Parenting Futures: Playing the Long-Game in Parenting Your Teen

                            “The future is a verb that requires us to push into it.” -Ari Wallach                                   

Ari Wallach is a consultant and professor who helps politicians and business leaders plan for the long term – ideally the very long term (think multiple lifetimes). In his TED Talk “3 Ways to Plan for the (very) Long Term,” he argues that “short-termism” (a phrase he created to describe focusing only on short term solutions) prevents leaders from all walks of life – CEOs, teachers, legislators, environmentalists – from solving complicated, possibly expensive, long-term problems. For instance, a “short-termist” industrial CEO who buys cheap, poor-quality equipment chooses saving money (short-term goal) over worker safety or environmental health (long-term goals).

To combat short-term thinking, Wallach proposes a process of thinking and revisiting decisions over time that he calls “longpath.” Longpath thinkers ask three questions when making decisions:

  1. Will this make change beyond my lifespan? How might this decision impact my grandchildren? (Transgenerational Thinking)
  2. What is my vision for the future? What multiple paths can I see for a positive future? (Futures Thinking)
  3. What comes after we solve our problem(s)? What’s my hoped-for end goal? (Telos Thinking)

What in the world does this have to do with parenting teenagers?

Parents, caregivers, and role models of teens are in an ongoing “futures” game. Every interaction parents have with their children has the potential to make ripples into the future. Wallach gives the example of eating out with his young children and needing to entertain them until the food arrives. The short-term solution is to hand them a video to watch on his phone – this quickly solves the problem of the children being too loud or antsy at the restaurant. But if he focuses on the “longpath” and asks what his action is teaching them he will likely make a different decision. For instance, when thinking about the long-term, he might intentionally engage with his children in conversation. This interaction benefits short-term and long-term outcomes; in the present his children are feeling connected with their dad and in the long-term he’s modeling how his children will act with their children and others in the future.

Teens are also required to make many future-oriented decisions. What career do I want? Do I need good grades to get into college? If I choose to speed/drink/smoke what might my life be like when I’m 20 or 30 or 80? Long-term thinking like this is hard for adults and especially difficult for teens who feel invincible and are programmed to live in the moment. However, adults can help teens push past short-term thinking by asking teens to think through the impact of their choices on other people or help them identify several possible paths to reaching their goals or talking through how they imagine their life in their 20s or 30s or older.

To help teens engage in “longpath” thinking, adults may need to help teens find situations where they can learn more before deciding. For example, teens often are asked to decide between the training needed for several very different possible careers (e.g., teacher, real estate agent, banker, fire fighter). Parents can help teens set up job shadowing experiences with professionals practicing each career and help teens create a short list of questions about the lifestyle associated with the career (e.g., Do you enjoy going to work every day? What do you like best about your job? What don’t you like/would change? Are you able to take vacations or time off when you like?).

Parents of teens can also engage in “longpath” thinking when it comes to their childrearing goals and strategies. For instance, when your child breaks a family rule, rather than focusing on punishing them, think about the long term lesson you’d like them to learn.  In the short run our goal may be to keep our teens safe and healthy, but our long term aim is to help them grow up to make responsible choices and decisions.

In his TED talk, Wallach says, “try and push past your own life if you can because it makes you do things a little bit bigger than you thought were possible.” Framing decisions and choices beyond their immediate impact and intentionally thinking about possible long-term outcomes can have positive repercussions for teens and parents.


Article by Anne Clarkson

Anne-Headshot-useAnne Clarkson received her doctorate in Human Development and Family Studies from UW-Madison and is currently the Digital Parenting Education Specialist with UW-Extension Family Living Programs. Over the past 10 years, she has worked as an educator in the fields of community health, parenting, family studies, and digital education. She and her husband are excited to be starting their own parenting journey this summer. Anne was a pretty easy teenager whose parents worried more about pushing her to try new experiences than about her rebellious behavior. When not talking about families and technology, Anne loves to cook, read, travel, play board games, and take long walks (ideally along beaches but typically along sidewalks).