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How to parent a ‘woke’ teen

A recent TikTok video shows Kellyanne Conway facing the same dilemma as many parents of politically active teens.

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Illustration by Alex Cochran

SALT LAKE CITY — As the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign, Kellyanne Conway is used to being in the spotlight, but it’s usually because of her work on behalf of her boss, Donald Trump.

Lately, it’s because of her parenting.

Conway’s 15-year-old daughter, Claudia, has been speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and, like her father, attorney George Conway, criticizing Trump on social-media platforms like Twitter. And the teen recently broadcast a disagreement with her mother live on TikTok.

Claudia Conway, to use a term popular with her generation, is “woke,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).”

And like other teens, she is a digital native, immersed in technology all her life and comfortable using it.

The combination of “wokeness” and technology is creating a dilemma for some mothers and fathers: how to parent a woke teen, especially if they don’t agree with their child’s views.

“Adolescence is a normal developmental time for kids to push away from their parents and develop a different viewpoint from them. That’s always been true. What’s so much harder for parents today is that (their children) have such a big platform,” said Christine Carter, a sociologist and author of “The New Adolescence, Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction.”

“A lot of these kids have tens of thousands of followers and these new voices that they’re trying to develop get amplified in a way that is going to create more conflict in their family than it would have normally,” Carter said.

Some parents choose to ignore their children’s social media presence. Others decide, like Conway and her husband eventually did, to restrict their child’s access. But there are other strategies that conscientious parents can employ to keep their relationship with their teens intact throughout a notoriously volatile period of development, parenting experts say. And maybe, along the way, they can learn from their woke teens, too.

‘The stakes feel higher’

Tatiana Cruz, an assistant professor of history at Lesley University in Boston, said the term “woke” is typically used to define white people who are radically socially conscious and social-justice minded. “I mostly hear it with my students talking about people who are surprisingly interested and advanced in their understanding of race and identity,” she said.

While taking stands different from their parents is part of a developmental process called individuation, Cruz believes that today’s teens and young adults are more likely to speak openly about their views because technology has allowed them to form their own communities from which they get validation.

“Now if you have a queer kid in the middle of Nebraska, they can have an entire community online where they can find support. Before, it was very isolating for lots of young people,” Cruz said.

Similarly, before technology, a white supremacist could live in relative anonymity; now young people are using social media to draw attention to cases of discrimination and injustice, in ways that might make their parents uncomfortable, especially in a political climate that is already seething.

It’s normal for parents to be disappointed and even concerned when a child expresses values that seem different from their own, especially now, said Carter, a parenting coach and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

“The kids aren’t worse; the context is worse. It feels so much more threatening in a culture that is so divisive to have a child that thinks differently from you. Parents are more likely to take it personally. The differences are greater, and the stakes feel higher.”

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Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway speaks with reporters at the White House on Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in Washington.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of “Take Back Your Kids, Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times,” among other books, said that historically, teens tend to reflect their parents’ views on political issues.

And Claudia Conway does appear to hold some of the views of her father, a vociferous critic of President Trump.

But changing mores on social issues, such as those related to identity and civil rights, can result in a generational divide that heightens the normal developmental tension between parents and teens, Doherty said. While it’s OK for parents to allow teens to express their views, it’s not OK for teens to denigrate their parents and their beliefs in a public forum.

“When I was a teenager back in the early ’60s, I was more conservative than my father; I liked Barry Goldwater and my father thought Barry Goldwater was crazy. We argued about it, but I never told him there was something wrong with him. The problem is when it gets personal.”

Even if parents are comfortable with their children holding and publicly expressing starkly opposite views from their own, they are right to be concerned about their children’s exposure, not just to trolls and predators in real time, but also to having youthful opinions made permanent on the internet.

But the solution is surprisingly low-tech, involving only time, respect and ears.

“If you get into big battles about what they think and what they believe, you end up invading their boundaries and you end up with flagrant rebellion,” Doherty said.

That said, he encourages conversation about even controversial issues, while requiring civility and respect for each other.

“It’s a good idea to let your child argue the other way; you’re preparing them for citizenship,” he said. But, he added, “There’s a generation of parents who are willing to show their children respect and they don’t insist on it coming back from their children. It has to go both ways.”

That doesn’t mean you have to give up hope that your teens will one day share your values.

One of the topics that Carter addresses in her book “The New Adolescence”  is how to influence your teen. Spoiler alert: Arguing doesn’t work. “That’s like feeding their desire to be different and helping them dig in. They will hold even more fiercely to what they believe. You don’t want to set up camp too far apart from one another,” she said.

Instead, ask questions. Learn from them.  “And understand that one of their primary motivations is independence, and we as parents need to acknowledge that,” Carter said.

Cruz, at Lesley University in Boston, say parents need to make an effort to understand their teen’s positions and why the teen holds them, but teens who are trying to “wake up” their parents have an obligation to be civil, too, and to try to understand the context of their parents’ beliefs.  With meaningful conversation and active listening, both the parents and teens may be open to change.

“I’ve seen people grow in ways I didn’t think was possible,” Cruz said.

That said, there may come a time when parents need to intervene if the teen is at risk of being exploited or is otherwise exposed to danger.

“This generation, Generation Z, is, for the most part, more woke than their parents and less likely to be duped,” Carter said. “But you’re still the parent. You probably paid for the phone and you probably pay for the phone plan too. If our kids are clearly hurting themselves, then we do need to step in.”

And don’t worry — the relationship will likely survive a canceled TikTok account, Doherty said. “Parents can remind themselves that almost all relationships between teens and parents get better when the teens get into young adulthood. This storm will pass.”