Parenting Teens with Buddhist Family Counselor Richard Prinz

Richard Prinz

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Teenagers face a unique and overwhelming set of problems today, from climate change to social media to isolation induced by the pandemic. Richard Prinz is a marriage, child, and family counselor who has worked as a teen counselor in the Cupertino, California public schools for over 20 years. He’s also a longtime Buddhist practitioner and a good friend of mine who served as the director of the Vajrapani Institute Buddhist retreat center in Boulder Creek when His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, came to visit in 1989.

In our interview, Rich and I talk about some of the powerful ways parents can transform their own minds to better help their teens, as well as helping teens to transform themselves. Even if you’re not a parent or a teen, I think you’ll find Rich’s wisdom inspiring and offering practical ways to deal with difficult emotions and the world’s problems.

teenagers hanging out happy

[00:00:00] Scott Snibbe: Rich, it’s a pleasure having you on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. You and I have been friends, dharma friends, and we’ve been on retreats together. I’m really excited to talk to you today, particularly about teens and parenting teens and how we can apply some ideas from meditation and Buddhism to doing those jobs a little better.

[00:01:39] Richard Prinz: Sounds good.

Richard’s background in Buddhism and counseling teens

[00:01:40] Scott Snibbe: So to start out, Rich, can you tell me a little bit about your Buddhist background and also your background counseling teens?

[00:01:48] Richard Prinz: Yeah, I was at Berkeley in ’67 to ’71. I did some Buddhist classes while I was there and I got a little interested. Even though I went to India and Nepal when I started traveling, it wasn’t until I got to Australia that I met Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. So that was in 1974. 

They gave two month-long courses on the complete Buddhist path; then I stayed and did a two month retreat. So that’s where it started. Then we came back and eventually got involved with Vajrapani Institute in helping bring Buddhist teachings to the West. Many teachers came to our center, many lamas that escaped Tibet in ’59 when the Chinese invaded. 

vajrapani institute richard prinz
Photo: https://fpmt.org/

They gave amazing teachings, we were very fortunate to be there at that time. We built this retreat center and I was trying to make that happen, attending teachings, doing retreats there, and then His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to our center like nine days after he got the Nobel Peace Prize.

I was director at the time and we got to hang out, just the people at the center. We had a private interview with him and he said, You know, there’s a couple things. One is, I would really suggest you fix the road, it’s really dusty; because we had a mile and a half of dirt road.

The other thing is he really didn’t encourage people to convert to Buddhism. He said we should really learn from Christians and do more community work. And I thought, I should think about going to grad school and furthering that. Because I’d been doing a lot of carpentry to build the center. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama didn’t encourage people to convert to Buddhism. He said we should really learn from the Christians and do more community work.

I’d been working outside as a carpenter and I wasn’t excited about building fancy houses for people. That really inspired me to go to grad school in my forties and make a big change and then become a therapist.

[00:03:38] Scott Snibbe: I didn’t realize it was the Dalai Lama who gave you the advice to go and try to—

[00:03:42] Richard Prinz: It wasn’t personally, it was to a group. But it really struck home, that made sense, because I didn’t feel like I was helping people so much by taking two weeks to trim out their front door, in carpentry. So it was a good switch for me.

[00:03:56] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk about where that led, what you studied, and how you became a teen counselor?

[00:04:02] Richard Prinz: You have to pick a grad school somewhere that offers a program and I’m a marriage, family, child, counselor. So I decided to do the master’s program so I could get into it because I just wanted to do counseling. I didn’t wanna do research or testing.

As you do that program, you have to do 3,000 hours of internship. So my internship was partly in a parent center but it was partly because I wanted to get training in a narrative therapy. I worked through a narrative therapy clinic that had placements for us to work in high schools, junior high schools, and elementary schools.

So for two years I was doing that. One of the settings was at a high school working with “severely emotionally disturbed kids,” that was the name of the class. And while I was there, the state changed the designation to “emotionally disturbed.” And one of the kids said to me, Hey, they didn’t consult us. We’ve been ripped off, we’re severely emotionally disturbed.

And then when I got to where I could start looking for a job, getting licensed, then I knew somebody who was leaving a high school, and so I’ve been at the same high school for 21 years now, just about ready to retire.

[00:05:12] Scott Snibbe: What high school is that?

[00:05:13] Richard Prinz: Monte Vista high school in Cupertino, California.

How do you teach parents to be better parents?

