All parents (or at least all decent parents) want the best for their kids. They want them to succeed in school so they can go on to be successful in life. They want to raise children who will become adults who are honest and full of integrity and have a solid work ethic. And because we know that both nature and nurture play a part in how our kids ultimately “turn out,” we are forever on the lookout for problems at home or at school that we need to address. But sometimes, we get so focused on “fixing” the immediate problem that we lose sight of what our actual role is in the bigger picture of their lives.
A recent advice column in The Washington Post serves as a good reminder of this for all of us. A parent wrote to columnist Meghan Leahy to ask what they should do about their 15-year-old son, who has for years displayed exactly zero interest in doing work for any classes (or teachers) he deems “stupid” — and then lies to his parent about it. This parent has tried everything to address the behaviour: therapy, taking away the Xbox, creating rewards systems, staying out of it, getting involved, hovering, crying, screaming — and still their son is failing a couple of his classes.
After Leahy commiserates a bit with the son (she says she too checked out through much of high school), she points out that the parent is focusing too much on the “what” and not nearly enough on the “why.”
Let’s pause all the behaviour-modification shenanigans. Let’s pause the fear of all this failing and what it means for his future. Let’s pause shoving him into therapy or tutoring. Let’s. Just. Stop. Repeat after me: “My son is not a project. He is a fully human young man, and he needs my support and love.” Repeat this over and over and over, then start getting curious. Invite him to eat with you, go on a hike with you, learn a video game with you, anything, and try to get to know him without an agenda. Every single class he is failing can be made up. Every single thing he hasn’t learned can eventually be learned, and I want you to tell him that.
Leahy’s words struck me, because it’s so easy for parents to get trapped in a desperate need to fix every last aspect of their child’s behaviour or schoolwork ethic or relationships. It can feel like we’ve got 18 years to mould them into exactly who we want them to be, and we forget that, at least in part, they were already born who they are. The nature part was always there — and the nurture part is less about fitting a square peg into a round hole and more about building strong connections with them.
As one clinical psychologist tells Your Teen Magazine:
“When kids hit the teen years parents often feel like they say the wrong thing or their teens rebel so they back off or they get over-controlling — none of that works,” says Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “What works is to realise that teens still need your guidance, but you can’t control them. The only way you are going to have any influence is through your relationship with your teen.”
We earn our longterm influence over our kids not by demanding it but by being a supportive, loving force in their lives. Whatever they are struggling with and doing or not doing is not necessarily the direct result of our parenting; it’s not a mistake we have made or a programming error we need to correct. Sure, we need to have rules and boundaries and consequences and all of that, but mostly, as Leahy puts it, our kids just need us to be less judgmental and more “curious” about their lives.