John Rosemond November 2016 Columns
Copyright 2016, John K. Rosemond
Help for the Unmotivated Teen
Q: Our 17-year-old daughter is bright but puts very little effort into her schoolwork. For example, she currently has very low grades in several classes simply because of not turning in assignments. Her only after-school activity is hanging out with her friends, so the problem, in our estimation, is simply one of setting priorities. We think she needs a job and have made getting one a condition of having access to a car (one of ours) other than to drive to work and back. We have also told her that to have broad driving privileges she must get her grades up. Her grandfather, who is very involved with our family, has told her that she needs to concentrate on her schoolwork and that she should not get a job. We want to always demonstrate respect for our elders but think my father’s position on this is wrong and undermines our authority. What would you suggest we do?
A: I do not like to step into internecine squabbles of this sort, but it’s obvious that Grandpa is letting his heart rule his head concerning his grandchild (a common pitfall). Yes, your daughter needs to concentrate on her school responsibilities, but she has made it clear that she has no intention of doing so. Tying driving privileges to her schoolwork is logical, rational, sane, and commonsensical and I highly recommend that you stay the course on that matter. I would also recommend that you confiscate her cell phone. But—and this is the proverbial “kicker”—my experience in this area causes me to seriously doubt that any consequence or combination of consequences is going to move this situation off square one.
In the first place, without making more academic effort than she is currently making, your daughter is going to get around the consequence of having no driving privileges by relying on her friends for transportation. That seems to be sufficient for a good number of today’s teens.
You can bring her social life to a veritable halt by completely grounding her but I don’t recommend that with this age child. The ensuing disruption in the parent-teen relationship isn’t worth it.
So, I reluctantly predict that no consequence is going to result in better grades. Nonetheless, I somewhat paradoxically recommend that your invoke the consequences of no driving privileges and no cell phone (I’m certain that she will be able, in a pinch, to borrow a friend’s). Consequences are the way of the world; therefore, consequences should be employed whether they work or not.
You are probably going to have to find her the job in question or at least find the job opportunities and drive her to the interviews. Do it. She needs to be prepared for entering the work force or the military after high school. As for her schoolwork, she will bring her grades up when she sees the purpose in doing so whether she has a job or not.
As for Grandpa, respecting one’s elders doesn’t mean always agreeing with them. Simply tell him that while you always value his opinion, there are times when you feel moved to follow your own intuitions.
Be Consistent in Attitude and Unpredictable With Consequences
One of the disadvantages of this job is that I rarely have enough space in which to say all that I’d like to say. Take last week’s column in which I said “Consequences should be employed whether they work or not.” Some elaboration is in order.
Today’s parents tend to believe in behavior modification. They believe, in other words, that any discipline problem can be solved by simply pairing the right consequence with the wrong behavior. But what works reliably on rats and dogs does not work reliably on human beings. Furthermore, discipline that relies on consequences is doomed to failure. Many parents already know this; they simply refuse to accept the evidence.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: The proper discipline of a child is accomplished through the presentation of a certain attitude, one that reflects an adult’s unwavering confidence in the legitimacy of his or her authority over the child. With said attitude, consequences will rarely be necessary. Without it, no consequence will work for long.
Now, not meaning to confuse, but two things are germane to this discussion: First, while consequences come with no guarantees, they are necessary to teaching children how the world works; second, consequences can be made to work, and well, in certain situations, but doing so requires violating the rules of “parenting correctness.”
Parenting Correctness Rule One: The punishment should fit the crime.
Parenting Fact: The chance that a given consequence will eliminate a misbehavior is greatly increased if it does not “fit” the crime but is to the crime as an H-bomb is to an anthill.
Actual example: On the first day of summer vacation, a rising high school junior celebrates by drinking some beers with friends. His parents calmly respond by keeping him under their thumb for the entire summer. Where they go, he goes and vice versa. When his “vacation” ends, they invite him to discover their response to a second beer party. He makes the wise choice.
In a former time, when commonsense ruled the rearing of children, that sort of approach was known as “nipping it in the bud.” Today’s parents—not all of them, but all too many—blow a lot of hot air at the bud and then wonder why it continues to grow.
Parenting Correctness Rule Two: A child should be able to predict consequences.
Parenting Fact: The strength of a consequence is enhanced if the child has no way of predicting it.
Consistency of attitude (i.e., “I will not tolerate this behavior”) and consistency of consequence are horses of two entirely different colors. When a child can predict a consequence, he can prepare himself for it and in so doing significantly reduce its impact. Be consistent, but be unpredictable and above all else, think outside the box of parenting correctness.
Lastly, understand that some kids are so determined to get their way they will cut off their noses to spite their faces—they will, in other words, continue to misbehave in the face of the most egregious consequences. That’s human beings for you.
And so, a final dictum: When a child does something wrong and his parents respond with something right and the child continues nonetheless to do the wrong thing, his parents should simply continue to do the right thing. Someday, maybe and hopefully, he will get it.
