Phila. doctor's book offers help to parents on raising resilient teens

Kenneth Ginsburg is a physician who specializes in adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Kenneth Ginsburg is a physician who specializes in adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 16, 2011

If you want to be a better parent to your teenager, do some sleuthing at the mall.

Kenneth Ginsburg, a doctor who specializes in adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, says a little retail homework will help you understand teenagers and teach them to navigate their world.

"Check out the mannequins and gigantic posters of models - rail-thin women with full lips and well-placed curves, and young men with glistening abs, hairless chests, and jeans slung low," Ginsburg says in his new book, Letting Go With Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens in the 21st Century.

Written with former Inquirer reporter Susan FitzGerald, this book - his fourth - was published this month. It's his latest contribution toward improving the lives of young people.

If you've heard about raising resilient children, it's probably because Ginsburg is one of the idea's biggest promoters.

He teaches resilience to patients at Children's and to military families coping with having a parent in a war zone.

Some of the most resilient children he knows, he said, are those he sees as medical director at Covenant House, Pennsylvania, which serves homeless children. And in his myriad articles and research papers on raising children, resilience is a constant refrain.

Married and with twin teenage daughters, Ginsburg keeps his home life private so that his children don't feel like human specimens.

On his office door, Ginsburg has taped a drawing by a homeless teen he knew who was later shot to death. Despite such tragedies, his approach is positive and reassuring.

"I rarely meet a parent who does not want to do what is best for their kids," he said. And most children - even those who keep their parents up at night - turn out fine.

The key is to think about your child as a happy, healthy 35-year-old and work backward.

To get there, children need to take chances and learn from them.

"They have to fall a lot and get back up again," Ginsburg aid.

It's your job to teach them how to do it. Children want to listen to their parents, Ginsburg said, but you must start early and understand the real causes of good and bad behaviors.

"If we really don't want kids to smoke cigarettes, we'd better hope they have other ways of managing stress," Ginsburg explained.

Children need a lot of discipline, but the Latin roots of that word are about teaching, not punishment.

Discipline works best when parents connect it to behavior. If your child starts staying out past curfew, it doesn't make sense to take away his cell phone. But you can insist on an earlier arrival until your child shows he will come home on time.

Mothers and fathers should avoid what Ginsburg calls "the parent alarm." For example, if your 13-year-old son mentions a girl, don't immediately respond with something like, "You're too young to date."

Your son may not be asking to date. If he is, responding that way will shut down - possibly forever - the conversation you need to have.

Much of the book aims to help parents answer questions about when a child is ready for various activities, including staying home alone, sleeping at another child's house, and getting a job.

Deciding when is not about age. It's about analyzing a child's temperament, skills, and other qualities, and helping find a safe, practical, and ethical approach to the activity.

So let's go back to the mall.

There is a lot of sexual suggestiveness there, but some of it is healthy.

"With so much online socializing going on, the mall at the very least provides a spot for kids to get together in person," Ginsburg writes.

Again, start early. Well before teenhood, take your child to the mall and talk about money and marketing. Teach your child how to treat a clerk respectfully.

Then take your child and a friend and gradually let them walk ahead of you. By taking one step at a time, parents eventually will feel comfortable letting their children go to the mall solo.

To achieve some goals, you may need to recruit other parents.

Don't want your teenage daughter to wear a revealing bikini? Talk to other parents about encouraging more modest dress. You don't need to convert an entire school to your way of thinking, just enough families to create a peer group that shares some values.

"What you're trying to do," Ginsburg said, "is not make your kid feel like a freakazoid."

Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520, or @miriamhill on Twitter.

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