[00:05:17] Scott Snibbe: Something you mentioned to me about parents who struggle with parenting teens is that everybody has a driver’s license but nobody has a license to parent, which I like a lot. I’m a parent of a soon-to-be teen. You teach a class for the parents of teens. Can you talk about what you do in that class? How do you teach parents to be better parents?

[00:05:39] Richard Prinz: When I was doing internship I would attend seminars on how to help teens but there were never any teens in the room; it was all well-meaning adults. So one of the things I really liked that I’ve done in the course is that I decided I wanted to have teens in these parenting classes.

So I was able to recruit teens from the physiology class, the teacher gave them credit to come to my parenting class. And most of the parents in the class, their teens are freshmen and sophomores, mostly. And these teens were juniors and seniors. So they really had been through it.

I said to them, I want you to keep me honest. So if I misrepresent you or if I make a mistake that isn’t in your experience—because they have insider knowledge. And I also ask them if they could help the parents do exercises, like listening exercises, learning how to problem solve and be advisors, be consultants to the parents.

So here are teens getting a parenting class before they can even get a driver’s license—some of them—which is really fantastic in my mind, to get that kind of training.

What are some problems (and solutions) parents face with teens today?

mom comforting son, parenting

[00:06:47] Scott Snibbe: What are some of the issues parents face with their teens and how do you help parents deal with those?

[00:06:53] Richard Prinz: Before issues, I think the main thing is to learn basic awareness and communication. So sort of how to talk to themselves, how to communicate with themselves, and how to communicate with others. 

There’s a lot of groundwork, like building a house, then they wanna do this too. Scott, let’s get to the issues. What do you do about social media? This is a two-story house and that’s the bedroom upstairs. Okay, that’s the bathroom upstairs. And so we have to lay a foundation first, we gotta get permits, the foundation, that’s why it’s eight weeks long.

First week, just look at your mind, what kind of emotions come up when you’re talking to your teen or when there’s a problem? There are certain emotions that if we operate out of them, it’s not so effective. Not only does psychology talk about that, Western psychology, but Buddhist psychology also speaks to that. 

If we’re angry when we’re trying to deal with somebody, it’s probably not gonna go so well if we’re annoyed or if we’re feeling hurt. It doesn’t mean we can’t have those feelings, it doesn’t mean that we don’t address those, maybe work on them ourselves first. 

If we’re angry when we’re trying to deal with somebody, it’s probably not gonna go so well if we’re annoyed or if we’re feeling hurt.

So to be more effective, instead of being angry, maybe it’s more recognizing what might be going on. Why am I angry? What’s upsetting me? It’s not going my way. Maybe this is a power struggle, I need to take a time-out. 

So it’s more about a parent learning how to take care of themself, having compassion for themself, understanding for themself, knowing where they’re coming from, why they’re annoyed, what they’re feeling. Did something happen at work today? What do I need to work on before I have this conversation so I can be an effective parent? Because parents want to be good parents. They want to be effective. They want be helpful, right?

So the first week is just try to do that. And this is just eight weeks. So hopefully parents keep the book, they keep practicing because we know we want to make a change. It’s hard to change habits. It takes a lot of time so that’s the start.

Then it’s not responding necessarily, just watching their mind, and paying attention to how they’re feeling and taking care of that and realizing that if they’re annoyed, maybe their teen needs attention.

If they’re playing their music really loud and you get annoyed, maybe they need attention. So when they’re not doing something that annoys you, give them attention. If you get angry, maybe it’s a power struggle. Maybe they need more power. Maybe you’re not giving them more say in the household, you’re not listening to them more. You’re not seeking their advice more so they feel disempowered.

[00:09:16] Scott Snibbe: I’ve heard that a lot of times when a child is acting out, you actually have to give them more responsibility.

[00:09:22] Richard Prinz: Right, they say chores are really indicative of children’s success, if they have chores. Another one is if you feel hurt, usually if you get in a fight, then somebody’s feelings are hurt. Now we are getting into parenting styles

They say chores are really indicative of children’s success.

Are you a permissive parent? Are you an authoritarian parent? Not authoritative, because you are in charge, but like “you do it my way or the highway.” Or you’re like, Okay, you’re a teenager now, you’re on your own. There’s a lot of groundwork.

And then you get to problem solving, then you get to issues, and some of the issues aren’t really the issue, it’s deeper issues. It’s like wanting to be in control or not feeling heard. It’s not about their friends not picking them up on time. It’s about, I’m not in control if they’re late so I don’t know what to do. And it’s letting them sometimes make a decision, make mistakes, and knowing that’s okay. It’s a way to learn.

