I just heard from my editor at Floris Books (the publisher of my forthcoming book, Walk With Me: A Companion and Guide for Parents), that she will have my manuscript back to me in about two weeks. So I was was looking through my old files and found this article that I wrote a few years ago. It was the first thing I wrote when my friend Melanie urged me: “Just write,” she said. “Write about anything.” Did she send me the NYTimes article? I don’t remember. But I don’t read the NYTimes, so someone must have. I originally included this in my introduction but cut it in order to streamline.
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Is Love Enough?
The NY Times just published an article, powerful and gut-wrenching, written by a mother whose beloved son is going to die of Tay-Sachs syndrome by the age of three. She has, as we all might imagine in our worst nightmares, some things to say about what it is to be a parent with such knowledge: knowledge that there is no future; there is only today. With tenderness and ferocity, she exhorts us parents– who do presume to have a future with our children– to love our children today. Always today. For all of us, that is all there is. (Emily Rapp, “Notes from a Dragon Mom,” NY Times Sunday Review, Oct 15, 2011)
She is right. There is nothing without love.
The mother (or father) who traces the sweet, soft curve of her baby’s cheek knows this. The mother who cheerfully packs sweaty boys into her car after a game knows this. The mother who sits beside her teenager during every court date knows this. The mother who listens and comforts and shares the accomplishments and discoveries and burdens and is there, always there, knows this. Like them, we know that at the bottom of it all, our role, our duty, our joy, our sorrow, our destiny is to love our children.
In the stark world of the mother who knows that she will soon lose her son, there are no expectations beyond love, and this life sentence of inevitable loss and grief frees her to always seek joy and comfort in the moments that she does have left with him. I can’t think of a more compelling plea for us to live each day as if it were our last, to plunge into loving our children with reckless abandon and utter gratitude, with no caveats, no conditions.
But there is a danger here. Most of us, thankfully, will have more than three years with our children, and we must act with faith that our children do have a future. If we are lucky, we are in it for the long haul. And that means that our love has to be the kind that will carry us on such a long journey. Love for the long haul looks a bit different than the piercing, single-minded love that impending tragedy compels.
We too have to let go of our children, but ours is a slow process, one that dawns on us as a rising tide, rather than as a tsunami that steals away all earthly existence. We can’t just hold tight no matter what. We too want to protect our children from pain and know that we can’t always do this. But what’s more, a parent looking to the future knows that she shouldn’t always protect her children, and she will need wisdom to know when this is so and her own kind of bravery to see it through. We know that what we do today will have an affect days, weeks, even years later, and we know that while it is tempting to seek only happiness and comfort, we must teach our children to be patient, to be able to see beyond the immediate moment.
The challenge of loving for the long haul is that we have to make choices, so many choices. The mother about to lose her son has few, if any. Her path is clear, simple and awful. For the rest of us, we must decide which path to take, and we must do so every day in a thousand different ways, some of which are of great consequence, some seemingly minor, but all adding up to a life.
We must love our children always and with the fullness of our hearts–as if today were our last day.
But we must do more than that.
Love is a good and necessary guide, but we must also have a clear understanding of the choices we must make and will enough to see them through. There is a trap hidden in the idea that love alone is enough. It is tempting to believe that love will free us from the risks we must take and the responsibility we must shoulder in making choices, day in and day out, about how to be a parent. Every decision we make must be held up against a template of love, but you can have a heart bursting with love for your child and still be lost and frustrated. Striving involves doing our best to love our children on a grand scale, and it also means seeking understanding of ourselves and the children before us. The future entrusts us with the freedom to choose our way, but there is no map, no manual and no guarantees.
So how do we know what to do? Clearly, the terrain of raising children is well-known to all those who have done it before us, but in our fast-paced world where newness is the only given, we want to do it our way. Most of us are loathe to look behind us for guidance and are reluctant to raise our children the way we ourselves were raised. And do we really even know how we were raised? Maybe we remember a parent yelling, or singing, or helping us with homework, or not helping us with homework. But do we really know how it was that our parents taught us the things that we know? Do we really know what choices they faced and why they chose as they did? In a world in which we have gained so much freedom, in which we are not bound by tradition and the constraints inherent in it, we have lost our collective knowledge of “what to do.” We have generally, as a culture, abandoned a reliance on the way things were done, and often we have done so with very good reason, but there is a lot to piece together when starting over from scratch.
