Now, before I even get started, this blog is NOT a parent-basher. It ends with suggestions that I hope you will consider, but it does get rather pointed in some failings that we parents sometimes have/experience. So here we go:
I was recently asked to come speak to a group of parents whose incoming 6th graders are about to start middle school. The topic I was asked to speak on is “resilience”. When I inquired a bit more about what the focus of my remarks should be, I was told to tell parents that “it’s ok if your child fails something.” I gave an inward groan at hearing that. But I understood where that request was coming from. Increasingly, throughout my career in education, I found that parents did not want their children to be disappointed about anything. No matter what I said “no” to…a teacher change, a specific class, an opportunity…it didn’t matter what the rules were. Those rules did not apply to certain parents’ children. I’d tell a student that a certain class was filled and I could almost predict that s/he would make another appointment…only this time mom or dad would be in tow. No amount of pressure or bullying could manufacture more seats in a class, and the teachers’ union and district were very strict about how many students could be in a class. But, most times, those rules were not for “my kid.”
The same held true for discipline. It was ok for other kids to receive consequences, but certain parents demanded and expected much less accountability for their children than for others. We see that come into play often when there are social media abuse issues. Whether it’s directed at one specific child or it’s an inappropriate message sent to the masses, many times the parent will look to blame someone else other than their child who may be the culprit.
When did parents stop being parents? I think back to growing up and totally accepting “because I said so” and “because I’m the adult” and “as long as you live under my roof, this is the way it will be.” Now, I’ll be honest…most of the time I HATED hearing those phrases but the reality was that they made sense. Well…maybe not the “because I said so”…but the others were just plain truth. My parents WERE the adults; I was the child and had far less knowledge and world experience than they did. My parents also owned the house I lived in and paid all the bills. I had a part-time job when I was older but they didn’t make me give them money to continue living in their home, so I really had no right to impose my feelings about how things ran.
Throughout my years as an educator, the change in parenting became painfully obvious. Parents were often more critical of the educators and more forgiving of their children. Kids had less and less accountability and many parents were ok with that. I found that, when parents turned their criticism on the educators or anyone else who they perceived was not being “warm and fuzzy” to their child, the kids became even more empowered to balk rules and expectations. More times than I care to remember, those families ended up in my private practice because the kids were completely out of control. I remember looking into the faces of a mom and dad whose child’s behavior was way out of line, and asking them, “Who’s the parent here?”
Life is a continual journey through choices and consequences. Sometimes those consequences are unpleasant; it’s all part of the process of growing and maturing…especially if you’ve had a hand in creating those consequences! As parents, we need to think about how to support our kids through those times without enabling them or fighting their battles for them. As parents, we need to realize that parenting is not a popularity contest. More often, it is a battle of wills…and the parents’ wills had better win or we will have pint-sized tyrants running the world. Parents can be firm and still be loving; that’s our job. We have to be the ones to introduce our kids to the fact that the world can be a tough place but, with the proper strategies and knowledge, it’s navigable. Life is a series of ups and downs. The ups are great, but it’s the downs that build character and strength. It’s not easy to watch our kids struggle but, if they learn from those struggles, it will be very rewarding to watch them rise again. So how do we do that?
1. Allow your child the privilege of being self-sufficient. Too many kids think that they are entitled to being waited on. If they are sitting on their butts watching TV or playing a video game and they want something to eat or drink, make them get up and get it…even if you are standing right in front of the fridge. They may look at you like you have three heads, but don’t cave. My mom had a myriad of comments for moments like that; here are two “favorites”: “Did you break your leg? Get up and get it yourself!” and “I’m not the maid!”
If they need to turn something in, let them do it. I watched a loving mom who did everything for her son. She filled out every field trip slip, every camp application, everything. He did nothing. One day I said to her, “I know you love your son very much but, every time you do something for him that he could do for himself, the message you are sending is, “Honey, I love you but you’re not capable.” Her eyes widened and almost fell out of her head. I know that’s not what she intended, but her actions certainly said that.
Our kids need to learn to be self-sufficient. If they don’t, they’ll still be 40 and living at home! And they’ll STILL be expecting to be waited on! Being self-sufficient gives a person a sense of pride that they can make it on their own. It may even give them drive. If their self-sufficiency doesn’t have them living the way they’d like, it provides the pathway for them to work harder or look in a different direction. And that’s ok. If they fail at something, they need to figure out what should be different so the end results turn out differently. It’s their life, so let them figure it out.
2. Avoid enabling. This can be tricky because, as parents, we don’t often look at our “help” as being “enabling”. But many times, it is exactly that. I had a junior student whose schedule had a hole in it; one of his classes wasn’t offered at the time needed, so he needed to choose another option. I looked up every available class that hour, compared it to what he’d already taken and it turned out that he only had two available options. I called and told him the situation, that he had two options, and to let me know his decision. He came in to see me with his mom. I went through everything again and finally said, “Here are your options. These are the only two classes available at that time. Which one do you want?” I purposely did not look at mom; I wanted HIM to make the decision. What I witnessed was excruciating…this young man literally writhed in his seat for several minutes. Finally, he looked at his mom, and said, “Which class should I take?” And she chose. This young man was going off to college in a couple of short years and would have countless decisions to make. And he was incapable of making even a simple one.