Parenting from a Buddhist perspective

[00:10:18] Scott Snibbe: It sounds like it starts out with mindfulness, of being aware, of the parent being aware of what they’re thinking. And learning to watch that and slow down, if they’re reactive in some way, if they’re activated, angry, hurt, et cetera. Then trying to find a compassionate way of responding, rather than defensive or authoritarian. So these sound like very Buddhist principles.

Is this an area of overlap in psychology or is it something you brought to the process based on your own Buddhism?

[00:10:48] Richard Prinz: I got into Buddhism before I went to grad school and became a therapist. So I think it can’t help but inform the way I do the therapy. So even though I read the same book somebody else might read, I think of it in terms of being a Buddhist, like we understand that the mind is principal. It’s not our speech, it’s not our body, it’s our mind. 

So we have to understand what our mind is doing in order to be happy. Everybody wants to be happy and everybody deserves respect. Like I say to the parents, If you’re coming here to figure out how you can manipulate your teens to get them to do what you want, then this isn’t for you.

This is about genuinely having an interest in them, being curious about what they’re saying, so that you can actually learn something from them. They are intelligent, they do know, and they have had experiences. You want them to become an adult, so you have to start treating them like one.

Ways for parents to connect with their teen

mom and teen daughter connecting

[00:11:47] Scott Snibbe: Can you give a specific example of a parenting experience that was a success that somebody reported that the class worked well for them and how it helped them with their teen?

[00:11:56] Richard Prinz: I think anytime parents can stay calm, not get frustrated, offering protection and safety, but not overly. And being really attuned to your kids’ emotional state of mind, they need that to grow up and have good attachment.

They need to be able to learn that if you comment, Oh, it sounds like you’re really angry and they go, No, I’m not angry, I’m frustrated. Then they start to be able to clarify within themselves what’s going on. The success comes when the parent is genuinely in tune with that. When they’re not still on their own agenda, when they’re actually just paying attention.

Like one parent said, My teen was talking—because we were supposed to watch our mind—and I could feel myself getting angry. So when he finished, he wanted me to respond and I didn’t respond because I knew that I would come from a place of anger. So I was waiting, I was checking up, and my child said, Mom, are you okay? So to me, that’s a success. She was modeling, don’t speak if you think it’s going to cause problems. She was modeling thinking about what she was gonna say.

Another was one parent went home and said, Yeah, I hadn’t talked to my teenage boy, he wouldn’t talk to me at anything. At dinner, he started talking about baseball. I don’t like baseball. I don’t like baseball at all. But I started paying attention and asking him questions. And it was the best conversation we’d ever had.

So it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, you’re connecting. You’re showing interest. That’s one of those steps too, after the attunement, that you’re championing their self self-development, you have delight in them.

It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about as long as you’re connecting and showing interest.

So you’re doing those things and that’s building his or her or their ability to self-reflect, you’re modeling, and it’s giving them a chance to learn to take care of themselves.

[00:13:49] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so more towards the direction of respect, connection, compassion, empathy, focusing on those values, than how am I gonna get my kid to take out the trash.

[00:14:00] Richard Prinz: And it does take the parents slowing down, taking some deep breaths, having the time and taking the time. If you get an opportunity, if they come to you and want to talk, make time, see it as precious to have those opportunities.

Then listen with curiosity and learning instead of judgment, watch out for fear-based parenting, which is like, What, you went to a party where they were drinking? Mom, you said I could talk to you about anything! You’re never going there again!

Listen with curiosity and learning instead of judgement.

[00:14:35] Scott Snibbe: I also like how if you’re interested in Buddhism, you’ve heard this type of advice before, but what I like about it is there isn’t so much to remember. It becomes actually quite a simple amount of things to remember and enact. It’s not a big list of “if this happens and that happens” and “if they’re anxious” and “if they’re afraid.”

It’s just, pay attention to myself first. How am I feeling? Pause if I’m activated in some way that’s going to cause more trouble and then maybe just listen and ask questions. Help your kid express whatever’s inside of them.

[00:15:11] Richard Prinz: It’s like a big toolbox, the training. Because if it’s their problem, it’s good to define whose problem it is. If they’re having a problem with a friend or they’re frustrated over their homework, or they dye their hair red, or maybe you get a call home that they were tardy, whose problem is it? 

They can’t get up in the morning and you’re always waking them up. Whose problem is that? That’s their problem. They need to get up, so you define whose problem it is. If it’s their problem, what do you do when that problem comes up? You do reflective listening. That’s the first thing you do. You listen, you pay attention.

