Q: Our 14-year-old (he’s going into the ninth grade at a public high school) has taken up with a bunch of kids that we don’t exactly approve of. They have reputations as troublemakers and at least one has already been arrested for shoplifting and had to do some community service. The irony is, they all come from families that are highly regarded in the community. We haven’t seen any dramatic change in our son’s behavior, but he has become more secretive and has told us he doesn’t want to play sports anymore. In the opinion of lots of parents, the kids in question are under-supervised. Naturally, we’re concerned about the potential bad influence. I want to tell him to find new friends; my husband wants to take a wait-and-see. What do you think we should do?
A: I don’t mind taking sides in this; to wit, I agree with your husband.
To begin with, it’s completely normal for kids your son’s age to be flexing their independence. It's all in preparation for emancipation, which you should be preparing for as well. In the process of establishing emotional distance from parents and family, a certain amount of secretiveness is to be expected, no matter the nature of the child’s peer group. In and of itself, that’s neither a bad nor a good thing; it’s just the way it is.
Boys are naturally inclined toward risk-taking. If they aren’t provided sufficient opportunities to take risks in relatively safe contexts – wilderness camping experiences, for example – they are more likely to gravitate toward peers and activities that are inappropriate or truly dangerous. I witnessed this as a teen, and saw the potential for it in my son when he entered adolescence.
The young teen boy, and this isn't only for boys, is in danger of making supremely impulsive decisions. His parents, on the other hand, are in danger of reacting in such a way that he becomes more secretive, perhaps even rebellious. Your husband understands that, I’m sure, which is why he doesn’t want to make matters worse by clamping down without a good, concrete reason. In that regard, I need to point out that, "we have a bad feeling about those kids” just doesn’t qualify.
I strongly encourage you to trust your husband’s judgement. Partly because moms don’t have an intimate understanding of boy-ness, they generally tend toward over-protection, even over-reaction in situations of this sort. Unless there’s more here than reflected in your question, I feel confident in saying that your husband will intuitively know the when and how of intervention, if intervention becomes warranted.
In the meantime, this is an ideal time of year to enroll your son in some activities – like the wilderness camping experience I mentioned above. This would satisfy his need for risk, while at the same time providing adequate supervision and guidance. Dad can certainly jump in there by planning summer father-son getaways involving hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, horseback riding, dirt-biking, and things of that sort.
Where your son’s choice of friends is concerned, he’s bound to expand his social sphere when he enters high school in the fall. His present choice of running buddies may turn out to be nothing more than a fling. For now, just keep your eyes open and be ready to step in and establish controls should it begin to look like he’s about to lose all semblance of common sense.
Remember that energy you expend worrying will be energy you won’t have when you most need it.