So, my 13 year old came to us several weeks ago. She wanted us to write a note to excuse her from a club meeting so she could go to IHOP with some friends for free pancake day. It happened to be St. Patrick’s day, so not only would the pancakes have been free, they would have been green. A once in a lifetime kind of morning! For REAL dude! When she realized we weren’t going to write the note, in her tirade and tears, she passionately let us know that if we didn’t let her go THAT day, she’d have to wait an entire year before she could have this experience again. She’d have to wait until NEXT St. Patrick’s Day. How could we?! How COULD we?!
Let’s face it. Our children aren’t always the best at making decisions. Kids are completely emotional and erratic, and teenagers…ahem…as I’m now discovering… are a more formidable version of the littler ones! My 13 year old wanted to not only miss her service club meeting that morning, she was ready to quit the club over it.
To our credit, my husband and I started out well that night. We came out of the gate with a principled response: Keeping one’s commitments is important. We will not write you a note. You will not be going to IHOP for free pancakes, green as they may be. To my daughter’s credit, she listened to our response, got a little upset, but then went upstairs to pull herself together. The trouble started when she came back down to make her case…as teenagers should…as to why we should let her go.
The arguments went on and on…and on. Aspiring to be “good parents” we listened to every single one…and tried to respond and explain and be logical…which was exactly where the evening went down hill. It wasn’t up for discussion, but in our…okay…MY… fear of “wounding” my child, I felt I had to listen and empathize and give her room to express herself.
What I missed is that she wasn’t expressing herself as much as she was trying to get ME to EXPRESS a little breast milk. A little oh-my-poor-baby-I-just-have-to-give-in-so-as-not-to-scar-you-for-life milk. Ugh! Well…I’m sorry to say…it worked. I leaked… But just a little.
We still didn’t write the note.
We just got wrapped up in a convoluted process of trying to reason with someone who wasn’t about to see reason. Instead of just reiterating the principle—keeping commitments is important—and walking away, we got sucked into her emotion. As it turns out, her friend later canceled the IHOP trip, and another friend begged her not to quit the club. But this didn’t happen until an hour or so into it. Great.
But what lesson?
Need I say more?
My youngest, God bless her, has an interesting approach to school work. Well…OK…it’s not as much “interesting” as it is really annoying. Big picture is that it’s all OK in the end. There are no developmental delays, and she is well liked by her friends and teachers. Academically speaking, she has begun reading independently and keeping up with her many reading related requirements on her own in the last 4 months, and her report cards have reflected A’s and B’s so far.
So, what’s the big deal? Well, let me see…she’s had 5 or 6 tardies this year. She regularly leaves the house without her homework, school forms, books, lunch, etc. She inconsistently keeps up with assignments and due dates, and she often does not know when tests are coming up. She’s had F’s in at least one subject in the middle of each of the 9 weeks so far this year…that she’s brought up to A’s or B’s come report card time…but still…Ugh! She also has some health issues that effect clarity of thought, mood, and focus. At times talking with her is like talking with a disorderly, angry drunk. (Can you feel me, mothers of the world?) Her emotionality and irrationality can reach extraordinary levels at times…(making me WANT to become a disorderly drunk for real!). I can feel the anxiety building as I write this paragraph…and as I lose sight of the first paragraph…and lose sight of the #1 principle that keeps me solid and focused and calm while she figures out school (and life) for herself.
This is her life, and these are her problems. Maybe this sounds cold, but I can assure you, this principle is what keeps me warm and supportive of her. I love the way Hal Runkel of ScreamFreeParenting.com says it. “We are not raising children,” says Hal. “We are launching adults.” If I treat my daughter’s problems and challenges, no matter how painful they are for me, as if they were mine, then I’ll be keeping her a child when she is capable of quite a bit more. And so I resist my urge to save her…or worse, to take over for her.
When anxiety or anger or frustration is in charge, the lessons for our kids are caught, not taught.
We can lecture all we’d like. We can try to force obedience or structure or…healthy lunches. But the only message they’ll hear is that of our anxiety or anger or fear. The good news is the same thing is true of times when calm, principled, leadership is in charge. Calm is caught as readily as anxiety. In other words, it’s not what we say, it’s who we are that shapes our children.
Here are some of the ways I keep my calm, principled leadership in charge instead of anxiety.
This is not a “hands off” or “do nothing/laissez faire” kind of approach. The degree to which parents have to work to stay focused on this principle takes a great deal of effort, personal vigilance, and determination. I have MY relationship with her school, and she has HERS. But the urge to meddle is significant. I’d like to take TV away on weeknights. I’d like to get rigid and strict about homework time. I’d like to nag. I’d like to try to get her teachers to give her heavy consequences for the times she screws up. I’d like to micromanage her backpack…and make sure she has everything every day…I could go on and on.
But then my daughter’s relationship with school would get muddled up in her relationship with me. She’d start fighting me on what she should be working out with her teachers…and herself. If I micromanaged her, as my anxiety would dictate, her academic career as well as her sense of self would become an issue between us…a fight…not what it needs to be…which is essentially and primarily hers. She must own her own failures and foibles, with me next to her…shoulder to shoulder rather than toe to toe…so that she can one day own her own sense of confidence in meeting life head on.
(For those of you studying Bowen Theory, you’ll notice the concept of triangles here…me, her, the school.)
Getting to the bigger picture is tricky. Our anxiety insists that something is REALLY WRONG when our children screw up at school (or elsewhere). We start thinking our children’s failures or struggles are EMERGENCIES!
They are not emergencies.
They are important opportunities.
Nothing steers a person’s ship like a mistake. And that, my friend, is the bigger picture we need to hold on to, even when our children (or our spouses) cannot. If we freak out, the situation becomes more our problem than our children’s, and we rob them of the opportunity to learn something valuable.
The really REALLY big picture is that YOU have an opportunity. An opportunity to back up, calm down, and lead your family to a better place. If you’d like a little help, give me a call. Or check out Hal Runkel’s book: ScreamFree Parenting.