Consider it a promotion . . .

A challenge for any parent is the changing role they have as their children develop over time.  Obviously the role we play in our children’s lives is different when they are 1 is different than when they are 18.  From my experience, the difficult years are those middle adolescent years when we move from the role of benevolent dictator to the role of consultant.  What do I mean by that?

In our child’s early years, we certainly try to help them make good decisions.  Much of the early years are spent being very directive, however, specifically telling them what to do and when to do it.  “Do your homework” . . . “go to bed” . . . “dress warmer . . . it’s going to be cold today” . . . etc., etc.  At first, most (but not all) of our kids are fairly accepting of this.  They will follow through on our orders and do as they are told.  If they do not, then there is a consequence.  “If you don’t do your homework, you will not watch TV for a week!!!”  The consequences are rarely the natural consequences of the act or omission, it is clearly a punishment.  The punishment is intentionally aversive . . . it is meant to underscore our authority and to mold their behavior to that which is beneficial for the home environment and society as a whole.  At some point, however, this becomes increasingly less effective.  When you give non-natural consequences for behaviors, kids get angry and think you’re a jerk.  Again, some of this is inevitable.  As parents, we are, be definition, imbicles who are out of touch.  More importantly, there does come a time where it is more beneficial for the child to experience the natural consequences of their behavior and to allow those consequences to influence their future behavior. 

Natural consequences are the consequences that naturally follow an action.  Step in front of a moving bus and you get hit and get hurt.  This is so obvious, we don’t need to remind most kids about this.  There are countless examples where kids just don’t get it sometimes and it would just be better to let life teach them, rather than to have you act as a nagging parent.  For example, one of the recurrent problems is getting up for school.  Why they expect high school age kids to get up at the crack of dawn to make it to school by 7 AM is beyond me . . . but they do.  And this sets up one of the most common power struggles in the American household.  “Get up . . . get up . . . get up . . . GET UP !!!!!”  “you’re going to miss your bus”  “Why do I have to do this every morning” “blah, blah, blah, blah” . . . waste of time.

Unless there is a clear reason for the morning difficulty (insomnia or other sleep difficulty, medication side effects, etc.,) it tends to be better to use the natural consequence as the motivator.  Let them miss the bus and have to walk.  Give them a ride if you must (they can pay for gas, too!), but don’t give them an excuse note . . . after all, there is no excuse.  After a few unexcused absences, the school will give them a consequence.  You can be sympathetic, but let them deal with the consequences.  You can problem solve with them . . . but let them deal with the consequences.  Don’t get them off the hook.  It is certainly a balancing act, these middle years.  But if you back off and give advice and support, and let them make their way in the world, they will learn the lessons that they need to learn and be able to move on to greater things.  You can then become the consultant . . . someone to turn to if they are not sure what to do.  Or someone to turn to when things are not going well.  When they do, you can ask . . . “do you want my advice?”  If they say no . . . keep your mouth shut.  If they say yes . . . give your advice.  But the role of a consultant is one of adviser, not director.  They may take your advice and they may not.  Learning to weigh and consider different points of view and different avenues of advice is a very important adult skill.  Sometimes not listening to parents and making the wrong choice is a good learning experience.  As a parent, it can be difficult to watch.  But better if they try their wings when you are available to advise and help then when they are out of the house, on their own, and subject to greater consequences and penalty.

–Dan Hartman, MD

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