“Are you seriously trying to get me to believe my boy isn’t doing well in school because he doesn’t get the motivation from home, Mr. Davis? I can read between the lines you know. It’s not that complicated. He’s just following those no-good friends of his. It’s as simple as that.”
Twenty years ago I would have tried to argue the point. Even if I’d won the argument, I’d probably have lost my connection with this good gentleman and his son.
The hardest problem to solve is the one you’re not aware of. And since his problem was also hiding behind yet another problem…one he actually saw an asset instead of a problem. I’d have been stupid to think I could talk him out of it in one sitting.
Thankfully, I was older and I hopefully, a little wiser. I went for the low-hanging fruit first, and tackled the only problem he thought he had. After all, with certain children, one common negative outcome of a dictatorship-style parenting is a rebellious rejection of every stance the parent takes. All too often, teens, for example, express this rebellious stance by seeking peer groups that look like the very opposite of what the parents would approve of.
For this particular family, everything else was in place… all the components I normally recommend for parents that normally keep a teen motivated in school. We covered most of them in the last post.
The rest of this post is about a similar approach I took with another family some years ago. When I look back at it, if I say so myself, the decision to just meet that father where he was was a simple but smart one. In so doing, I had a good chance to eliminate the other two problems he was totally unaware of.
As you read further, see if you can spot how a nuanced parenting style promotes a healthy school-work ethic, while side-stepping all the damaging effects of corporal punishment and other harsh interactions between family members.
Who are the people who are becoming the biggest influences on your child’s life?
Are they following YOUR way? Or are they following someone else?
This is a topic we touched on from a high level some time ago. It’s time to look at it in a little more detail.
Miss Weller and the Nerd Factor
“It’s not your fault, Miss Weller. Society has given you a system that doesn’t work any more. I have a new system that will change everything if you’re ready to fight a different kind of battle for your son–a smarter battle.”
It wasn’t an idle promise. The Life Parent approach had already been working for many of my parents. But I also knew she had to be mentally ready. This distraught lady had tried so many things, and she was tired.
Hers wasn’t a boy who had fallen through the cracks. He wasn’t at risk of going to jail or anything that extreme either, even though the TLP program does wonders for those parents too. On the contrary, John was one of the best in his class, with no behavior problems or anything.
In fact, his teachers said he was one of those kids who had a rare gift. That was the problem. Her mother knew what her son was capable of. And she wasn’t one to live her own lives through their children either. Weller was too smart for that. She knew her son really wanted to use his gift. He had a way with both the written and spoken words. He had dreams of becoming a popular writer.
But even gifted students need years of training and practice to get to the top of their game. The tragedy this parent saw so clearly was that John’s friends and peers made fun or put him down when he let them see how much passion he had for writing. It was like reading and writing was something young people only do if they’re from another planet or something. At least, that’s how they made him feel.
At first, when he started secondary school, the nerd label bothered him and he would just do his writing in private. That in itself was a blow for Miss Weller, but at least her son had still been writing.
But now as he was approaching his fourth year, it was like he was losing the battle for his passion in his own mind. In months since he hadn’t sat down to write.
Weapons of Influence
Remember the two posts which were direct excerpts of Cialdini’s epic book, “Influence, Science and Practice?” This book was written for those interested in resisting sales tactics and other forms of influence we want to keep out of our lives. Weller and I spent a two months discussing that book, among other things.
My bigger point was that we can use the insights in the book not only to resist salesmen and advertising messages, but also to help children resist peer pressure. It’s the same principles at play.
The same weapons of influence in Cialdini’s book are the ones that make teenagers so vulnerable to peer pressure. Surprise, Surprise! They pretty much feel all the emotions adults feel by the time they’re eight years old, so if we’re smart, we really only influence them the same way as we do adults.
Just bare with me a moment. I know this flies in the face of some of the crap handed down to us, like “children must just do as they’re told.”
Except that has never worked if you take a really REALLY close look. What it really is, is that bug in our parenting culture that’s gotten us to somehow behave as if our kids are a different species… as if they will respond better to another set of parenting behavior we’ve erroneously come to know as discipline.