If it’s your teen’s problem, what do you do when that problem comes up: reflective listening.

“Oh, it sounds like you got in a fight with your friend today.” You reflect how you see them feeling. “Looks like you’re kind of down today, did something happen at school?” “I don’t wanna talk about it.” “Okay, I just noticed, but if you wanna talk about it, I’d like to hear about it.”

So you listen, you reflect their feelings, and you reflect the meaning. You’re not a parrot, just say exactly back what they said, I had a bad day. “You had a bad day.” And you can ask some questions, like open-ended questions. “Can you tell me more about it? Where were you when you got in the fight with your friend?” Then after some reflective listening, it helps you understand the problem and helps them too. And then maybe you can get to some problem solving.

So you listen, you reflect their feelings, and you reflect the meaning.

What to do if your teen isn’t talking to you

teenager ignoring parent

[00:16:32] Scott Snibbe: I am thinking of a particular parent I know, not in my family, who’s having trouble with their kid not talking to them. What do you do if that doesn’t work? If the kid just says, Oh, I’m fine, I don’t want to talk to you. I would imagine this happens from time to time with the parents of teens.

[00:16:48] Richard Prinz: It does. There are big changes coming into high school. There’s a lot of peer work and I always say it’s never too late to change your parenting style or make a connection.

But there may be some resentments, this is where it gets into hurt feelings. Kids can have hurt feelings too, that you got angry and you said something and they were holding onto that still. It was three years ago, but they don’t want to go there. They don’t want to go down that road again. 

So sometimes it means parents have to try to think about what they’ve said. I mean I’ve had parents that say well, I was angry, I didn’t mean it. It really hurts. It really hurt them and they may not be able to tell you it really hurt them.

So sometimes it means, “Look, I really want to be able to be there for you. And I know I’ve made mistakes. I remember this time when I really blew up and I left the house and I didn’t tell anybody.” You have to get past the hurt and past the power plays, you really have to work at building up communication.

Maybe quit asking them if their homework’s done. Quit asking the same question, How did school go today? Maybe ask for their advice, ask their opinion about things, ask them what they think about something. I mean, sincerely, they do have some expertise in relationships that they could help you with somebody at work. Ask different questions. Don’t get hung up on, Oh, they won’t talk to me. It’s always, what invitation are you giving them?

Quit asking the same question, How did school go today? Maybe ask for their advice, ask for their opinion about something.

[00:18:12] Scott Snibbe: You’ve brought this up several times about empowering your teen and giving them agency is often the solution to these challenges. I like that, that’s a very skillful way to get your teen to start talking. Not asking them about themselves if they’re clammed up but ask them for advice.

[00:18:27] Richard Prinz: But it has to be sincere. It can’t be because you’re trying to get them to talk to you.

[00:18:31] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it can’t be manipulative.

[00:18:32] Richard Prinz: Yeah, because teenagers—maybe you remember being a teen—can see hypocrisy from a mile away. They’re full of it themselves but they can see it in adults. Like my father would say, “Oh, you can’t use the word stupid. You’re gonna have to write the definition 10 times. Don’t call anybody stupid.” So the next night at dinner, he says somebody’s stupid but he won’t hold himself accountable.

As a parent, you have to hold yourself accountable. That’s really good modeling. It’s okay if you make a mistake. It’s okay if you say you’re sorry. It’s okay if you apologize. It’s okay if you say, I screwed up. It’s okay. It’s gotta be okay to screw up.

As a parent, you have to hold yourself accountable. It’s okay if you make a mistake.

And a lot of parents haven’t had, like I said, the parenting classes. It’s been a busy life, they haven’t done a lot of psychological work maybe, so it’s a lot to ask.

But it often comes out of a feeling of, I’m really worried about my child’s future; we’re not connecting anymore. There’s a lot of loss and worry on the side of the parent. It’s a good time to make changes when we’re dissatisfied or worried or . . .

[00:19:40] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that’s a sign, right? That’s the truth that’s beneath that strong feeling of fear or worry, it’s usually a signal that maybe something has to change.

[00:19:49] Richard Prinz: And the whole thing about this parenting class is that you have to change. The parent has to change. Don’t try to change your teen. And you don’t have to get everybody in the house to agree, you make changes.

The parent has to change. Don’t try to change your teen.

People are gonna try to push you back into your old mode because they’re not used to it. But if you stick with it, then they have no choice. If you’re not arguing back, if you’re not yelling, who’s there to fight with?