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And then I wrote my book. Not because I know the right way, but because I think I can shine some light on your way, whatever and wherever it is. So I could walk with you and you could walk with me, for just a little bit of it. So we could all enjoy the blessing of companionship on what is a challenging and glorious journey.
Last week’s post addressed reckless and risky behavior in adolescents. Here is an article about over-protected kids from The Atlantic which argues along the same lines as my post.
What do you think?
Here is the last post in this series in which I have tried to respond to a reader’s question: what can I do to avoid the stressful relationship with teens that was portrayed in New York Magazine’s recent article, “The Collateral Damage of a Teenager”?
There’s no way to avoid all conflict and stress in any relationship. But the excessive stress discussed in the article is, in my opinion, neither necessary nor inevitable. Frustratingly, the article’s author implies that parents just need to chill. Not only is that not helpful, it is unrealistic. But parents do set the stage for much of this conflict, and rather than blithely chirping that they have made their beds and now must lie in them, I prefer to point out that there is a silver lining to all of this: parents matter, which means they can make changes that will help them through this stage in their children’s development.
The last negative quality that the article mentions is recklessness. The author suggests that teenagers are more likely to engage in reckless behavior and that, for the most part, they will live through it and therefore parents should just, again, chill.
I am not a huge fan of behavioral studies because I think that the questions asked are often the wrong questions, but I have seen multiple studies that indicate that teenagers brains operate differently than those of adults, and with this I have no argument. Teenagers just don’t process the concept of risk as adults do. I am not a scientist. I am only an observer. But here is what I see:
There is a difference between engaging in risky behavior and behaving recklessly. It is my observation that teenagers engage in risky behavior because they MUST. They have to try things where the outcome is uncertain because to live entirely circumscribed by safety is to stagnate. But one can take a risk and be careful at the same time. One can try something risky with a reasonable expectation of success– while at the same time acknowledging that there is a chance of failure. I don’t think this is reckless. It is adventurous. It is how we grow. I don’t think that risky is the same as stupid.
Do bad outcomes happen? Yes. I managed to hyper-extend my knee by propping my legs on the coffee table. Pretty safe environment in which to injure myself. My young son used to construct large and even larger bike jumps– and successfully rode over them. Risky? Yes. Dangerous– sort of. He knew what he was capable of and he wore a helmet. Did he ever miss? Yes, once, and scraped the front of his face off on the chipboard. And then he recalculated next time he built a jump.
To me, the difference between risky and reckless is that risky is well-planned, well-thought out, with good odds. Reckless is just plain stupid.
I don’t think we can prevent our children from engaging in risky behavior, but we do want to head off reckless (stupid) behavior as much as we can. I don’t think we should just “chill” and hope for the best. We need to teach our children the difference between the two, and that starts, as usual, when they are young.
And mostly, that means that we need to let our kids fail. In physical ways and in other ways. Let them fail, and then help them figure out what happened, how to fix any problems created by that failure, and how to make adjustments to the goals or plans so that there is a better chance for success. Let them learn first-hand that all actions have consequences, good or bad.
Set reasonable boundaries and enforce them. And then chill. Because the worry won’t stop them.
In the last post, I addressed some of the factors involved with adolescents being argumentative.
Today I am going to share my thoughts about arguments that are fundamentally about values.
While this is not a post about how to instill values in your children, I will say briefly that modeling is your friend. Embody the values that you want to instill in your children. Actions speak louder than words. You can use words here, too, especially in story form, to illustrate those values operating in other people’s lives, and you can speak directly about how those values have enriched your own life. Just make sure that action is your leading edge.
I suspect that the majority of arguments that teenagers have with parents over values stem from parents’ failure to make a distinction between what their children do and who their children are becoming. I know– it seems like splitting hairs. But there is a difference, and it matters, and it matters tremendously to teenagers.
