Reaching out or locking up
A few months ago there was this video on Youtube. A father of a teenage daughter replies to her being, well, a teenager (who had posted a not very diplomatic comment about her frustration with her parents on Facebook), by vengefully posting his punishment on line. He finishes a long line of loathing comments by shooting her laptop, telling her that she will be grounded for, well, forever.
This is very sad in so many ways, yet a powerful example of how many people seem to view parenting. Like the work of a policeman, to keep the kids “respectful” -or, as it seems, just plain obedient. “Tough love” the father claims. I see no love, and herein lies the problem.
Relationshipwise, this father seems to have chosen to go to war against his daughter. Obviously he wants to hurt her and hurt her bad. This is how you ruin a relationship, in short. Revenge is never a way to rebuild a relationship. Never a way to reach out, or come closer. Dr Phil, in an interview, also says: “What are you gonna do next?”
The father calls for respect, but does he deserve it? Is he the bigger man in all this, or just the strongest – with his obvious power over her (as the father naturally has), and his gun? Loving respect is something you earn, whereas fear can always be taught. Has this man, in action, shown his daughter what love and respect means? Has he tried to meet her in dialogue, tried to understand where she comes from?
And if this is parenting to him – breaking down, not building up – what will his daughter learn? What good can possibly come out of this?
Of course, it’s embarrassing for everybody when ordinary family conflicts go public. Of course it was a bad thing for her to bring it out there in the first place. Nevertheless, the responsibility of raising her to better deal with conflicts, or perhaps providing an environment in which she can express her feelings directly, lies with her parents. They are the ones who ought to teach the empathy and responsibility they seek in her. It should have been taught earlier. And now, it should have been dealt with otherwise. So perhaps the involved people think now, and it’s definitely reassuring to see they are all still alive and talking to one another a month later.
Teenagers need boundaries – and I mean moral codes, rules and limitations – to fight, otherwise they will run too far astray for their own good. But they need flexibility too, responsibilities to try out and grow into, and dialogue along the way. Mutual respect. They demand it. Sometimes they do not exactly deserve it, but they should have some anyway.
We must allow mistakes, yet try to prevent disasters. Not by putting up walls around them, but through bonding, communication. By reaching out.
It all starts early. The road towards respect and a strong, mutually caring bond.
Of course there are times the kids just need to do as they are told. They need to Stop when you yell Stop, because otherwise they might get hit by the passing car. Or they need to quit throwing things around, at once. We may need to show the youngest ones what we actually mean by the word “stop”, and later on that we are serious and stand by our words, by actually stopping them. We may complement it by e.g. a Time-out to think things through, or by telling the child it will not be allowed to play with sharp things until it learns to be careful.
But not all times are like these. We want our children to learn about consequences, yes, but not for fear of punishment! Soon enough they learn how to avoid them by not being caught. Instead, they need to learn about responsibility. Responsibilities can be linked to pride and self esteem – good things, that come out of a job well done, rather than the bad fall outs from failure. Not quite making it, or not feeling the result is perfect, may be bad enough, to an ambitious child. Our role may be to ease their landings.
Sometimes there are really important issues, with important, potentially really bad, consequences. The ones that affect their futures, their health, career and relationships.
So we need to discuss things that matter with them. Explain things, at a level understandable for them. Why we need to do something this way, or what is dangerous about another way. Some theatrical demonstrations may be helpful – although not too much drama is needed, their fantasies are way ahead of our own.
Ask them what they think and feel, to see their point of view. Quite often they have no harmful intentions at all, they just want to help, or play or keep things the way they are (change is always hard). Like when the child is unpacking or hiding the bags of his distressed father on his way to a business trip, it’s possibly because separation is hard – the child wants him to stay.
Questions are also useful to see how far their understanding reaches. Discuss their options: “Can you think of something else you can do?” “What happens if…?”
Then expand their knowledge, a little bit at a time. Use books, movies or pictures – but don’t forget the personal touch: “You see, when you say… I feel…” or the need for sensing, practicing and experiencing things: “Let’s try it out! Let’s see what happens!” A curious, interested child has its own motivation. It will playfully learn at its own speed.
We want them to learn to think for themselves. To understand about responsibility. To question, within reason, is necessary. To be able to act upon well based decisions, instead of just any order yelled out. To act responsibly, thoughtfully, helpfully. To cooperate, to be curious, playful and also friendly.
This is not achieved by punishment, but by encouragement. By a strong bond, and a feeling of security – if you fall, someone will catch you, bandage your wounds and send you off again.