Parenting a teen can be challenging, but when the adults in the home can’t agree on a course of action things can become exceptionally intense.

My husband is my son’s step-dad, so we sometimes have that ‘you’re not my father’ dynamic already taking place in our household.  And kids, from a very early age, figure out how to divide and conquer, or at least – play off parents against one another when there are different outlooks on how to handle parenting issues.  Although my husband and I try to find our way to compromises on parenting decisions that work for us, sometimes we just can’t get there.

We had started to get into a pattern of venting our frustrations to one another in emails.  Not always a productive process.  But we are both writers.  What if we could use our natural inclination to write about our differences of opinion on parenting in a constructive way?  In a way that could support us in expressing our different views in a healthy way, and perhaps support other parents grappling with their own differences in parenting styles.

So, welcome to our inaugural Point/Counterpoint Co-Blog.

I tend to be a relationship first, task second kind of person in all areas of my life, including parenting.   Last night, when my son wasn’t feeling well and had left a sink full of dishes, what did I do?  Did I get him up out of bed to finish his own dishes?  Did I leave them for him to do in the morning?  Nope.  My mama-nurturer took over.   I brought him an organic ginger-ale to settle his tummy, a bowl of chicken soup, and then I did the dishes.

Sigh.

Ok, that was a somewhat unique situation.  Moms do have a tendency to nurture first, address ‘things to be done’ second when the child is ill.

What about when he’s NOT ill?  My teen has a remarkable capacity to procrastinate or dodge just about any task he’s asked to do.  “Just a minute” is his usual response when asked to do anything.  And his minutes often turn into hours and involve numerous reminders, often delivered with increasing volume and intensity.

Far too often, I will just do the dishes, pick up the damp towel off the floor, toss the shoes into the closet, put the juice or the milk back into the fridge rather than repeatedly ask my son to complete these tasks.  It’s ‘easier’, I tell myself.

My position is that I am saving my parenting energy for the bigger issues (drugs, alcohol, curfews) and try to keep the lines of communication open and flowing.

There are some household things that I’m holding strong on.  Allowance doesn’t get handed over until the weekly household chores (vacuuming, dusting and sweeping basement floor) are done.  Other things, like the cleanliness of his bedroom, I’ve pretty much given up on.

I try to ask myself, whenever a potential parenting battle is brewing:  “what’s the lesson in this?”  Am I going to ‘win’ or am I teaching my teen something that will be useful to him in his life.   Or am I teaching him something that will help make our household function more effectively?  I admit, I prefer a harmonious home, and sometimes I’ll avoid a potential parent/teen battle in order to keep the peace.  But then that can create conflict between my husband and I.   Andrew and I are working towards identifying the issues that are important to each of us, aligning on them where possible.

We don’t always pick the same battles.

Picking Battles: an (Australian) Husband’s View

Many parents––like Laura––find it incredibly frustrating getting teens (and younger) to comply with perfectly reasonable requests.  (Some of Laura’s recent posts provided compelling examples.) But some years ago I noticed something interesting… The same parents rarely had any problems getting the same malcontents to put on their seatbelts.

Why is that?  The answer surely is that having kids wear seatbelts for most parents is totally non-negotiable.  The small persons may protest at the beginning––seatbelts are quite constricting. But once they realize that the rule is non-negotiable they accept it without further fuss. Indeed they will freak if a parent drives off before they are belted up.

My point?  Some teen/parent contention is inevitable, normal and healthy.  But a lot of it is frustrating, wearing and almost certainly unnecessary. In the latter cases a seatbelt approach may make sense.

Laura’s engaging son is very smart. He would make a formidable lawyer.  He discovered long ago a smart strategy to follow when faced with something he would rather not do.  This involves variants of a number of well-practiced tactics: procrastination, loud objection, diversion, whining, wheedling and/or making a huge fuss. It often works. He may get away with doing nothing, or doing just part of what was requested, or doing all of it in a half-assed way.

As Laura’s post notes, this sort of behaviour can incredibly annoying and so her repeated requests of Maxx (the soon escalate into demands) tend to get delivered, “with increasing volume and intensity”. The exchanges are not just heated and frustrating, but very wearing.

She does indeed ‘pick her battles’. She has given up on the snake-pit that is Maxx’s room. (It really has a snake!)  This is surely wise though the consequences likely break many provincial health regulations. This is Maxx’s private space, we don’t have to go there.