A Non-Argumentative Teen Is a Happy One
My advice to The Wall Street Journal, the only news source to which I subscribe: Stop trying to be all things to all people. Specifically, stop giving parenting advice.
The latest attempt by WSJ to complicate parent-child matters is a November 7 article oxymoronically titled “The Smart Way to Argue with Your Young Teen” in which the author, one Andrea Petersen, begins with the usual brain-babble to the effect that neurobiology is the actual culprit when it comes to irresponsible teen behavior. Funny, then, that teens in the third world are not normatively stupid and irresponsible, nor were a significant number of American teens until relatively recently. Such specious babble profits the mental health and drug industries, not parents or kids.
“Therapists say argumentative young teens are healthy ones,” Ms. Petersen goes on to say. Supposedly, parent-teen arguments are essential to forming a healthy identity, developing adult communication skills, and learning to separate. Two of the therapists quoted in the article worry when teens are not argumentative. Supposedly, the non-argumentative teen is holding vital stuff inside and not developing a healthy self-image. One babbler says that if parents don’t allow arguments, teens will be susceptible to peer pressure to consume alcohol. In other words, rebellious arguments prevent rebellious behavior. To borrow from Rene’ Descartes (1596 – 1650) there is nothing preposterous that psychologists have not already thought of.
I know teens who are argumentative and teens who are not. The latter are clearly the happier, more mature, goal-centered, responsible teens. Furthermore, they do not seem to be in any existential angst concerning who they are.
The article goes on to recommend that parents handle parent-teen arguments by compromising on small stuff like goth makeup and clothes strewn everywhere. Concerning the former, letting a child dress like a sullen malcontent is the first step toward living with a child who is a self-destructive sullen malcontent. The operative principle: All Big Stuff starts as small stuff. Concerning clothes strewn everywhere, a child should be expected to maintain “his” or “her” environment in concert with parental standards. The difference is between being a responsible family member as opposed to a boarder.
My wife and I told our two kids, “To make things perfectly clear, what you call your rooms are rooms in our home that we are loaning you. You will keep said spaces neat and clean. How neat and clean? Just look around you. If your room is not neat and clean, one of us will clean and straighten when you aren’t home. In the process, we will open every drawer and throw out anything we think is unnecessary.” It took one such cleaning per child to get them on board with the plan.
Concerning arguments, or the potential thereof, we told the kids that they were free to disagree with us, but they were not free to disobey. Respectful disagreement would result in negotiation (but not always); an argumentative (disrespectful) attitude would not, ever.
In conclusion, I will point out that arguments between parents and children often lead to arguments between husbands and wives. You want a happy marriage? Don’t argue with your kids.
Take a Time-Out Before Engaging With Argumentative Child
Q: In last week’s column, you advised parents not to argue with teenagers. That’s fine and dandy advice, John, but you failed to tell your readers how to stay out of or end these arguments. For example, my strong-willed, stubborn, argumentative 14-year-old daughter wants to argue with me about nearly every decision I make, every “No,” every rule, every instruction. I am going slowly insane. How do I make her stop?
A: First, I need to correct your thinking about these ongoing arguments because your thinking is a big part of the problem.
You think your daughter is “argumentative.” You believe, therefore, that there’s something you can do TO HER that will stop these arguments. But there is no such thing as an argumentative child; there are only parents who open the door to argument and then step right through onto the battlefield. The parents in question mistakenly think that some combination of words, some logic, some patient, intelligent explanation will cause a supposedly argumentative child to pause, reflect, and then say, “Mom, when you put it like that, I can’t help but agree with you.” No child has ever said those words, and no child ever will.
You are the cause of these arguments. Therefore, the person who needs to change here is you. The first thing you need to do is train yourself to engage your brain before you engage your mouth. When your daughter asks you for permission to do something, don’t “pop off” a decision (unless, of course, circumstances demand one). Bring out your smart phone, set the timer for ten minutes and say, “Check me out when the alarm goes off.”
Making impulsive decisions often leads to self-doubt, and self-doubt leads to capitulation, and the more a parent capitulates, the more convinced a child becomes that she can get her way if she only makes enough noise, and so she makes more noise, and the parent becomes angrier and angrier and so on. Sound familiar? Preventing this downward spiral will prevent you from feeling guilty, and few things lead to worse decisions than guilt.
When the timer’s alarm goes off, communicate your decision to your daughter. If she asks “Why?” or “Why not?” go to the second step in the plan: Simply say, “Because that’s what I have decided.” If she persists in asking the questions, become what I call a Bad Mommy Robot—simply persist in giving that answer, as in:
“But why?” daughter demands.
“Because that’s what I’ve decided,” Bad Mommy Robot answers.
“That’s not a reason!” she complains.
“That’s the only reason I can think of,” says Bad Mommy Robot.
“I hate you!”
“If I was fifteen, I’d hate me too right now. You have my permission to hate me.”
Just keep that up. At some point, she will stomp her foot, scream something incoherent, and storm off. Your robotic responses will drive her temporarily insane. That’s much preferred to you going insane. You can’t afford to go insane. You have too many parenting responsibilities. She’s young. She’ll bounce back.