Recently my thirteen year old son was excited about attending a youth event with some friends. It sounded like it was going to be heaps of fun, and my ten year old daughter was *not* a happy girl about missing out. We had lots of discussion about her reasons for wanting to go, and my reasons for not wanting her to go. They weren’t easy conversations!! These things aren’t resolved easily and quickly; they are messy, emotional and complex.
Well, it could be “easy and quick” if I just put my foot down, controlling-parenting-style, and said, “You’re not going, and that’s that! And don’t let me hear you complain about it. I’m your parent, and you’ll do as I say!”
It would also be “easy and quick” if I threw caution to the wind, ignored my mothering-instinct and went with the permissive-anything-goes parenting style, simply saying, “Fine! Well just go then! It’s not like I can stop you anyway” or “Whatever you want, dear. You know what’s best…..”
With both of those options, however, I would be left with a seemingly quick solution, but one that overlooked the deeper issues going on:
My child had some big feelings about her desire to go and about the option of missing out.
I had some valid concerns about her going (it was an event aimed at and marketed to all the local high schools; I knew of no child her age who was attending) and felt I would be negligent to drop her off at that type of scenario.
Our relationship was more important than either of us “winning”.
She had some valid needs underneath her feelings: the need to be heard, the need for social interaction, and the need for FUN!
I had at least one valid need too: the need to provide safety for my daughter.
So with all of that going on, we talked. And listened. And felt our big feelings together.
We also brainstormed possible solutions.
Eventually we found a solution that honoured both of our feelings and met our needs: COSMIC BOWLING!!
It happened to be a Friday night, and this was something my daughter had never done before. She loves ten-pin bowling, loves hanging out with friends, loves dancing and music and pretty lights, and all up it seemed like the perfect alternative to a hall full of high schoolers on a Friday night! It didn’t happen without quite a lot of effort on my part, and also quite a bit of stress: there were enquiries to be made, many text messages to friends, lots of planning, and driving to a few different suburbs to pick up some playmates. But it was so very, very worth it. The smiles on their faces and the sound of their laughter were confirmation that looking for a win-win solution and honouring both of our feelings and needs was the best possible investment of my time and energy. I’m sure, too, that the rewards of the process will have a flow-on effect to other similar scenarios that are sure to crop up in the years ahead.
It was also wonderful for our relationship. She felt validated and valued. She knew I was on her team and that I was trying my hardest to help her have a great night, while staying true to what was important to me.
All in all, it was a win-win solution to a tricky problem and well worth putting in the emotional investment. I’d love to hear some other stories of people working for a win-win, where everyone’s feelings and needs are respected, and mutually agreeable solutions are sought and found. It can be done! Maybe not always, and maybe not without some time and effort, but it is definitely worth working towards!
What pops into your head when you think about teenagers? About being the parent of one? It seems to be the stage of parenting that people fear most. I believe teens may be the age group most mistrusted, disliked, feared and judged, based merely on them being…. teens! And that is prejudice. I remember overhearing someone voicing concern about parenting teens once, and the reassurance that was given was, “It’s okay. They arrive as babies, remember?” True, but still, they end up being teens, and that’s scary, right?
When I was a girl, I dreamed of being a teacher. Of little people. Definitely not those scary teenagers, thank you very much. I just could not understand what would lead anyone to choose high school teaching! Of course, I now realise my perception was partly formed by what I was observing of how teens behave in the artificial, controlling setting of compulsory high school and I wasn’t liking what I saw.
When I was a young mum, we lived in a christian community for five years. After our initial two year training period, we had to decide whether we wanted to stay on as staff and you know what freaked me out the most? Working with “scary teenagers”! Funnily, one of the teen girls that most freaked me out is now a good friend, and the mother of three young triplets who all have muscular dystrophy. It turns out she was a human being just like me. Oh, and for the record, those “scary teens” were actually heaps of fun and many of them became good friends, and they certainly enriched our life more than we could have imagined. It was a privilege and honour to journey with them for a few years.
Do you know what I think scares people the most about teenagers? It’s not the clothing or hairstyles or body piercing or music. Heck, more than a few adults have similar tastes these days! What’s more frightening about teens is that they’re uncontrollable. I mean, teens these days are “out of control” aren’t they? Teens “these days” seem to cause their parents about as much grief as … their parents caused THEIR parents! It gets you wondering, doesn’t it?
Perhaps teens seem uncontrollable because they’re not designed to be controlled! Mira Kirshenbaum and Charles Foster, in their brilliant book, “Parent Teen Breakthrough“, assert that the strongest drive (yes, even stronger than you know what) during adolescence is the drive for independence. And what do they experience during all of their teen years in the high school setting? Control. What do they experience at the hands of 99.9999% of parents? Control. Or rather, attempts at control. Because the truth is, they cannot really be controlled. Not fully.
