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The Globe and Mail

How much should I protect my teen when he screws up?

Alex's mother is at work when she gets the call.

"Mrs. Crestman?"

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"This is Charles Neely, assistant principal at the high school. You are going to have come down to the school and pick up Alex. He has been suspended for the day for fighting with another student."

When she retrieves her teenager, this is the story as described by the school: A teacher on hall duty saw Alex give a hard push to another boy, causing the boy to lose his balance and fall. The other boy said it was unprovoked. Alex would also be suspended for the following day - the automatic penalty for any fighting in school.

As soon as they are in the car, Alex launches into his defence.

"Mom, that was totally not what happened. Travis Bennett does this kind of stuff all the time. Not just with me. He pushed me for no reason against a locker, and I pushed him away just to get him off of me, defending myself. But that was all that Mr. Olivetti saw. Besides, Mr. Olivetti doesn't like me because he thought I was a wise guy when I had him for gym last year. Which maybe I was a little, but that's not a reason to accuse me of something where I didn't do anything wrong. I swear to God, Mom."

Alex begins to get teary. "You've got to do something, Mom, it's not fair."

The question: Should Alex's mother let the penalty stand, or should she get actively involved with the school, defending her son from what may be unjust accusation, or perhaps even aggressively challenging the school over the perceived unfairness.

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Parents often tell their teenagers that, now that they are older, they are going to have to start facing real-world consequences for their behaviour.

But now your teenage child is actually in trouble. And things seem a little different than you had imagined.

For one, your child may have a very different story - plausible and invariably delivered with what seems to be genuine veracity.

Second - and perhaps the No. 1 thing that undermines tougher resolves - is the parental anxiety that can immediately kick in: "Now that he's in high school, all this can count against his record. Not just about when he may apply to university, but maybe it becomes a part of his permanent record. They say that stuff like this doesn't follow you. But do I want to take the chance? What if it affects his future?"

So what do you do? Where is the line between too protective and looking out for your own child's best interest?

Every situation is different, so I would not give parents a hard and fast rule. But there is an important message in not being too swiftly protective. The message is that they are now entering a stage in their lives in which you cannot completely protect them. They cannot act with impunity, they cannot assume that no matter what they do they will be shielded from any consequences of their behaviour. After all, in a short time, they will be fully on their own.

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"It's not a matter of whether we believe you or not. It's that we can't always protect you whether you were right or wrong. Right or wrong you have to figure out what you have to do so that you don't get in trouble. If they single you out - even unfairly - what do you need to do so they won't single you out again?"

What if your child really is being dealt with unfairly? If that is clearly apparent, by all means act. But often you don't know. Even if they unfairly get in trouble (that's not too severe), the message may not be so bad: The world out there is a somewhat random, chaotic place and they do need to watch out for themselves.

"You're not going to call the school and fight for your own son?"

"I'm sorry Alex. We may be wrong, but you're going to have to deal with what the school decided. You're going to have to figure out on your own what you need to do so you don't get in this kind of trouble in the future."

"But you're abandoning your own child."

Sometimes it can be what's for the best. But a humbling reality is that it is awfully hard when it is your own child.

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