Editor’s Note:  This article was reprinted from the Spring, 2004 issue of Marriage and Families magazine, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

Parenting can be presented as a three-dimensional activity. Research on adolescence suggests that the ideal environment of invitation and influence is created when parents are high on nurturance (rather than being distant, alien or aloof, hostile, or resentful), moderate on setting limits and having rules, and high on reasoning with adolescents (rather than being dictatorial or command oriented) (Jaffe, 1998).

So when you as a three-dimensional parent have been those three things … and … nothing seems to “work,” the question quickly arises, What now? Even when it seems we have done everything, there is reason for hope that something can be done.

One way to think about this task is to ask, “How do we parent difficult adolescents?” To ask that question may be a clue to the starting point of our problems. Think back to the last time someone assumed something about you or labeled you. It could have been at the office, where you overheard a group of employees referring to you as “old talks a lot,” or as “all speed and no direction,” or as “knows so much he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” You probably didn’t think the label fit, and were convinced that those describing you had just revealed themselves as having no insight-and being impudent and unteachable at that.

Stephen R. Covey has popularized an idea from C. Terry Warner: To see others as the problem is the problem. That may be overstating the truth some, given that even if we were to cease seeing our teenagers – or coworkers in the office – as the problem, there may still be a problem. But the important point of the Warner-Covey idea is that until we see others in a non-labeling, non-accusatory way, we cannot see the truth about them, and thus we really don’t see the starting point for solutions to real problems. If, for example, I decide in advance that you are to blame for something, I am not granting the possibility that someone else may be responsible for the problem. If you are already my chosen target, then I will see in you and in the situation whatever confirms my decision about you.

Thus, once I see you as difficult, or as having no direction, or as being the kind of person who isn’t aware of his or her own ignorance, I am looking for proof of that position, not for facts.

Adolescents, in our culture, suffer from preconceived notions regarding what “they” (as a category of persons) are like. Of course, all prejudices may be grounded in real possibilities. It is just that when we proceed from prejudice, we generalize a possibility into a total reality. We would help ourselves by suspending labels in favor of imagining possibilities.

For example, when my associates and I took a character and citizenship education curriculum into the public schools, we were reminded by some professionals that “adolescents only live in the present moment. They are not future-oriented.” This idea, if absolutely correct, meant we were a bit nave in trying to teach our curriculum. Two ideas from our curriculum are illustrative:

  1. Every act in the present moment is an act for or against the next generation.
  2. Consider that your acts in the present moment either enhance or reduce the likelihood of a quality future.

Both these ideas assume a human sensibility of being able to imagine the future. They suggest that teenagers can benefit from doing more than seeing only the present moment. If adolescents are somehow “hard-wired” to be insulated from considering the future, our work would have been in vain. We were about to teach ideas that would probably fail, given “how teenagers are.” What we found, though, was that when we gave adolescents a chance to consider the future – to gauge their current actions by considering future consequences – many of them did just that. Many were willing to consider the consequences of their educational pursuits, their financial decisions, their ways of behaving in relationships. From our work with high school students, we discovered the better truth to tell about adolescents is that if you give them a chance to imagine the future, many do so with insight and understanding. (Wallace & Olson, 1984).

The point is that if we, as parents, label our children, in advance, according to “how teenagers are,” then in our subsequent involvement with them, we eclipse certain possibilities of how we might invite and entice them to do good, to live responsibly, to make constructive, rather than destructive choices. At the least, in times of parent-adolescent conflict, we must acknowledge that our children may behave badly, but that their destructive approach to life, while absolutely real, is also absolutely unnecessary. That is, their destructiveness is not because “that’s just the way they are-teenagers” – but because they are being destructive, or contentious, or arrogant. There is even the painful possibility that all those attitudes are mirrors of how we have sometimes been.

We must assume they (and we) can be otherwise. If we do not do that, we just become part of the problem by assuming “that’s just the way they are,” and we begin to be illustrations of prejudice and labeling, all the while feeling we are justified and doing the best we can do in a bad situation.

Parents sometimes long to be more skilled than they know how to be. They sometimes think if they were better at a given technique, they could turn their children’s lives around. But there is something more fundamental than technique. It is the first task. It involves the quality of the relationship itself, and that cannot be grounded in mere technique or strategy, but in the heart. This is another way of asking parents to consider their ways regarding how they see and respond to their children. Imagine this scenario:

After a verbal fight with his parents, Nick Kanell withdraws $400.00 from his savings account, buys a nationwide go-anywhere bus pass, and hits the road. When Nick does not show up at dinner, his parents assume he has done what he has done before – retreated to the house of one of his friends. By the second evening, Nick’s parents call the typical places he has “hidden” before, and discover those friends and their parents have not seen Nick for several days. Now the Kanells are worried. They discover, through their regular on-line banking routine, that Nick has taken money from his savings account on which they are co-signers. At dinner, the parents decide that if Nick wants to run away, fine! Maybe facing the harsh world alone will teach him something. But that night, unbeknownst to each other, both Mr. and Mrs. Kanell toss and turn. At some point in the night, they sense they should do something.