What are the top challenges teens face today?

teenager worried

[00:20:11] Scott Snibbe: Like aikido, you exhaust the person, they exhaust themselves trying to not hit you. 

What are some of the top challenges facing teens today? Has that changed over time? Social media, isolation, things like that?

[00:20:25] Richard Prinz: Well yeah, I mean the pandemic was really something. There were some teens who wrote poetry and published it, some who cooked with their parents and got closer to their parents, and got closer to their siblings. But some did withdraw even more and not only was there the social media problem to begin with, but then there was more social media because of the classrooms.

And there’s definitely connections with social media. Twenge did a 10 year study on social media and as the use has gone up with teens so has depression, suicidality, and loneliness. So she drew this huge correlation. 

Then another study pointed out that teens can have that amount of social media time, it’s not all bad. There are people who find mentors online, it motivates them. Also, if they’re getting social contact with other human beings then those effects are minimized.

Because that’s the main thing that takes away from. If that’s all they’re doing for their social contact is social media and they’re not getting personal, face-to-face, then that’s where more of those problems come in. But if they’re on sports teams, they’re in clubs, they have friends they hang out with, they talk to you, they’re getting that training. They’re getting that need met.

But it’s everything, it’s the polarization in politics, it’s climate, it’s—I applied for one college to go to and I got in. And now they have college coaches and it’s such pressure where I am, the high school I work with, to get to college. And education is held at such a high regard and parents are pushing and they feel this huge stress around that. It’s more expensive to go to college. It’s harder to get into good colleges.

That’s why the social emotional support at home is so important. That’s why the parenting class focuses on having good relationships.

Social media, climate change, and mental pollution

zero links, social media

[00:22:25] Scott Snibbe: It’s interesting what you said about social media: that it’s not that social media is inherently bad. There are high correlations with various psychological problems but if people also have face-to-face, in-person connections, then it can be lessened, or may not even be an issue. 

Social media is not inherently bad. There’s high correlations with various psychological problems but if people also have face-to-face, in-person connections, then it may not even be an issue. 

I would guess a lot of parents do come to you talking about social media, kids on their phone, Instagram. I have a feeling your answer is maybe just the same when I ask how you deal with that problem. 

What do you say to a parent whose kid is lost in their phone and showing some of those psychological signs of distress and isolation?

[00:23:00] Richard Prinz: Well, parents have to see what they’re modeling, first off. If they come home and they’re on their laptop. Are you eating dinner together? Do you have a policy in the house about putting all the phones away? And do you do it too? Going to bed with your phone is not a good idea. And some teens will.

Teens will feel like you don’t respect them if you don’t have some kind of guidelines. I suggest rules are made together. If they don’t want to participate in that process of coming up with the rules—like bedtime or getting off social—then you say, “Well, I don’t want to do it alone, but here’s what I’m gonna propose for a while because I can see you’re not getting up to go to school. I’m getting calls, so now it’s becoming my problem because they’re blaming me, also your homework, you failed a class, and I’m worried about your health.”

So it’s modeling it and it is setting some guidelines and then sticking to them, and not forever. And it’s not, Oh, you’ll get your phone back when I think you’re ready. You have to really set a time and the shorter the better, so that there’s learning.

Discipline is by being a disciple. So it’s like giving the disciple a chance to learn in a short period of time, and then, okay, let’s try it again. So I think it’s modeling and having some guidelines around it and everybody’s participating in the family.

Discipline is by being a disciple.

[00:24:12] Scott Snibbe: You mentioned the environment, which is not necessarily a newer problem, but it’s certainly something I see younger people in great despair over today, in a way that we didn’t feel when I was a teenager, although we were concerned. 

Can you talk about how to address that kind of issue as a parent and for kids who are upset and anxious about the environment?

[00:24:36] Richard Prinz: As a parent?

[00:24:36] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, or as a teen too, both ways, maybe that’s a nice transition because you also work directly with teenagers. 

When kids come to you directly about these issues how do you talk about them?

[00:24:46] Richard Prinz: Well, some people deny there’s a problem at all. So then again, it depends on the family. Can you create—if there’s not one already—a climate in your household that is pollution free? Can you create one in your mind to start with? 

Let’s start there, like we said, at the beginning. Clear up clouds of anger that cause pollution, mental pollution in our environment. Really work on cleaning up the climate in your household, where there’s more love, more light, more playfulness, and more joy.

When I was in college we protested if there were things going on. You don’t see so many kids protest anymore. We were against the Vietnam war, we protested. It’s taking action, empowering. There’s always going to be problems. There’s always some problem.

