Dear Involved Parents: Chill the $%&# Out!
Dear Engaged, Sincere, Loving, Active Parent(s):
I just finished my twentieth year in the classroom. In that time, I’ve had a decent variety of kids from a wide range of circumstances. Every one of them has his or her own issues, own strengths, own styles, and own reasons for doing what they do however they do it.
It’s true what you fear – there are too many young people who lack serious motivation to do well in school. They may not see the purpose, or perhaps they lack the emotional maturity or personal stability to focus the necessary time and energy. Some come from messy backgrounds, others have that sense of “entitlement” you’ve read about, and a number of them simply choose to be vagrants and take their chances.
I’m so thankful that you don’t want your child on that path.
Having teenagers of your own, it will probably come as no surprise to you that even the best of them can sometimes be a bit lazy. They whine, they argue, they feign helplessness, and sometimes they even self-destruct a bit despite the fact that their lives are really not THAT difficult. Left to their own devices, many would spend too much time goofing off with friends, playing video games or watching stupid videos, or otherwise simply wasting untold time and potential.
Thank you for expecting better of them than that. Sincerely.
You’ve figured out, too, that the version of events they give you at home is not always as closely tethered to objective reality as we might hope. I appreciate that your first instinct is not to bail your kid out every time they’re irresponsible. To automatically blame the teacher. To coddle, spoil, or otherwise feed the beast of teen melodrama.
In short, engaged, sincere, loving, active parent, I genuinely appreciate what seem to be your overarching goals for your child. And I in no way intend to challenge your heart or your purpose with what I’m about to say.
But you need to chill the $#&@! out.
Your daughter is in band and swimming and multiple advanced classes and rarely gets more than five hours of sleep. It needs to be OK for her to occasionally have a ‘B’ in something – especially if it’s a hard-won ‘B’. She’s 16 and not exactly an expert in managing stress. When was the last time you told her you were proud of her and that she was doing well?
Your son is fully immersed in speech and debate and still has a trace of genuine excitement about that engineering elective, but he’s still trying to survive Honors English because that’s what the ‘Distinguished Graduate’ path requires. You insist he participate in everything your church does no matter what the time commitment, which is your right and your decision. Couldn’t he skip that summer program you’re convinced will help him get into some particular college or other? Let the boy recover… he’s 15. When was the last time you let him sleep in, then took him to a late breakfast somewhere just to talk?
I realize teenagers are prone to drama, but they come by it honestly. They’re adolescents, full of adolescent hormones and spilling over with adolescent concerns. I know plenty of folks twice their age who struggle with organization and time management and unhealthy coping mechanisms – but “grown-ups” have some control over how much they take on and what they do to handle it. We constantly expect teenagers to “act like adults” while giving them almost no actual control over their lives.
What we really mean is “do everything we say the way we want, but handle it as if it’s all entirely intrinsically valuable to you.” I’m not suggesting we go to the opposite extreme and let them fly free and foolish, but let’s at least be honest about the dynamics.
You don’t inculcate internal motivation through extrinsic haranguing. You don’t build stamina by keeping them broken and resentful. It’s hard enough to engage them in the complexities of world history or the subtleties of a well-crafted novella when they’re relatively happy and secure; you’re not increasing their chances of success in life by badgering them into seething resentment or insisting that nothing they ever do is anywhere close to good enough.
Here’s a news flash – the kids who aren’t feeling loved and validated at home do some pretty sketchy things to scratch that itch in other ways. Many of the ‘bad things’ from which you’re trying to shield them are – not unironically – manifestations of their desperate need for approval, to feel good enough, to be SEEN and HEARD.
That’s why your daughter – yes, YOUR daughter – is sending those pics. That’s why your son – yes, YOURS – is mooching those prescriptions. You’d be surprised what they tell any adult who’ll listen without yelling at them.
Not all of them, of course – some just cry a lot and want to die. Which I don’t suppose is actually better.
That doesn’t even include the number of you punishing your kid for your personal shortcomings. Your relationship mistakes. Your financial difficulties. Your upbringing. They make a nice whipping post for all those things you can’t say or do in public, don’t they? They’ve reached an age at which they can offer just enough attitude and resistance for you to feel justified turning off the filters and letting it all out. Like you couldn’t with that boss – that ex-husband – that government – that illness – that childhood.
But let me get back to those of you who aren’t overtly abusing your child in easily documentable ways. Those of you who genuinely mean well, and who fear the paths they may take if you don’t “stay on them.” I know you sometimes try to find better ways but they just make you so crazy and you feel like a bad parent and you lose it sometimes. I know you’re terrified they’ll turn out like their brother, or their father, or like you.
I know it’s hard to raise a teenager. Harder than almost anything else.
Except maybe being a teenager.
Try something for me. It may sound crazy, and it’s certainly going to be harder to pull off in real life than to write about on some silly blog. But please – just try it. Maybe a few times.
Make a point today of telling your child you love them. Tell them you’re proud of them. Pick something specific they’ve accomplished – especially if they didn’t do it perfectly but worked really hard on it. That soccer game they lost by one goal, but busted their butts trying to stay in. That essay they actually started the day it was assigned (go figure!) but still didn’t get the grade they’d hoped. Kinda cleaning up without being asked. Being relatively patient with their sibling.
Maybe their biggest accomplishment lately has been just getting up and trying again when things don’t go well. That’s a big ol’ beaucoup bunch of the difference between success and failure over time – some people keep getting up and pushing forward, while others… don’t.
Here’s the really tricky part – DON’T FOLLOW EVERY EXPRESSION OF LOVE OR APPROVAL BY EXPLAINING WHY YOU GET SO FRUSTRATED OR WHAT YOU REALLY WISH THEY WERE DOING DIFFERENTLY. They already know, believe me. Just give them one weekend of unconditional acceptance. Give them one evening of unabashed love, harassment-free.
Consider a new philosophy in which it’s sometimes OK to do LESS, as long as what IS done is done well, and with genuine commitment. Ponder the possibility that ‘B’s and ‘C’s have their place, so long as they’re earned by legitimate effort. Sometimes the flip side of challenging yourself is that you’re not perfect at everything you do. I mean, if you can do it all perfectly, you’re clearly NOT challenging yourself, right? What’s more important?
I know you want them to get into a good college, hopefully with some scholarship action. I know you want them to have good lives, good careers, to hang out with the right people and make the best choices. I’m not being sarcastic when I thank you for this; I have far too many kids whose parents aren’t nearly so concerned.
But it can be a trap, letting high school become four years of joyless torture in order to secure four or more additional years of soulless suffering at some university in hopes of landing forty or so years of unending commitment and sacrifice – all chasing some fictional future moment in which they can be… happy? Secure? Relaxed? Fulfilled?
Love and approve of them NOW. As they are. With what they’re doing. Repeatedly.
Then, sometimes, you can nudge. You can question. And once you’ve reestablished your “unconditional acceptance” credentials, you can play the parent card from time to time to stave off the sorts of truly stupid decisions teenagers sometimes try to make.
But for now, you simply MUST chill the $#&@! out – for their sakes, as well as your own. I know you love them. Prove it to them in ways they can understand NOW.
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