One of my daughters (I have three) has been struggling with her grades a little bit this year. She kind of dug herself a hole first semester, and is having to work overtime now just to get back to level ground. It’s been frustrating to watch, but it’s also been a chance for both of us to grow up.
One of the lessons I’ve tried to help her learn through this year is that the recipe for failure in this life is simple: we neglect what we want most in favor of what we want right now. For example, one of the things I want most is a fit, healthy body that women find reasonably attractive. One of the things I want right now is a whole box of Krispy Kreme donuts.
I, obviously, cannot have both; they are mutually exclusive. Saying “yes” to one means saying “no” to the other.
Hang on. Let me put this donut down so I don’t get my laptop sticky….
I know my daughter wants to go to college, and she knows that means maintaining a reasonably good GPA. I also know my daughter wants to read through all of Homestuck and binge-watch Dr. Who on Netflix until two in the morning. My consistent question for her is which one does she want most. My consistent encouragement for her is that she not sacrifice what she wants most for the sake of what she wants right now.
I, in all my fatherly wisdom, never considered the fact that she might turn this game around on me. Recently, she asked me the same question and offered the same challenging encouragement: What do I want most? And could I be sacrificing what I want most for the sake of what I want right now?
All of this has got me thinking about our relationship. One of the things I want most is a good, healthy relationship with my teenaged daughter where she sees me as a calm, mature guide who can help lead her into adulthood. One of the things I want right now is for her to just shut up and do what I ask her to do without giving me “that look” she sometimes gives me.
I could use my positional authority to shut her down and shut her up. I could levy penalty on top of penalty, take away everything I’ve ever given her (which probably means I didn’t really “give it to her” — but that’s another story). I could threaten and coerce and manipulate and control. I could do that, but, if I do, I’ve said “no” to being the calm, mature guide who can help lead her into adulthood.
I could scream, but when I do I inevitably communicate one, central message: “I cannot keep myself calm; you’re going to have to do it for me. You are now responsible for my state of mind. In addition to everything else on your plate — all the homework and social relationships you must learn to navigate, all the drama and angst that comes from being in a body that is growing and changing, and all the new cocktails of hormones and chemicals that are dripping inside of your brain — in addition to managing all of that, there is one other critical piece to your job description and it is to keep me calm.”
Which is like saying, “I need you to behave better because I cannot. You need to get better grades or I will behave in a way you don’t like.”
Perhaps before I exercise my authority, though, I should exercise my leadership. Leaders think about themselves and their leadership more than they think about what their followers are doing or how to get their followers to follow better.
Perhaps the first thing I could give my daughter is this guarantee: No matter what you do, I will always be responsible for my own behavior. I owe you that as your leader. I will never hold you responsible for the things that I do.
Which means I may owe her an apology — with no “buts” attached. You know what I mean.
“I’m sorry I said that, but if you hadn’t….”
“I’m sorry I had to do this, but you gave me no choice.”
“I’m sorry, but…” is worse than no apology at all. It’s not an apology. It’s blame. It’s the abdication of leadership.
When your child knows that you control your own behavior, when they believe that their screw-ups will not automatically cause you to freak out, when they know that you have the desire, the willingness, and the ability to keep yourself calm, then they know that you are approachable.
And you may be shocked to discover how often teens approach approachable people.