It is our right and our duty to attend to our children’s behavior and to instill good character in our children. But our rights do not extend to deciding who our children will be. Parents need to set boundaries with regard to safety, respect and responsibility. But beyond that…. not so much.
Here–again– I believe that the conventional wisdom is exactly backwards. I say: sweat the small stuff, and the bigger pieces will fall into place. Why sweat the small stuff? Because it is in the small stuff, the daily interactions, that we live most of life and this is where your children’s characters develop.
Lay the foundation and then let go. As Rudolph Steiner famously said, “Receive the children with reverence, educate them with love, and send them forth in freedom.”
There is a difference between adolescents who argue and argumentative adolescents.
At the risk of over-simplifying (and of course, in a blog post, it is nearly impossible to not oversimplify), I am going to split this up into three categories:
- teens who simply like to argue
- teens who argue to get out of responsibilities
- teens who argue because they disagree with a parent’s values
The question we are working with in this series of posts is whether teenagers must be as awful and difficult as most people expect them to be. And my answer is: absolutely not. They are challenging, no doubt about it. But it is my experience and observation that many of the difficulties are not inherent, but are the results of two things: a culture that does not support the needs of children and families, and well-meaning misunderstandings and mistakes that parents make in their children’s early years.
One of the greatest motivations for teenagers is the pursuit of truth. Teens live in a world that is black or white, good or bad, desirable or detestable. As adults, we know that world doesn’t really exist. There are contexts, considerations, compromises. Teenagers see those and smell hypocrisy. If we parents are still on a pedestal in our teens’ eyes, now we come crashing down off of it, as does most of humanity.
Adolescence is, in some ways, the discovery of middle ground, and it might surprise you to know that one of the ways to find that center is to swing aaaaallll the way to one side and then aaaaalllll the way back. You can’t just tell them where middle is and where it isn’t. They have to experience it themselves.
And many of them do that by arguing, by taking positions, sometimes outlandish and provocative positions, just to see what you will make of it– and to see what they make of it themselves. Think about this– would you rather your child actually act out every possibility, or would you prefer for him to “try it on” verbally?
Temperament plays a part here, as well: some teens are naturally inclined to argue about extraneous issues just for the sake of arguing. These teens are not really arguing to challenge a parent so much as they are arguing to satisfy a hungry mind, a restless spirit, or because they are performers and really love to hear their own voices and be center stage.
In this case, I would call the teenager “exhausting” more than “argumentative.” The arguments are more of an outlet for expression than they are a symptom of rebellion. And in this case, I would suggest that parents deal with this as an issue of manners. Teach your teenager how to argue respectfully, how to listen, how to disagree without attacking (and make sure you model it! That is ALWAYS the most important and effective teacher). And teach them how to know when and with whom arguing is appropriate. Instead of saying, “No, don’t argue,” you can say, “Yes, and this is how and when and where.” Find positive outlets for their expression.
The arguing that probably most concerns parents is that which is commonly referred to as “back-talk.” You explain why– why your child needs to put his dirty laundry in the hamper, do his homework, turn off the computer– and you get an argument why not. These arguments are not generally engaged in for the purpose of divining truth. They are a way of weaseling out of responsibilities.
Why does the teenager do this? Because his parents taught him to.
Small children learn by imitation. Simply put, if you try to get him to do things (or stop doing things) by talking (explaining, yelling, asking, cajoling, begging, you name it), you are training your child to argue. How? He will DO what you are doing. You want your child to pick up his room so you talk (choose from the above options or the many other permutations of talking). What does the child DO? What you are DOing. Which is talking. The child talks back. If you want your child to DO, you must DO. Talking, for children, is not doing. You must act. ‘
Honestly, this is such a difficult concept to grasp that it took me a whole book to explain (Walk With Me: A Companion and Guide for Parents, forthcoming in spring 2015 from Floris Books in the UK), and even then I am not sure that I addressed it adequately (because the irony is that “writing” is a lot like “talking.”).
