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Growing Concerns (04/18/2004)
By Dr. Martha Erickson

A question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota

Question: My husband and I are planning to write our will. We are trying to decide who should take care of our two children should we die. Our familial choices are both limited and many. I come from a big family, yet I have problems with my siblings raising children. How can I address this issue? How does one decide? And what should I think about that is in the best interest of my kids?

Answer: As difficult as it is to even entertain such possibilities, it's important to think carefully about what would be best for your children in the event of such a huge loss. Children's needs vary greatly with age, and you don't say how old your children are. But the following questions should provide some guidelines:

* To whom do your children already have close ties? If you were not available to them, is there someone to whom they naturally would turn for comfort or guidance?

* Among the people you know (both family and friends), who is most likely to make a serious emotional investment in your children's lifelong well-being? Certainly you would want your children to have the best care in the short run, but you also want to know they will have a family that provides a base of love and support throughout their adult lives.

* Who most closely shares your values and beliefs about the big issues involved in childrearing?

* Who is best prepared to address the short- and long-term emotional issues that arise for children at a time of catastrophe and loss?

* Are there potential caregivers in your circle of family and friends who would be able to maintain your children's existing connections with friends, school, place of worship and community? (Losing parents is devastating under any conditions; continuity of other relationships can provide comfort and security in the midst of such a loss.)

* Finally, who is willing to take on this important responsibility--now and forever? It's critical that before anyone agrees to being designated in your will, they think carefully about what such a role entails. No one should enter lightly into such an agreement.

According to our own family attorney, the designation of caregivers for surviving children in a will is not legally binding, but judges usually honor the wishes of the parents. Exceptions sometimes occur when family members contest the arrangements recommended in the will. With that in mind, it would be wise for you to talk openly and tactfully with all interested parties about the arrangements you are specifying in your will. For example, if you choose to designate neighbors rather than family members, you might tell your relatives you have chosen someone who can allow the children to remain in the same school and neighborhood for the sake of continuity, and you might emphasize that you will instruct these friends to be sure your children maintain close contact with extended family in the event of your death. The last thing you would want to do is leave your children in the midst of a battle among friends or relatives who are angry and hurt by their exclusion from your plans.

The next couple of months will be special ones for many high school students around the country. Prom night is supposed to be fun and romantic, a night to remember forever. And graduation is a major milestone, a night to celebrate in some spectacular way. But these special events also are a time of risky behavior and often discomfort for kids and parents alike.

Right now, in living rooms around the country, teenagers are urging their parents to let them stay out all night after graduation or allow them to rent a hotel room on prom night, or host a "safe" drinking party for their friends. Parents are hearing that "everybody's doing it" or "you're the only parent who's so strict and old-fashioned." And even though we're grown up, many of us parents still feel the peer pressure of going along with what seems to be the way things are done these days.

As parents, we often are ambivalent about our own authority when our children reach their late teens. We want to respect our kids' emerging autonomy, but we also know that the safety and well-being of our children is still our responsibility. We know that these end-of-high-school activities are once-in-a-lifetime occasions, and we want our kids to have a wonderful time. But we know that without careful planning and adult supervision, kids too often engage in risky behavior that can be deadly.

So what can parents do to help their kids have a fun and memorable time within safe and appropriate boundaries? How can we counter the pressure to relax our own rules and values "just this once?"

* Meet with other parents of the kids in your teenager's network of friends to determine common ground rules for the end-of-year party. There is strength in numbers. And the best way to get around the "everyone's doing it" is to get to know the "everyone" to whom your teen is referring.

* Engage the kids in planning their special evenings, working within clear and safe guidelines set by the adults. Teenagers do need to feel a sense of control of their own plans, but they also need to know their parents care enough to set boundaries around those plans.

*When possible, avoid kids driving. Even without the presence of alcohol, the excitement of these special evenings can make driving risky. Some parents chip in to rent a van or a limo for groups of kids. Or, they help to arrange a lock-up party at a safe place with lots of fun activities. (I'll never forget the fun my kids and their friends had on graduation night at a lock-up party in a wonderful community center. And, as a chaperone, I'll never forget how sleepy I was by the time we all had breakfast together at 6 a.m.)

* However you set guidelines for these end-of-year activities, be clear and firm in defining, communicating and enforcing the rules. Above all, let your teenager know it is your job as a loving parent to look out for their well-being, whether or not you're popular in the short run. Then be patient in the belief that someday your children will thank you. And know that on some level, they may even be relieved right now that you have saved them from a difficult situation. Think, for example, of the lovely college senior who told me about the intense discomfort she felt on her high school prom night when she and her friends partied at a local motel and the boys all seemed to think the girls "owed" them sex in exchange for the dinner, dance and corsage. With tears in her eyes, she told me, "I wanted my parents to tell me I couldn't go, because I just wasn't strong enough to say no on my own." 


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