So what are we gonna do about it? What can we do about it? Can we do something in our household? To not use certain products, to cut down? Should we get an electric car? What can we do? First, it has to come into awareness. Then it’s what action are we gonna take?

But I like the mental pollution, that’s also aligned with Buddhism. Clean up your own pollution first, His Holiness says that. Point the finger at yourself. What can I do to clean things up?

[00:25:58] Scott Snibbe: It goes again with this theme of empowerment that you keep bringing up and it goes a little bit counter to some of the things we see on TV and in our leaders, who often only talk about the faults of other people, rather than their own virtues or what we can do about problems. 

So that’s your advice, to actually become empowered?

[00:26:21] Richard Prinz: But also clean up your own pollution because in Buddhism they are talked about as pollutions, they’re polluting our mind. Our mind is basically clean, clear, and pristine. And because of the way we misconstrue things, it gets clouded over by our greed and our anger.

So even if we go protest, if we’re still full of greed and anger and hostility and ignorance about how things are connected, then are we going to do much good? That’s where I got to when I came out of Berkeley after the protest; I didn’t like the violence. And His Holiness talks about that, we have to disarm ourselves first.

[00:27:05] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I had the same experience—which Gulf war are we talking about, I think the second one—after I went to a protest, I thought I was going to a peace protest. That’s what I thought it was for, but people had signs that said, Kill George Bush. And that really dismayed me as an aspiring peace activist.

[00:27:26] Richard Prinz: Yeah, that bothered me too.

Common myths about teens: risk-taking, drugs, and partying

teenagers partying

[00:27:27] Scott Snibbe: Earlier you talked about learning from your teenager, being open to learning from your teenager. Can you talk a little bit about what we can learn from our teenagers?

[00:27:35] Richard Prinz: My law and ethics professor said to me once, Don’t believe anything your client says. So you don’t have to buy in. It’s a perspective and it’s really affecting them. It’s their experience right now. 

It’s important to take things seriously when people talk to you but you can still have this understanding that it’s a perspective, you don’t have to totally freak out. Take them seriously, be playful. Have a good time, enjoy it. Don’t get so worried. I think those are things to learn. 

If you’re anxious, then they feel anxious. They don’t wanna worry you. If they feel like they don’t want to worry you with their problems, that’s not good.

I think learning from them is like not buying into theories about teens. There are these theories that they only operate out of their amygdala, fight or flight, and their prefrontal cortex isn’t developed. So they’re illogical and they take risks and they lie and they’re all over the place. There’s even a book written, Yes, Your Teen is Crazy.

If believing that helps you be a more effective parent, like somehow you say, Okay, I’m not gonna get wrapped up in this right now. I’m gonna stay calm. I’m gonna give space. I’m gonna respect that they’re going through something. If it helps you that way, okay. If it makes you discount them, Oh, they’re just crazy, then it’s not good.

National Geographic did a study that it’s actually evolutionary that kids take risks, that teenagers take risks. It helps them, experimenting, and finding new ways to do things. So it’s really an evolutionary, wonderful thing.

Teens take more risks not because they don’t understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do.

National Geographic

[00:29:14] Scott Snibbe: It’s adaptive, yeah.

[00:29:15] Richard Prinz: Yeah, and then another one they did was this study on teens and how they use a lot of drugs and they’re reckless and they’re promiscuous and they do dangerous things.

And then they did that same study on some middle-aged people and there were the same statistics: suicide rates, alcoholism. So is it an age or is it—just be careful. I’ve learned not to put a label, get to know them as a person.

Who are they? They’re unique, what’s going on? And deal with situations not like, “I told you never to do that,” or “you’re gonna end up living under a bridge.” Just deal with the situation, the problem’s the problem. Not, Oh, you’ll never figure this out. It’s one thing to think those things, it’s another to say them in front of your teens.

So it’s having this respect that you don’t know what’s gonna happen. They have their own destiny, there’s many people that they come in contact with that influence them and in good ways too. You don’t know maybe the half of what’s going on for them. 

I think that’s applicable to everybody though. A lot of the parenting stuff is applicable to anybody we meet so we get away from ageism. So how do I treat my teen? The same way you treat your coworker or somebody on the street who you meet. Be nice, they’re just like you, get to know them, be interested, be curious.

So how do I treat my teen? The same way you treat your coworker or somebody on the street. Be nice—they’re just like you—get to know them, be interested, be curious.

Creating community for our kids

[00:30:35] Scott Snibbe: Something you said to me is that it takes nine adults to raise one child. I really appreciated hearing that and I’m not sure every kid has nine adults in their life. 

