I sometimes have to smother a chuckle when people tell me how hard it is to be a parent of a small child. Little ones are exhausting, yes, but these parents' faith that somehow they're on Easy Street once they hit the first day of school is misplaced at best. It's just as hard to live in a sane way with a tween/teen. Even now that mine are grown, there are days when I would give the world for a problem that could be handled with a mop. And if I had some sort of cleaning wipe for the messes that come from broken hearts, I'd be a trillionaire.
But I think the worst of parenting sins I see are committed in the name of trying to be the cool mom or the cool dad. But giving them everything they want and giving in to their every wish and whim is not the way to achieve true coolness.
Being cool isn't about not having limits. With all my rules and restrictions, I've been called a fascist by other adults, but the kids say I'm cool. Limits, broad or narrow, have nothing to do with coolness. It's not what you give or take away. It's what you are, and what you do.
In my experience, the "coolest" features seem to be respect, patience, calm, attention and consistency. If you don't ride them like they have a saddle, don't freak out every time something happens, pay attention to them in a genuine manner on both the big and small things, are there when you say you will be, and handle things in a predictable manner, then you will avoid many problems. And they will walk uphill both ways for it.
I am not suggesting respect in its context of hierarchical relationships. It's a simple acknowledgment of the fact that they are growing up, and that their activities are assuming more and more of an adult weight. They aren't deciding whether they want to wear the purple pants or the blue pants in the morning anymore. These decisions they are making can have far broader consequences. What they want, what they need, and various parts of the modern teenage life need to become part of the give-and-take of the household.
Patience is the bedrock. Not just from a standpoint of putting up with whatever behavior is driving you crazy, but also patience in expecting results to instructions/orders. They are often in such a tizzy with everything going on around them that just a couple of minutes of time to work it out can often make the difference between successfully negotiating a completed chore and having a huge pointless argument. I'm not suggesting that you don't have limits, but rather that there are times when coming off like a drill sergeant is counterproductive.
Calm may seem like it's just another word for patience, but it's more than that. It's having a demeanor that shows the children that you can cope with whatever comes your way. It may seem ridiculous, but it's important to them. How many times has your kid started a conversation with the phrase, "Now don't freak out ..."? You might have uttered those words if you think back to your own teen years. That's your cue to practice your yoga breathing or whatever it is that helps you keep your cool.
Pay attention! There's nothing that shows them you care faster and more completely than genuine interest in their life and their activities on a personal level. I know there's all sorts of advice out there about how you're supposed to be their parent and not their friend but it is possible to be their parent and also know what's going on in their life. How many parents know more about their office mates or the Seattle Mariners than they do about their own child? That's very uncool. Do you know enough about his favorite hobby to understand him when he hits the kitchen door and starts earnestly talking at you in some Teen-ese dialect with a big smile on his face about something he just pulled off?
For my guys, it was skateboarding. I had to learn what a melon grab was when I saw it. This is good for two reasons. First, you can have a conversation about something he cares about, and second, you know enough that you can more intelligently decide when it's time to be concerned. (Remember: It's never time to freak out) Him saying, "I pulled off a 180 melon out of the back of the quarter-pipe with a transfer to the Big Pyramid," brings a response of "That's awesome! Did anyone get a picture of it?" That's because you know that's a pretty good move, but nothing insane. On the other hand, him saying he dropped in from behind the left grind rail and biffed tells you to ask him if he left any skin anywhere on the steel reinforcement inlaid in that ridge on the back of that little ramp back there.
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," is great advice as long as you understand what it really means. It's actually the opposite of the standard convention. It really means that little minds are foolish, not that consistency is a bad idea. When it comes to teenagers, it's a necessity. In their constantly changing world, a person who does what they say they will do and responds to issues in a predictable manner will be a haven to them.
Consistency applies everywhere and with everyone. Kids who come over follow the same rules my kids do when they're in my house/car. You show up on my front porch with a movie, CD, or game I've put the kibosh on, I have a lockbox on the porch where it can be safe without bringing it into my house. But they know better by the time they've been here a couple times. I can count the number of times we've had to use it without taking off my shoes. Every piece of hardware and connection in the house is heavily monitored and is visible from my desk, the kitchen, and the living room. They don't mind—they just say hi to me, too, or ask me for help with the homework/game.
Apply these guidelines to yourself as well. You're never going to be perfect unless your mental programming is structured around the Three Laws of Robotics, but every little bit helps if it's genuine. Do the best you can, and expect it from them in return. Your needs do still count, and if that means you need to lock yourself in the bathroom and scream into a stack of towels before you try to deal with whatever they just did, then take the time.
All of these things intertwine into this single feature we call "cool." None of this works in a vacuum, though. This has to be applied consistently and across the board in order to have the underpinning relationship that lets them give and take with you on that level.
A really cool thing combines all of them. For example, let's talk about getting the garbage taken out. This can't be cool, right? He hates doing it. And you hate harping at him about doing it. But just try using these precepts on it. You might try paying a bit of attention and taking into account what he's in the middle of, and working out a mutually agreed-upon time by which the task will be accomplished. And because you're consistent in your household structure, he already knows the consequence for not delivering on the agreement. You still have your limit (the chore will be done by X time), and he feels that you respect them enough to take whatever activity he's working on into account and that he got to work it into his own schedule of things—and if he doesn't deliver, you both know what has to happen.
Will this really make you a cool parent? I don't know—every kid and every parent is different, and figuring out how to apply this is your job. Being a parent never ends—the jury's going to be out on this your whole life. A preliminary verdict for me is in all the sneakers still cluttering up my foyer. I can't get all these extra neighborhood yahoos out of my house. They've grown up with it just like my kids have. They know we have strict limits but that within those limits there is utter freedom, and I care about them. On Saturdays I'll have twenty kids sprawled all over my house, between everyone's friends and what not. Just count noses to see how many sandwiches to make at lunchtime. They include me in their IM conversations; they email me bad jokes (and one set of rather good bomber-nose style pinup pics); they ask for my opinion on the design of their MySpace, make me part of their Facebook list, and try to get me to answer those quiz-app things. I help with homework, and occasionally help them talk to their parents when we run into something they really need to know. This still happens even now that many of them are old enough to buy me a beer (if that were something I wanted).
And that's the coolest thing of all, to me.