Again, at the risk of oversimplifying, here are things you can do with your young child to avoid all the talking, which, to the child’s mind, is just a form of arguing, which he then imitates.
- I know I sound like a broken record: limit early choices for young children. Asking is another form of talking when you should be acting instead.
- Establish strong family rhythm, so that regular routines carry the day. Not the whole day, just some. Everyone knows what happens when because it happens the same way every day, particularly during transition times: morning waking, going to bed, eating, leaving the house.
- When you want a child to DO something, YOU must DO it too. So, no, you can’t be shouting from your computer that it is time to get boots and jackets on. You need to be at the front door, putting on your own. He will do as you do, not as you say. And if what you are doing is “saying,” then that is what he will do as well. Save your talking for when you want talk.
There is so much more, but I will leave it here for now. And I will take up the issues with arguing over values in a later post.
A quick note about teenagers who argue about responsibilities: I am willing to negotiate with a teenager about what he is responsible for and how he will take care of those responsibilities, but when and how he raises the issue matters. If he wants to talk about taking out the trash, he can do so, if he approaches me respectfully AFTER he has taken out the trash.
We are continuing down the list of negative attributes that are often associated with teenagers. A reader asked if it was inevitable that her teens would exhibit these undesirable behaviors, and it is my belief–and experience– that it is not. We ALL have moments when we are rebellious, rude, ungrateful, inattentive, argumentative and reckless. Teenagers are not immune.
The idea that these negative behaviors are driven by the influx of hormones is just not borne out by science. Adolescence is not a stage that we just have to put up with until it is– thank God– over.
There are factors outside of our adolescents’ biology that drive some of these behaviors. And parents are one of those factors. Sometimes we unwittingly set the stage for these problems.
As for inattention, it is my observation that teenagers are extremely attentive– just not to what we want them to pay attention to.
They aren’t less attentive drivers than we are– they just don’t have the same experience to correct their mistakes (I see more adults texting while driving than teens).
In class– well, that is a whole other subject– class.
At home– let’s talk about at home.
There are two areas to which the “inattentive” label is applied with frequency: when teens are more absorbed in their online communication than they are with their own family members, and when teenagers seem to ignore or not hear what is said to them.
Does your teen drive you nuts texting or snap-chatting her friends while you are talking to her? This is simply an issue of manners. And of setting boundaries. Having a phone is a privilege. Using a phone comes with responsibilities. Mis-using a phone comes with consequences. You can’t wish for good manners. You need to model them, teach them, and enforce them.
Is your teen inattentive when you are talking to her? Take note of what you are saying over the next week. How much are you talking AT her and how much are you talking WITH her?
Are you present when your teenager is present? How attentive are you to her when she has something to say? Do you make an effort to share in her interests? (I am now a true hockey fan and can talk for hours about all sorts of hockey skills and strategies, teams and players. It makes a difference– it is not pro forma– I actually find it interesting, and so I am rewarded with lots of conversation time with my son.)
Do you ask your teenager questions about what she thinks? Do you ask for her opinions? Do you argue with her when you disagree, or do you ask more questions to understand her line of thinking (and do you then use that to “win” or do you let her opinion just stand for the moment as a free and worthy being, even if it is imperfect?)
If by “inattentive,” you mean “she doesn’t do what I tell her when I tell her,” you are dealing with rebellion, not inattention. If you really have something important to say, pick a time that is conducive to your teen having the time and energy to listen, or respectfully establish that the importance of your message trumps what she is doing at the moment– but make sure it really does, and don’t pull that one too often.
And one more thing: teenagers, like all people, are selectively “inattentive” to nagging. I know– if she just did what you told her to do the first time, you wouldn’t have to nag. The antidote to that problem– her not attending to her responsibilities–is not to repeat yourself over and over hoping for a better outcome. It is this: 1. Make sure she knows what her responsibilities are. 2. Make sure she knows how and is capable of carrying out her responsibility. 3. Make sure that you create an environment that makes it easy for her to carry out her responsibilities. 4. If she fails to carry them out, ACT. Don’t say another word. ACT. If you have said it once and she ignores you, saying it more times or louder will do no good. Respond with action.