And neither should they be.
When parents have used controlling, punitive methods to manage their children’s behaviour during the younger years, the teen years can come as quite a shock, because it is during this phase of life, when teens are biologically wired to move towards independence (in lifestyle, values, thoughts and ideas) that parents suddenly realise control no longer works. “Where there’s a will there’s a way….” And if parents keep on pushing for control, they will often push their child behind a big brick wall of resistance and distance. And parents aren’t the only ones facing the reality that teens are moving into a new phase of life.
Teachers have it tough, too. Not because all teens are “bad” or because all teachers are hopeless. But because we have created an artificial, controlling environment for teenagers and called it “high school”. We take away as much of their power and autonomy as we can and then wonder why they rebel. We have placed many great teachers in those schools, but each of them is given the same task of attempting to control teens, and trying to prepare them for life by keeping them away from real life. By keeping teens in this artificial environment throughout the years in which they’re destined for courageous acts, independence and autonomy, we have created a dynamic called “adolescence” – the wasteland between the wonder of childhood and autonomy of adulthood. And while they’re there, we expect them to sit still, listen quiety, and do what they’re told.
Teens don’t need to be controlled, although they certainly benefit from mentorship and influence. They need relationship. And grace. And forgiveness. And respect. They need parents who believe in them, see the best in them, and create a safe sanctuary for them.
Yes to guidance, no to coercion.
Yes to information, no to lecturing.
In short, teens need connection. They may at times give off a vibe that says they don’t, but deep down they need to feel connected to those who love them; not judged, feared and despised by them because they aren’t behaving in the exact way the parent wishes they would. Yes, they will almost certainly make some choices that parents wish they wouldn’t, but when the connection is strong, and there aren’t the ongoing power struggles so common to many parent-teen relationships, there is more likelihood that parents will have something far more effective than control: INFLUENCE.
Teens also need communication. The type of communication where they are listened to. Really listened to. Not just to the spoken words, but also to the message that lies beneath the angst, the “bad tone”, the swearing….. So many parents talk AT their teens. And they usually don’t want to hear anything scary that their teen might have done. In the Parent Teen Breakthrough book mentioned above, the authors state that if your teens aren’t occasionally telling you something scary, they are probably just not telling. They need to know their parents are SAFE to talk to. And they rarely ever need lecturing. Actually, they never need it! They need information and feedback. They need compassion and safety. They need to have their feelings validated and their needs honoured. They need a safe place for exploring potential strategies that might meet their needs, and the needs of other family members too. Some people refer to this type of process as Non Violent Communication (or Compassionate Communication). And yes, this model includes parents being honest about their needs and feelings too. It isn’t about any one person walking over, or lording it over, the other. It is about mutual respect.
While attempts at controlling teens may seem to result in compliance, any compliance that is gained usually comes at a great cost to the relationship. Is it really worth it?
So does this mean “letting them run wild”? When I think about a teen “running wild”, I think that perhaps they have something to run FROM. They are much more likely to run from control (or the absence of connection), than from connection. They need parents who truly, genuinely care about THEM, even more than they care about whether they are good poster children or not. When all is said and done, if your teen makes some choices along the way that make your hair stand on end, it helps to remember that they are human just like their parents. In the midst of those choices, if they feel unconditionally loved by their parents and connected to them, and if they feel safe in their relationship with their parents, the relationship will remain long after the choices and their consequences are like dots on a distant horizon.
We recently had lunch at the boat harbour and watched a poor helpless seagull attempt to fly with some fishing line stuck around its foot and a rock attached to the bottom of the line. The poor bird just couldn’t get more than 10 feet off the ground, and had to keep returning to rest, never able to fly off and explore the great unknown, or even to find fish for itself.
Can you imagine a bird trying to fly with a rock attached to one foot? Can you imagine a bird trying to fly with its mother hanging onto its wings, pulling it back down “to keep it safe”? How ridiculous that would be!
Can you imagine a teen trying to fly with a parent holding on out of fear of what might happen, or what choices they might make, or what choices other people might make?
I attach a rock to my teen’s foot when I hold on too tightly at the edge of my comfort zone, when I doubt his ability to make decisions, when I undermine his confidence in himself because I don’t have confidence in him. I hold my teen back when I think I know better than he does about his life. I hold my teen back when I care more about what others might think of him, than I do about how he feels about himself.
“Are you okay?” phone calls every five minutes may meet the parent’s need for reassurance, but are unlikely to meet the teen’s need for growing independence.