One of the best pieces of advice I got as a parent came when I took my daughter to college. While she went off with a student group, the parents were divided into small groups with various faculty. The gentleman who facilitated the group I was in said these sage words: “At some point, you’re going to get a phone call. It will be some crisis, some drama of sorts. You will want to solve the problem. But here’s what I hope you will say: “So…what are you going to do about that?” I thought that was just brilliant. “So…what are you going to do about that?” That phrase holds so much confidence, and relinquishes so much responsibility to the child! It’s simple, yet powerful. It tells the child that: a) mom/dad believes in him/her; b) that the issue at hand belongs to them (the child); c) mom/dad will not fix it. It lays the problem back at the feet of the one who owns it, and it allows them to be a grown-up and figure it out.
So then, next question: “What do you think I should do?” Be careful! It’s another ploy for you to own the problem. Respond: “What do YOU think you should do?” If they don’t know, you can always help guide them in problem-solving. “So what choices do you have?” “Which one of those choices seems like the best choice? Why? Are there any reasons that it might not be the best choice?” And so on. But be careful not to lead to the conclusion YOU think is the right one…just be the gentle guide who helps them look at all possibilities before making a decision. By doing this, you don’t enable…you EMPOWER!
3. Allow your child to deal with the consequences of his/her actions, words and decisions. Let them OWN it. We all know, and have learned the hard way, that every decision we make has a consequence. Some are good, some are bad. In each case, we learn something valuable about the decision-making process we undertook to get to the consequence. If someone takes the consequence for us, we learn nothing…except that that person is now the fall-guy/gal.
So here’s a true story (and I’m purposely not using gender-specific pronouns to make it a little more anonymous). One of my children was graduating from college. I wanted to host a party for the graduate. I ordered all kinds of food, decorations and was deep into the planning. My child came home and announced that they wanted a “keg party.” I said no. My husband and I had decided how much beer to buy after considering how many people would likely drink it, and we had no intention of having a beer blast at our home. My child then laid down the gauntlet: “If I can’t have a keg party, then I don’t want a party.” I looked at my child square in the eyes: “Are you sure about that?” “Yes!” was the emphatic reply. “Okay,” I said. My child went back to school. That next week, I cancelled every tray of food, every dessert, took back the decorations, and told family that there would be no party. Graduation approached, and my child came home and mentioned the party. I used every acting skill I had to look surprised. “We aren’t having a party,” I said. My child looked surprised, needing no acting skills at all. I went on. “You were very firm in telling me that you wanted a keg party. I told you we wouldn’t do that. You said if you couldn’t have a keg party, you didn’t want a party at all. I took you at your word. There is no graduation party.” To say that my child was dumbstruck is a gross understatement. But my child was also caught. I used their words to remind them of the chain of events, and they couldn’t deny them. It was a tough consequence for both of us. I was bitterly disappointed that this choice had been made and we would be unable to celebrate this wonderful accomplishment with family and friends. And my child learned never, ever to challenge mama unless you were happy with either consequence. As an offshoot of this event, another child learned a very important lesson as well. When it was their turn to graduate from college, I asked what they would like for a party. “Anything you want, mom. Anything you want,” was the response. Now, although it may sound that I ruled that party, it’s not the case; that child was very involved in the planning and got exactly what they wanted. But they knew I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.
It works as a good lesson for any age. My 7-year-old granddaughter got sassy and lost some privileges. She was very upset about it, and proceeded to tell “Grammy” about the unfairness of the consequences. Here’s how the conversation went:
Grammy: Did you know ahead of time what might happen if you acted that way?
Grammy: Did you act in a way that deserved good consequences?
Grammy: But you knew that acting sassy might cause you to lose what you wanted?
Grammy: Then I’m having a hard time figuring out why you would choose to be sassy when you knew you would lose your treat. Can you help me figure that choice out?
Grandchild: (Silence.) Can we change the subject?
Although I’m sure some parents/grandparents may read these stories and think that I’m a heartless hard ass, I truly believe that most of you reading this are chuckling. The clients I told these stories to howled in disbelief. They couldn’t believe I stuck to my guns. What would have been learned if I had caved? I want my children and grandchildren to be certain of the fact that every decision has a consequence, and they have a lot of say over whether it will be good or bad. It’s called “being responsible.” We want our kids to be responsible for themselves and for their lives. We want to stand on the sidelines and cheer them on, and be proud for them as they reach for their goals. They won’t do that if we take all the lumps and bumps of life from them. Most of my clients got that after I explained it. And they left my office feeling a little more empowered.
Consequences come to us every day of our lives. We’ve dealt with them and we’ve learned from them…sometimes reluctantly, but we’ve learned from them just the same. We have to allow our children the privilege of falling and getting back up and dusting themselves off. Each fall hurts, but it’s the getting up that’s a victory. Getting up tells us that we can do it, we can go on, we can overcome the disappointment, we can relish the strategies we used to get back up, and we can feel proud that we did it. Ourselves. All by ourselves.