She is, however, implacable on things that really matter––drugs, alcohol and curfews.

So where do we disagree? Laura’s point is that on a lot of things she is ‘saving her parenting energy for the bigger issues’––a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ approach.

I think that this is only partly true… She still spends a huge amount of parenting energy cajoling, arguing and getting more and more frustrated with relatively non-consequential stuff that too often don’t get done, or get done properly.

There seem to be two alternatives––give up and do it yourself. Or try something different. Just say what needs to be done––whether getting up in time for school, tasks that have been delegated, or whatever––and indicate clearly what consequences will follow if it isn’t done. If this doesn’t work––ONE polite reminder is perfectly appropriate––don’t remonstrate, don’t get drawn into an argument.  (The latter injunction is especially important if, like Maxx, the teen in question is a very good debater and never misses a change to shift the grounds of the argument to his advantage!) Simply announce the consequence.

What drives teen behaviour in many of these situations is simple––and, for the teen, completely rational. If there is a pay-off––i.e., if they think can get away with not doing all of the stuff some of the time, or some of the stuff most of the time––it becomes rational for them to keep on procrastinating, arguing, “throwing wobblies” until the parent gives in, or compromises.

A large percentage of today’s teens are perfect examples of what economists call ‘rational utility maximizers.’ (In Australia the technical term is ‘slack toads’.)

Economists would point out that what needs to be done in these cases is to change the pay-off matrices.

This means: don’t engage, don’t argue. Simply determine a consequence that, when implemented, is considerably less attractive than doing what has been asked.  Ensure of course that this rule is made clear beforehand.

Let me give one example.  Maxx’s room is in the basement.  It is a great teen pad complete with orange snake, TV, stereo, video games. Up to five teens can sleep there.

In the transition from his old room upstairs to the new space downstairs, a lot of Maxx’s stuff was parked (strewn is perhaps a more accurate term) in the rest of the basement area – mostly in a large area where the table tennis usually fits.

Eventually his room was set up so it could contain all his stuff… but the table tennis space was remained littered with cast-off dirty clothes, pop containers and a mass of other teen stuff.  It was pretty disgusting and the three baskets of dirty laundry didn’t smell too good either.

About three weeks ago Maxx (with some help) finished an IKEA unit that went into his room to provide more clothes storage. With this last move was no longer any reason why the basement had to continue to look like a junkyard. Requests to clean up the space had, however,  mostly been ignored.

So I spent a couple of hours cleaning up the basement area—added a big plastic Canadian Tire box for sports gear––and forewarned Maxx that henceforce if he dumped stuff on the basement floor – he would lose his computer for a day. Teens see even a day deprived of Facebook as a ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment.

Predictably the warning was ignored and stuff was again left on the floor – on one occasion his school backpack and a jacket.  The computer disappeared.  Teen outrage followed. “The backpack was only 6” from my bedroom door! It’s not fair! Mom would never do this to me!”

But with a couple of gentle reminders, the basement has been pristine for some three weeks.  Maxx, the quintessential rational actor, has figured that the microscopic amount of extra effort involved in taking stuff into his room rather than dumping it on the basement floor, simply wasn’t worth the loss of utility that came from being deprived his beloved computer. Even I was surprised.

I don’t think that this particular exercise has damaged my relationship with Maxx––though he was very angry initially. I do think that it has pointed to a technique that could reduce some of the frequent wearing battles that Laura has with Maxx over “the small stuff”.  He’s smart, he’s rational, he responds to incentives.

There would be greater pushback if Laura took a tough and consistent line on this since Maxx has so accustomed to having long, often belligerent, arguments with her on issues on which they disagree. Being good at debating I suspect he enjoys them.  So there would likely be a lot of drama before he accepted the new regime.  But if it worked her life might be a lot less stressful.

One last point.  Laura noted that the other evening when Maxx wasn’t feeling well, she cleaned up the pretty awful mess that he had left in the kitchen.  I would have made him clean it up in the morning.

She writes in her post that her “mama-nurturer” self took over.  True, but not the whole story.  She also said quietly Maxx would be doing something for her by way of compensation.  A much smarter and more appropriate response than mine.

But then––like her mercurial son––she is very smart too.

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