I limit my close relationship with my teen when I talk to or AT her rather than listen, when I pre-empt what she will say and listen with only half an ear, when I jump in with solutions rather than validating her feelings and letting the solutions come to my teen with my support alongside her.
A child who has a parent hovering and intervening all the time loses the trust that they need in their own ability to navigate this life wisely. They are actually more likely to make mistakes or to have errors in judgement, when they are constantly looking to us for validation, or having us constantly “saving the day” for them and averting “disaster”.
When we react with fear, we instil fear. Or resentment. When we react with calm confidence, and provide snippets of information that will hopefully help them to make wise decisions, they almost always… make wise decisions! If we seek to control their decisions, they are likely to resent us, or lose confidence in their ability to make decisions. When we provide information, they are more likely to use that information in helping them to act wisely. A simple example of this is a parent insisting that their child put a coat on because it’s cold outside. If, instead, the parent comment (authentically, not in that icky condescending parental tone) that they themselves feel really cold and want to put a jacket on, the child is more likely to use that information to make a similar choice.
Many of us are blessed with “experiential learners” who seem to need to experience the impact of their choices to learn what they might do differently next time. But what about a child running into the street, I hear you cry out! I wonder what it was in our collective childhood experience to do with cars and dangerous streets, that causes almost every parent to come up with that as the example of what could go wrong if we start trusting our children.
As the author states in Parent Teen Breakthrough (my parenting teens “Bible”), a teen (or child) is far more likely to accept your loving help and guidance within the context of a loving, respectful relationship, than when the relationship is an adversarial one with power struggles being prominent. The subtitle of the book is “The Relationship Approach”, which is apt because the relationship we have with our teen is far more important than whether or not they “do as we say”. When a loving relationship is the most important thing, and they make a choice that ends up going badly, they’re far more likely to come to us for support and guidance, than if the relationship was more adversarial, and they’d been told a firm “No!” but done it anyway. As they begin to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of independence, they will have a more grounded confidence and be less inclined to push the boundaries for the sake of it, if they know that we are on their team, fully support them and will be there for them no matter what happens, without “jumping down their throats” if they make a choice that we wouldn’t make or get themselves into trouble.
It is so easy for us to forget what it was like to be a child, to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood. It is so easy to only look at the situation from the perspective of parenthood, with our heightened awareness of our responsibility and duty of care towards our children. It is so easy to forget the carefree nature of childhood, and the desperate desire for autonomy that increases as they move into adolescence (and is often also very present in toddlerhood!) And to forget that a teen has such a strong desire for autonomy that if they feel too restricted and controlled, they are actually MORE likely to push the restrictions and resist/resent the control!
Our teens will benefit from our care and guidance if it is done with love, not control (read the book for some great examples and specifics of how this really can work, and how inappropriate control is to parenting teens!). But how on earth do we live at the edge of our comfort zone without going crazy? It really helps to be honest about our feelings of fear, concern etc. and also our need to nurture and provide safety where possible, but to also listen to their feelings and needs as well! This is another situation where the tool of Non Violent Communication can really help us to provide an environment where the needs of both children and parents can be met, and all feelings respected. I’ll be posting later about the second NVC workshop I did, that will flesh this out a bit more.
I believe that, as unschooling parents, our job is to equip and empower our children, not hover like a helicopter, just in case…. Just in case what? The big baddie grabs them? The car runs them over in the street? They can’t do their times tables? They become a drug addict? They can’t get in to university?
Does it stand to reason that a child with a helicopter parent hovering above them pointing out every little thing, or pulling and pushing at all the right times, is necessarily any more likely to avoid any of the above scenarios? And even if they do come through childhood & adolescence seemingly unscathed, at what cost does their safety come?
Many people seem to assume that home educating parents choose to do so out of a desire to protect their children from the big bad world, and that they severely restrict their access to people and experiences outside of the immediate family and very carefully selected friends. I think, in some selective cases, this is in fact true. And I think that one of our roles as parents IS to provide a safe, protected harbour for our children to call home. But I don’t think we need to lock the anchor into position, and put up barricades around them. And I don’t think that their only experience of the ocean needs to be at the aquarium where they can look at the sea creatures from behind a glass wall.
I think it’s about getting into the water, getting wet, taking the boat out beyond the crashing waves to where the water is deep and clear, and filled with all sorts of wonderful, exciting, and yes sometimes scary creatures! It doesn’t mean we have to send them out alone. It’s usually much more fun together! But there are times when they will want to spread their wings and have a go at flying solo for a while. And I don’t believe that tying a rock around their ankle helps them to fly.