How do we build that circle of adults to help our kids grow up healthy and whole and so on?

[00:30:50] Richard Prinz: Yeah, I said that because the vice principal at a junior high school said that to me once. I did the same thing you did. I scratched my head and went how’d you come up with nine? And I didn’t ask her, maybe she just made it up in the moment. 

But partly what it’s saying is that parents sometimes feel like it’s their whole responsibility, that they’re totally alone looking after their kids, no one else cares, and no one else is doing what needs to be done. And that I think loses sight, there are a lot of people who care, there are teachers . . .

I have students still come back, they’ve graduated from college, and they still come back to the high school and they talk to me, they talk to teachers. So they have these connections. They still have this positive influence.

Also, most people think peer pressure is negative, but I’ve seen a lot of positive peer pressure. So it doesn’t have to be adults. We don’t just have to say nine adults but nine people who inspire them or mentor them or are a good example to them.

One teen said that he had been mean to his mom, he didn’t talk very nicely to her. And then he said, Yeah, but one day my friends came home with me and they saw this and then later when we left, they said, Why are you so mean to your mom? And it made him change. It got him to change. It made him think about it, and reflect on it. Yeah, why are you being mean to your mom?

So I would count that as part of those nine. And sometimes your kid is a mentor to somebody else. They were at a party and they come home and they tell you, Oh, there was drinking at the party and you get upset with them. They shouldn’t have been there. It’s a bad influence. Instead, ask them how they dealt with it.

[00:32:31] Scott Snibbe: That reminds me of a funny story. When I was an early teen, my parents banned me from one of my friends because they said he was a bad influence. So then I said, “But you’re depriving him of my good influence!”

When I was an early teen, my parents banned me from one of my friends because they said he was a bad influence. So then I said, But you’re depriving him of my good influence!

[00:32:46] Richard Prinz: Did you think he was a bad influence on you?

[00:32:48] Scott Snibbe: No, I think even then I had a sense that I make my own choices, and I think we were both good influences on each other.

[00:32:55] Richard Prinz: I think that’s a good point, Scott. Like being careful not to just focus on one thing or making battles when it’s not a battle. Like hair color, say they dye their hair red, do you need to really make an issue? Like “you’re not leaving this house with your hair like that.” You know what I’m saying?

[00:33:15] Scott Snibbe: Usually with those things, the less you react the better.

Can you talk about Lama Yeshe and what you learned from him?

Lama yeshe teacher
Photo: https://fpmt.org/

[00:33:20] Scott Snibbe: I wanted to switch a little and ask you about your teacher. A lot of what you’ve said is infused with very practical Buddhist wisdom. Your teacher was Lama Yeshe who is the founder of the organization that I’ve also studied in for a long time, the FPMT. You talked about how important in Buddhism it is to have a direct teacher, like an in-person, face-to-face relationship.

Can you talk just a little bit about your teacher, Lama Yeshe, and what you learned from him and what it was like studying with him?

[00:33:47] Richard Prinz: Yeah, there’s a lot I’ll leave out just because there’s so much. We realized we wanted to learn more about Buddhist meditation and we’d heard about Kopan in Kathmandu, Kopan Monastery, Lama Yeshe, and Lama Zopa, and we were in Nepal but we didn’t connect at that time. We didn’t hear about them then. 

It wasn’t until we got to Australia in 1974, we were gonna go to Nepal and then friends of ours came back, we ran into them by “accident.” And they said, Oh no, you don’t have to go to Nepal, they’re coming here in six months, we’ll pick you up and drive you to Queensland, to Chenrezig Institute.

That’s where we first met, it was 1974. And they were a team at that time, Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe. So Lama Zopa was teaching a traditional kind of lamrim. They’re sort of like the four thoughts that turn the mind. I like that expression from another tradition, and it did, it turned my world upside down.

We have a very precious opportunity, it’s impermanent. We could die at any time. There’s lots of suffering. A lot of our life is suffering, even when we think we’re having fun. Sometimes it’s out of grasping and greed and trying to hold onto it, which causes more problems. We want money and then we get it and then we have to protect it and keep it from other people stealing it. And then cause and effect and it makes a difference what you do. And so that could kind of bring you down a little bit. All of a sudden, your mind is in a jumble.

Then Lama Yeshe would come in—these were a month long—about once a week. And he would just show you what it would look like if you were free of all this. So joyous, laughing, and having a good time; he could really show what it would be like to let go, to be free, to not be holding on so much.