The next morning at breakfast, the Kanells admit to each other that they have been wrong and that they both feel they must file a missing person’s report on Nick. As they are about to go to the police station, they hear a noise in the garage. Mr. Kanell opens the door to the garage and steps out onto the cement step. Sitting on his backpack is Nick, who looks up sullenly at his father from underneath unkempt hair.

Nick had made the mistake of not boarding an express bus, and as a result had endured a journey where the bus got off the freeway for every little town, stopping about every 45 minutes. After ten or eleven hours of this, he had just stayed at the caf in wherever and did not re-board the bus. It is true he at first didn’t care where the bus took him, but it also became true for him that he didn’t know where he was going or what he would do when he got there. He decided, therefore, to hop the next bus going back toward home. His attitude was not one of defeat, but of defiance.

During the return journey, Nick replayed in his mind all the times when his parents had been unfair, condescending, dictatorial, critical, nagging, and self-righteous. He was preparing his ammunition for the confrontational reunion. Now, as he looked up at his father’s frame on the garage step, he could predict exactly what his dad was going to say. “I suppose you realize you’ve worried your mother sick!” Nick always resented that his dad spoke for and defined his mother’s feelings in advance – twisting the knife of guilt in Nick’s stomach. Nick knew his mother would appear on the step at any moment, and become nauseatingly protective. “Oh, poor baby, are you all right?” uttered in a plaintive, wailing tone like some amateur soprano on a hunt for the right note. Nick had them all figured out, all labeled.

The parents may not have been particularly skillful, but once they turned their hearts to Nick, the quality of their interaction with him changed. Nick was brought back to reality by his father speaking unpredictable words: “Oh, good, Nick, you got here just in time. The clam chowder is just about ready.”

Nick now wonders what kind of gimmick this is. What? – no lecture, no reminder that he has again demonstrated he just can’t be trusted? What is this? Nick fires a verbal salvo, “Okay, dad, what are you trying to pull?”

His father drops his eyes to the ground, shifts his weight from side to side for a few moments, and, with his hands in his pockets, stutters, “Okay, you’ve got me. The truth is, we haven’t even opened the clam chowder yet.” This was becoming a conversation from the Twilight Zone. Nick couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Something was fishy – and it wasn’t that clam chowder was his favorite soup.

His mother appears on the step. “Well, Nick, your father and I have been worried and we were crazy enough to think that if we put on some chowder, you would smell it and be willing to come home.” At that moment, the thought that flashed through Nick’s mind was, “How do you fight with these people?” Nick goes into the house, his mother asks him to open a can of clam chowder, and they sit down to talk.

This may sound like a bizarre incident. Perhaps so. But it is characterized by parents giving up the labels they had attached to their son. The parents have abandoned the patterned, predictable, accusatory, all-knowing responses to their son’s recurring irresponsibility and belligerence. They did not change in order to change their son. Their change was not just a new way to manipulate. They had become consumed by genuine concern. Upon Nick’s return, they did not jettison their compassion and return to a relentless accusatory way of being (“All right, young man, where have you been! How dare you worry us this way … etc., etc.”). Rather, they told the truth in love. The researchers would say they were nurturant rather than hostile or distant. Because the parents had transformed their attitude toward Nick, they could say and do the surprising things they did.

This story was told me by Nick (not his real name). Remember, he was well-prepared for another typical confrontation with his parents. He had stockpiled his verbal ammunition and was ready for another firefight. He was experienced. He usually won. The signs of his past victories were usually his father’s anger and his mother’s sobs and tears. Those triumphs, by the way, always had been accompanied by a hollow feeling in Nick, but he had learned to camouflage all external signs of emptiness, even from himself.

One of the casualties of Nick’s parents’ change of heart was that they had also given up the labels of Nick they had come to use in their defensiveness against him. Now they had the freedom to express concern, to apologize for their role in the problems that had characterized their relationship these long, past months. As Nick noted already, he was so surprised by their greeting that what he was prepared for turned into a reality he was unprepared for. Remember Nick’s thought: “How do you fight with these people?” Indeed. His ammunition was worthless. Unusable. Ineffective.

I do not know additional details. I suspect they really did sit down to hastily prepared clam chowder at 10:30 A.M. I do not have the parents’ report of this incident. I am guessing that the incident in the garage was not the end of their relationship problems with Nick. But I believe it was the beginning of their solutions. My best evidence is that as Nick told me the story (at least three years after the fact), he was without bitterness or self-justification. He told me the story to illustrate, not what his parents had done to him, but how he had used their resentful, accusing manner to justify himself. He had to give up his labels as much as they had to give up theirs. It is true that their compassion and concern upon his return was a powerful invitation to see them in a new way. They may not have been particularly skillful, but once they turned their hearts to Nick, the quality of their interaction with him changed.

2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.