July 25, 2008
In the dream I was in a crowd. Despite the noise, I clearly heard a baby crying somewhere. No one else seemed to notice. The sound cut through me. People were packed together and making progress in any direction was a challenge. But I had to find that baby.
Making my way down a hallway, I entered a smaller room and found the wailing child. I stepped into the crowd and took the baby in my arms. She immediately stopped crying and nestled against me. I could hear her thinking “Ahhhh, someone understands.”
Then I woke up, smiling.
We parents are genetically engineered to do our damnedest to keep our kids happy. With our first one, we’re all clueless at the start. But after a few months on the job, we feel like we’re pretty good at turning our kid’s bad moods into better ones. We become masters of distraction (“Oh, look there’s a dog!”) and negotiation (“If you stop crying, I’ll read you a story.”) Whenever they’re unhappy, they instinctively come to us because they know that we’ll make things better, like magic. We love how they believe in us, but we know it’s not magic. We succeed in making them happy simply because we understand them so well and because they want to be comforted by us.
When they get to be tweens the dynamic starts to shift. They’re more aware of their dependence on us and they start resenting us for it.
In the mind of a young adolescent, our ability to make her smile gives us way too much power. She undermines that power by finding fault in everything we do. Especially our attempts at comforting when she’s down or upset. And because he resents our knowing him so well, he throws up smoke screens, attempting to make himself less knowable. “You just don’t understand, Mom!”
As parents, our imperative is to find and comfort the crying baby. But how do you deal when the baby is 11 or 16 and your attempts at helping are greeted with “Get outta my room and leave me alone!” ?
What do you do? What has worked in your family? What hasn’t worked?
July 22, 2008
I was in the mall yesterday doing research on the way teen girls interact with their friends when shopping on their own. During a lunch break, I noticed a dad with his 5 year old son at the counter of an eatery. While Dad attempted to order lunch, the little boy repeatedly punched and slapped his father. As I watched (cringing) it struck me that the kid was neither angry or frustrated. He appeared to be enjoying this very funny game.
Dad’s response alternated amongst three modes: First he ignored the aggression. When the boy continued the abuse, Dad turned to his son and said with absolutely no conviction, “Now you stop that.” When that response only set the kid to giggling and continue swinging at Dad (and connecting), Dad one-handedly held on to both of the boy’s hands and kinda smile and laughed and then showed his son an exaggerated mock “I’m angry now” face. At that point Junior laughed harder and began kicking Dad! At that point Dad went back to ignoring his son again.
For a parent who’d probably say he’d like his son to treat him with respect, this father was transmitting some really screwed up messages. In the mind of a five year old, here’s how Dad’s response was interpreted: “Daddy doesn’t mind this behavior. In fact, I think he kinda likes when I do this. Looks like he’s having fun. I sure am! I’m gonna keep it up.”
We’ve all seen examples of how a parent’s response to their child’s disrespect only encourages more of the same. When it’s with unruly young children (and yours are teens or older) we’re quick to mentally note, “Bad parenting! Do something, you doormat! Don’t let your kid step on you like that.”
But when we’re faced with a rude and disrespectful teen or tween, we are not always so good at avoiding “doormatism.”
Sometimes we try to be “the good parent” to our teens by choosing not to yell when they are rude to us. That’s good strategy. It keeps our emotions in check so that we can think more clearly and parent more effectively. But completely ignoring a teen’s rudeness (sarcasm, attitude, put-downs, eye-rolling, etc.) or responding to rudeness in a half-hearted way, you only send the message that this is acceptable behavior. Exactly the message sent by that Dad in the mall. Problem is, that message is a flat-out lie that’s going to come back and bite you again and again and again.