And he’d studied all of this and it showed that it was valuable to learn. He was very good with anybody, in any situation. Even though he was a Tibetan monk, they’re celibate in the Gelugpa of tradition, he would go swimming with us in the ocean. He would go to put on a cowboy hat or a kimona, a woman’s dress. And he would pull a slot machine in Las Vegas. He could have a good time.

He wasn’t like this austere monk, it was like, you can enjoy life if you can not be so attached, not thinking your happiness comes from outside, not that. He knows that happiness comes from your own mind and how you view things.

Happiness comes from your own mind and how you view things.

[00:36:10] Scott Snibbe: And it sounds like Lama Yeshe did what you’d say parents should do, which is to give their children more responsibility.

Equanimity and the “teenage code”

teenagers hanging out outside

[00:36:18] Richard Prinz: Yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah, I think so. We’re definitely his children, he’s like a spiritual father mentor. Yeah, you’re right. 

Then the meditation, I thought it was fitting with parents and teens. This would be a good one for teens too, because I tell you, they get so wrapped up into BFFs, best friends forever. And “I hate that person.” And “I don’t like my parents.”

There was one student who told me there was this “teenage code.” I asked him about a teenage code—and I know it’s different for different teens—but he didn’t have the best of grades and he got caught smoking one time.

Anyway, he says, Teenage code is you don’t like school, you experiment with drugs, you take risks, and you don’t like your parents. And I went, Wait, wait, wait, you don’t like your parents? He said, Well, I used to not like my parents, I like ’em now. Wait, wait, wait, you like them now, why?

He said one time he got caught smoking at brunch outside—you can’t leave campus at brunch—so he gets caught smoking cigarettes off-campus by the police, gets cited by the police, gets brought to school, and gets suspended. That’s two penalties for the same crime. So he’s walking out to his car, because his mom’s gotta pick him up. He said, Now my mom’s gonna bust my chops and I’m gonna get grounded and she’s gonna be so mad at me. He walks out to the car, opens the door, gets in, and she says, We’ll get through this together.

So, I think for parents and teens, it’s trying to keep some equality or equilibrium. When we get caught up in friend, enemy, stranger, when we’re labeling people, friend, enemy, stranger, this is the first step. The wonderful thing about Buddhism meditation, psychology, for me is that it gives you ways to develop more compassion, more love.

And this is the first step. First we have to level the playing field. Anyway, I’ll get into it in the meditation, but first we have to see that we’re all in the same boat. Then we can develop some appreciation and some love and some compassion for them.

[00:38:31] Scott Snibbe: Equanimity. It’s a nice takeaway for parents. There might be one sentence you could say to your teen to switch them from hating you to thinking you’re all right.

[00:38:43] Richard Prinz: We’ll get through this together.

[00:38:44] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, we’ll get through this together. That’s a good one to remember.

[00:38:48] Richard Prinz: Yeah, instead of feeling like they failed you or you failed; parents fall into that sometimes. One of the four things to avoid, when we’re talking about watching your own mind and what emotions you’re in. It’s also to see what kind of unquestioned assumptions we might have or limiting beliefs we might have.

If we fall into exaggeration like, this is the worst thing that could happen. He got busted by the police, he’s never gonna go to college. He’s gonna end up living under a bridge. That’s exaggerating. So catch yourself, Oh, I’m exaggerating. Okay, just calm down. He just got caught for smoking. Maybe it’s good he got caught.

Next thing is, I can’t stand it. This is it. Last week it was something else he got in trouble with. Now this, I can’t stand it. You can stand it. You’ve been through a lot. You gave birth to him. That was pretty tough. So understand that you can. You have the capacity. If you say you can’t, you’re gonna talk yourself into not being able to do it.

The next one is, this shouldn’t happen. This should not be happening to me or to him. He didn’t do anything, I’m gonna go in there and I’m gonna argue that he shouldn’t be suspended. 

Then the last one is blaming, either blaming him or yourself; I’m not a good parent, he’s not a good son. It’s a situation. Just deal with the situation, don’t catastrophize. Don’t make it global, it just happened, we’ll get through it together. We’re a team.

Just deal with the situation, don’t catastrophize. Don’t make it global. We’ll get through it together. We’re a team.

[00:40:10] Scott Snibbe: That’s a good list of takeaways. Okay, Rich, thank you so much. This was a wonderful interview and I think it’s going to be super helpful for parents and teens. And also if you’re just a human being who relates to other human beings who relates to other human beings, this is generally useful advice. 

[00:40:24] Richard Prinz: Thank you.


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