngest son in college. They remain close. For a birthday gift for her youngest son, away at school, the family spent a day making a video of his favorite places and friends, the new house he hasn't yet seen. It's full of family in-jokes and teasing.

"We all had to have a copy of this, we enjoyed it so much," Haxton said.

According to Ruby Takanishi, executive director of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, even informed and caring parents underestimate their own importance in the teen years and they often don't give their children enough credit for being able to think clearly and negotiate.

Haxton was lucky to come by her positive attitude naturally. "My parents adored me and they were always there for me, even during my teen years," she said.

For other parents, and institutions such as schools that need to work with teens, Takanishi said it can be hard work. Part of the task is realizing that adolescents are not beasts and monsters as they have sometimes been portrayed.

"While there is a youth culture, it's not necessarily oppositional," she said. "Kids don't want their parents to tell them about the length of their hair or clothes or shoes, but in terms of the future, their career and values, I don't have any question they would very much say they value what the parents and adults have to say."

Part of what teens need, the Carnegie report concludes, is a "supportive family life characterized by warmth and mutual respect, serious and sustained interest of parents, parental responsiveness to their changing mental and social capacities, articulation of clear standards linked to discipline and close supervision, high expectations for achievement and ethical behavior and democratic, constructive ways of dealing with conflict."

Or as Haxton would say, "I always just thought the world of them."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053, or via e-mail at twec43c@prodigy.com. Please include a telephone number.

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