We helped rescue a baby magpie once. We made a little temporary nest in our yard, having been advised that it had probably fallen out of the nest too soon, or had perhaps been pushed out before it was fully ready to fly. We felt like we were doing a GREAT job of being “mothers” to the little bird. And there was quite a few of us, because our children had friends visiting. We suddenly looked up and saw that the mother was actually perched above us on the power line, ready with a worm in her mouth to feed her baby. We slowly stepped out of the way as quietly as a bunch of kids can do, and watched in awe as the mother gently flew down and fed her little one. Then the baby started to hop along on the ground while the mother flew alongside, just above him. It was a truly wondrous thing to watch this mother take her baby home. It seemed it had been indeed too soon for him to leave the nest. But what happened next took our breath away. The mum perched on top of a fence in the laneway, and the baby hopped along on the ground beneath her. Then the mother flew slightly higher to perch on top of a garage and the baby flapped its wings and clumsily hopped up onto a one foot tall concrete edge that ran along the bottom of the fence. Gradually they made it to the bottom of the laneway and the baby was making more and more attempts to fly up to the top of the fence to join the mother. At the bottom of the lane was the tree where the nest obviously was. And this is where the baby really nailed the flying thing. The mother hopped along the lower branches, encouraging the little one to copy. And then suddenly the baby flew right up to the nest and snuggled back in home.
The magpie mother in this story is a beautiful example of the kind of partnership that I’ve seen work so well with connected, loving, unschooling families. The parent is aware, observant, available, hands-on, connected, informative but not manipulative, interested, interesting, honest, trusting, and ready with a worm at just the right time.
I spent some time thinking about peelings, I mean FEELINGS, over the weekend, at my first NVC (Non Violent Communication, sometimes called Compassionate Communication) workshop, conducted by the lovely Kara Matheson. It was part 1 of a 4 part series called “Mindful Parenting with Mindful Communication”, and I’m really looking forward to the other three! I can certainly see the benefits of using NVC principles to help relationships be more positive, productive and peaceful. It’s also particularly useful within the context of an unschooling family, being a tool that can greatly help with negotiating the difficulties that arise in a shared daily life!
The 4 key components in NVC are Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests. Since first learning about NVC, I’ve been amazed how often it has proven incredibly helpful to me in negotiating some challenging situations, and also learning to better understand myself. I love how it’s not just a one-way street. It’s not all about me. Or all about seeking to understand another. It’s about the feelings and needs of both people, and make respectful requests in response.
The location for the workshop was SO beautiful. My friend Kara and her family recently moved to a gorgeous part of the world, where they are currently grazing Llamas and a couple of horses, with plans to do much more! Here are two of their Llamas, Candice and Elvis.
We began the day with some mindfulness practices, which I really appreciated, as a stark contrast to the usual busy, chaotic nature of my life! I was again reminded that meditation is something I would like to do more regularly, and I believe the benefits will far exceed the time taken.
We also talked a lot about the importance of Self Compassion, and the helpful work being done by Kristin Neff (an Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas). I love that her website has so much information (even videos) available for free, to provide easy access to the information without people even having to purchase her book!
Here is one of her videos:
Then we did some NVC workshopping, using “needs” and “feelings” cards. One of my favourite activities was where we took turns to share a situation from our life, and talk about some of the feelings that arose for us. On the floor were a large number of “needs cards”, which were simply laminated cards with each one having one of the universal needs printed on it. The other group members would listen quietly to the speaker, and then silently select any of the needs cards that they assumed might be appropriate to the person’s situation. What was beautiful about this was that you felt heard, and the needs cards were like gifts of empathy and understanding. It was honestly quite a moving experience, and helped many people find clarity on the needs that their feelings were pointing to, and also some of the needs underneath the surface needs!
People often confuse basic human needs (such as “I need support”) with strategies for meeting that need (such as “I need you to help with the housework”), thinking that their desired strategy for meeting their need is the need itself and therefore the only solution, and so they hold tightly to their chosen strategy, not realising that there are a variety of other strategies available. Often, when there seems to be a clash of needs, it’s actually a clash of strategies! It can be quite tricky to discover the needs that underly those strategies, and I found that workshopping was a really helpful way of getting better at this. I’m looking forward to practising this in my family context now, and learning more about it at the next workshop. Based on how well I (didn’t) do at applying some of these principles today, I say, “Bring on the next fortnight’s session asap!” 🙂
Finally, we talked about how easy it is to stay stuck in our habitual ways of thinking, being and relating, and Kara shared with us a fantastic little poem called “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” that I surprisingly hadn’t heard before. Here’s an animated video of it. Enjoy! (And excuse the guy’s little promo at the end) 🙂