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Growing Up, Not Apart

Adolescence can be a wonderful time to bond with your child. Here’s how.

Collage of karaoke machine, cookbooks, topics cards, a tie-dye kit, gift cards, a fire pit, and a road atlas.
Photo illustration by Slate.

Read more from Slate’s puberty series. Christina Cauterucci praises advancements in period technology for giving girls control over their bodily care. Rebecca Onion explains why bra options are so much better for girls today. Rachelle Hampton assesses the current crop of girl puberty books. Nick Greene offers a primer on shaving for first-timers. In case you missed it: Check out Slate’s book list for middle schoolers.

On a rainy evening a few years ago, I rode a bike across the city of Amsterdam, where I’d once lived, to attend a puberty talk at a bookshop. I was not there for personal reasons—my children were not yet adolescents—but to learn more about the “Dutch approach” to sex ed for my book Beyond Birds and Bees, since Holland is renowned for producing some of the world’s happiest, most-egalitarian-thinking, and sexually healthy teenagers. The authors of the new book Pubermania, Ingrid Van Essen and Kiki Mol-van Der Lee, promised at their talk to tell us everything we needed to know to get through puberty with our kids.

The writers presented in Dutch, which was hard enough for me to understand. But something else confused me. As the authors gave their advice, I noticed an absence of words like period, zit, breast, or boner. Instead, everyone in the room (except me) seemed to be focused on something else entirely: how parents can keep close, loving bonds with their kids through puberty and beyond.

That night was my first big hint that puberty is about more—much more—than hormones and body changes. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have understood that the Dutch parents seated around me had already covered all the biological details of puberty with their kids (and that schools had reinforced those lessons, with relationship skills to boot). Addressing body changes, reproduction, and sexuality with their kids well before puberty began had made room in their relationships for bigger, more-important questions in early adolescence: How can I keep a close relationship with my young teenager as they take steps toward independence and bigger risks in the world? What can I do to ensure my adolescent will trust me, confide in me, consider my advice, and still love me and want me in their life when they’re older?

Now, after everything I’ve learned, if I could change one thing for parents whose kids are entering adolescence, I’d change our associations with the word puberty. The old-school way of looking at puberty brings to mind body changes and a single, awkward “facts of life” talk—and the expectation that parent-child relationships take a turn for the worse. The new puberty is all about connection. After all, the incredible process of watching a child come into their own—finding their voice, talking to you about what they know, what they’ve learned, what they’re passionate about, and teaching you about these things—can be deeply rewarding for parents.

Here’s how to lay the foundation for a lasting, loving, collaborative relationship with tweens and young teens—and make the passage of puberty easier for parents and children.

Work Together

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, contributing to household chores is essential in adolescence, and there’s no chore a typical 12-year-old “shouldn’t be expected to master.” Chores allow teenagers to feel like core team members, making them feel “valuable and competent, both of which enhance self-esteem.”

And there are other important reasons why adolescents should be taught—and expected—to do work around the home, whether that’s remembering to feed and walk the dog, donning protective gloves to help in the garage or garden, or handling their own laundry from hamper to hanger: Research (and common sense) suggests that regular chores help kids develop the emotional and relational skills they’ll need to do well in adulthood.

Not every chore needs to be drudgery. For many teenagers, the kitchen offers a way to make a valuable contribution that doesn’t feel like work. In some households, making dinner for the whole family once a week is a perfect responsibility for a tween or teen. The best cookbooks for teenagers offer solid, skill-building challenges that don’t underestimate teenagers’ abilities.

MasterChef Junior cookbook
Clarkson Potter

Having a young pastry chef in the household adds tremendous value, especially the night before a bake sale or when it’s too late to order a cake for Grandma’s birthday.

The Baking Cookbook for Teens
Rockridge Press

The Baking Cookbook for Teens by Robin Donovan

Baking is an excellent skill for a teen to have in his back pocket.

Play Together

A fun, carefree shared experience without time and performance pressure—also known as play—can forge bonds, help families laugh together, reveal glimpses of each other’s quirky individuality, and help siblings connect with each other too.

Exploring new interests together puts grown-ups and teenagers on equal footing as first-timers. A neighbor of mine who mentors a teenage girl says the pair enjoy taking on new craft projects. They do internet research together to gather ideas, instructions, and supplies—or the teenager learns first and my neighbor takes the role of student. Recently they’ve done candle-making and tie-dye projects.

Tulip One-Step Tie-Dye Kit
Tulip

Tulip One-Step Tie-Dye Kit

Exploring new interests together is a wonderful bonding experience.

When the days are long and the weather’s nice, you’ll find my family playing outside, whether we’re tossing the Ultimate disc, whacking croquet balls through wickets, or pushing midnight with a light-up bocce ball set. As Rebel Talent author Francesca Gino explains, feeling a little playful and silly as we perform a vulnerable task in front of a group can help us get more comfortable with the challenge—and with one another. Crazy hair and karaoke, anyone?