The only “weapon of influence” I advised Weller to forget was authority. That’s the one busy adults default to. I was so glad that Weller wasn’t old-school where this matter is concerned. I didn’t have to fight that kind of battle coaching her. She used quite a few of the other weapons in the book to her advantage though… including reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, and even scarcity… in pretty much the same way a seasoned sales lady would.
No set of peers on school was going to be better than her without even trying. I’m happy to report that it worked like a charm!
By the end of that school year, Weller’s son was writing daily. That was more often than he’d ever written before I worked with her. And he wasn’t hiding it from the other kids either. Instead, he was talking about it all the time and even got two other students to join him and take up writing as a hobby.
Resonant Leadership With Children & Teens
It’s a common theme in this post already. So at the risk of beating it to death, I’ll mention it again. It’s that important. Children and teenagers are people too. They have all the human emotions adults do, and except for a few exceptions, most of the things we consider effective with adults only have to be tweaked for age appropriateness before applying them.
All the fascinating discoveries in the field of evolutionary biology, neuroscience and emotional intelligence apply to them as well. Surprise Surprise. At a high level, we know that what stresses the mind and body prepares it for flight or fight. At the same time it literally blocks the brain from getting too creative, or from even taking the time to think in any rational way. The lizard brain just takes over, presumably in a mistaken effort to save life or limb, simply because that’s what it was best at doing in the days of the dinosaurs.
Once we understand that concept, the question then becomes, which brain is likely to dominate in the child’s brain under the stress of harsh words, stern warnings, physical or psychological punishment, and so on?
Do these things have a place in working with children? Sure. We’ve made that clear before. But the rule of thumb is that when you do use them, you should know you’re settling for the cheapest draft beer only because the champaign wasn’t available. We’ve already agreed in many other posts that it should be a last resort.
What you want to always try first is something that does the opposite of creating even the mildest form of stress. I was tempted a few years ago to call it blissful parenting, but a parent advised me not to go there because it sounds like I’m promising the moon.
The Science behind it is solid though. If you can hold counsel and coach WITH the child or teen in an atmosphere, tone of voice, and context that resonates in peaceful harmony, that experience is likely to put the lizard brain to sleep, get his/her brain to wake up, reasoning skills to sharpen, and commitments made to influence behavior all the way through to adulthood. In a word, softer is TONS more powerful than harsher.
Control vs. Influence
It’s a choice. Many of aren’t aware of it when dealing with children. I certainly wasn’t for a long time. If your goal is just compliance, and you just want them to do as they are told when you say so, then you’ll have to accept the very strong probability that you’ll have very little influence over them when you’re NOT around to say so.
But if the goal is for the children under your care to hear your voice in the moment of decision when they have hard choices to make, or when they’re tempted to take the easy way out, or when their values aren’t well defined and the way forward is uncertain… then you want to keep that lizard brain far from you right here, right now as you look into their eyes and decide how to teach that life lesson.
We call it being a life-parent. You can substitute teacher or anything else that works. Be a life-teacher.
Support vs. Discipline
So that’s how you help teens NOT to follow peers so blindly and listen to your voice instead. But you avoid a whole host of other problems at the same time, including sending them to school unmotivated for school work.
OK so this carton is going way too far. But there’s no magic bullet or tactic. It’s a way of interacting, a mode of communication, a state of being.
It’s about attracting them to the wisdom of your guidance. It’s a very different way to think about discipline, but it’s the true way. Disciple and discipline don’t sound alike by coincidence.
Communicate and serve in support of the teen’s trials and troubles as they transition through the very confusing adolescent experience. Take a little time to study who should own responsibility of solving their problems. The rule of thumb is that discipline techniques are best for problems we have as adults.
A closer look at many issues we have with teens (e.g. their school grades) often shows that the thing needed isn’t really discipline as many of us traditionally understood it. The slipping school grade, the inability to get up early enough in the morning on their own, the experimentation with sex and sexuaity…all these are things that require a different kind of discipline.. the one that implies we need to act in such a way as to make them disciples. Becoming leaders with influence means teaching and supporting in a fashion that resonates with youngsters.
No easy trick, mind you. But I promise you it’s totally doable… and soooo worth it.