Singing Machine karaoke system
Singing Machine

Singing Machine Karaoke System

Laugh together and show your teen your silly side.

And of course, there are always good old-fashioned board games.

Read Together

These books can and should be read by grown-ups simultaneously with their adolescents, because they’ll become common ground for future conversations.

By the start of middle school, everything in this book should be old news. But later is better than never. (Read Slate writer Rachelle Hampton’s critique of girl puberty books here.)

It's Perfectly Normal
Candlewick

It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley

Body books should be normal, everyday objects around the house that underscore that puberty is a normal, everyday occurrence.

It can be hard for parents to trust that it’s OK to talk about risky behavior including alcohol and substance use, abuse, and addiction, but experts insist that giving information is not the same as giving permission. In fact, they say, a shared grounding in factual information gives parents and teens solid, open lines of communication vital for health and wellness. Start with High.

High book cover
HMH

High: Everything You Want to Know About Drugs, Alcohol, and Addiction by David and Nic Sheff

This book provides a starting point for open lines of communication about drugs and alcohol.

In order to form healthy, respectful relationships with peers and colleagues, young people must build empathy and learn to look at things from other perspectives. Jump-start those conversations with this real-life story of lessons learned about class, privilege, and friendship.

I Will Always Write Back
Little, Brown

I Will Always Write Back

Take a journey into life-changing lessons from two different worlds.

Go Together

It’s axiomatic that car trips, whether across town or across the country, provide excellent opportunities for parents and their middle and high schoolers to have conversations that might otherwise feel too awkward. Here are ways to harness the power of the road trip.

I used to find it funny that my husband insists on providing paper maps for our kids to follow along on road trips, but now I know why this is important. In order to spatially conceptualize directions and help navigate, learners need to see areas laid out in a large, tangible format that digital device screens can’t replicate. What’s more, if you’re taking the time to really explore, perusing an area map invites creativity: Every road trip has detour-worthy scenic routes, points of attraction, heritage sites, iconic towns, or national parks to discover. This atlas offers in-depth info about our national parks, where nature can work its restorative magic on the brain—and where cell service is often refreshingly nil.

Rand McNally 2020 National Park Atlas & Guide
Rand McNally

Rand McNally 2020 National Park Atlas & Guide

This book provides endless information and inspiration for journeys together.

Plan ahead and book some tours, experiences, or a performance at your destination. Even better, let your child loose on the planning. When kids are really invested in the places that they’re seeing—if they’ve researched the city and chosen an activity or two that’s appealing to them—they take more ownership and get more out of any trip.

You can even cede complete control to your child by giving her a gift card for an Airbnb Experience and letting her surprise you with the activity once you arrive at your destination. Bonus: Your child will learn valuable skills like making a reservation and planning a schedule.

Airbnb Experiences can be a great weekend option in your own town too. I live in Seattle, where my kids can book us experiences like a food tour of Pike Place Market or a rowboat trip through urban waterways.

Airbnb gift card
Airbnb

Airbnb Gift Card

Let your child take control of the planning and surprise you with some great bonding experiences.

Bring along a deck of conversation starters for a casual and relaxed way to keep conversation flowing. (Alternatively, this tabletop set or these place mats can do the trick during dinner at home.) These open-ended questions quickly get both kids and grown-ups sharing—and nobody can accuse you of prying.

TableTopics to Go box
TableTopics

TableTopics to Go

These cards are a great way to prompt conversation in the car.

Be Together

One trick to building strong lines of communication and forging lasting connections with adolescents is finding activities that allow you to be together but not directly face to face (that’s why those car rides work so well): taking hikes or urban walks together, sitting side by side at a baseball game, paddling a canoe or double kayak, or even sharing adjacent sides of a coffee shop table rather than sitting directly opposite of each other.

I know some parents who take their kids to the neighborhood café for hot drinks or breakfast on a regular weekday before school. Others pick Saturday mornings. Dole these out freely—with the condition that they’ll be used for a one-on-one with you.

Starbucks gift cards
Starbucks

Starbucks Gift Cards

Let a fun drink be the nominal reason for a regular, no-pressure sit-down.

An added element to encourage adolescent sharing and not too much face-to-face intensity is to take advantage of the inhibition-melting dark. Consider taking night walks together. Or circle up around a campfire: This pop-up fire pit stores small and works in your yard, at the park, or on a road trip.

pop-up pit
CDPR

Pop-up Fire Pit

Get cozy with one another around a campfire.

Over the years, my work has led me to connect with countless teens and parents about their adolescent experiences, and this is the No. 1 takeaway they’ve offered for how to stay close through puberty and beyond: Regular time set aside to spend together in a low-stakes, no-pressure, judgment-free, silence-OK, honesty-allowed activity—whether that’s a monthly breakfast ritual, grabbing the basketball for a regular game of Horse, or taking a consistent Sunday walk—sets a pattern that lets kids know they have a grown-up they can trust, even through puberty’s most-vulnerable moments.