Not Your Decision
My 16-year old daughter, Elaine, has a questionable boyfriend—her first. (I’ll call him Hank.) Hank is pleasant enough when he visits our home, but, as we’ve learned, he hangs out with sketchy kids. He and his friends party too much. I also think Hank can be controlling. What’s the best way to have a conversation with Elaine about this?
Who am I? is a question that’s hard-wired into all of us. Like it or not, Elaine’s relationship with “Hank” is part of the process teenagers go through as they begin to address that vexing question for themselves. In this regard, Hank is more than her boyfriend of the moment; he’s a mirror she’s looking into to determine whether she likes the features she sees, as reflected by him.
My advice is: don’t make a frontal attack on Hank. She’ll walk right into his waiting arms. Find a quiet, comfortable place to chat—the car is always good, assuming you’re driving. Tell Elaine that you see how much Hank seems to mean to her, and that first boyfriends are very important people. Then, ask about the traits, interests, habits she’s most attracted to in him—and why. You are now in a position to ask the corollary question, which is: Are there things about Hank that bug her? If you get through this interchange unscathed, tell Elaine that you’d like to ask her a couple of questions about Hank, which would help you better appreciate their relationship. Line up in advance the two or three issues that are most pressing to you, and then fire away: e.g., “Does he treat you with respect?” “Do you believe he cares about getting good grades?”
For all the things parents can control in their children’s lives, picking their friends isn’t one of them. At best, she’ll begin to see the light. At worst, you’ve planted the seeds of doubt in her mind. Above all, remember that no matter how attached she may seem to this guy, she ain’t gonna marry him.
I was at the gym recently and overheard two thirty-something moms in the locker room (I’m in my early forties) laughing about how they get their kids to behave. One mom tells her daughter she is going to “flush her down the toilet” if she doesn’t do what she’s told. Her friend said that she tells her son that she will “give him back” if he doesn’t listen. I didn’t find this exchange funny at all; I found it unnerving. Should I have said something?
No. Not unless you were prepared to engage in a fight you couldn’t possibly win. And not just because there were two of them and one of you, but because you would have been trespassing onto turf where you don’t belong, no matter how right you may have been.
And you were. These mothers’ notions of how to get their kids to behave aren’t amusing on any level; they are dangerous and potentially destructive. Children have fragile egos to begin with. The threats these moms make to them carry the message of imminent abandonment, if those kids don’t toe the line.
Be comforted in the fact that you are keenly aware of the dangers lurking in this kind of subtly abusive parenting. As hard as it can be, work on getting your kids to behave by pointing out the benefits of following your lead, rather than the costs if they don’t. And, should you cross paths with these two women again, do three things: Stay out of their way, pity their ignorance, and pray for their children.
Valuing Your Self
My husband lost his job at a bank six months ago. The other day, he told me that he felt he had no sense of purpose left. He didn’t know who he was anymore without the vice-president title. How can I help him realize he’s worth everything to me, and to his friends?
One of the great, unspoken myths of our time is the idea that what we do for a living is who we are as a person. Your husband’s self-worth is not tied to his work; it is tied to the unique characteristics that make him who he is. And he needs to hear that from you and from everyone else who cares about him.
Let me suggest an activity for your husband that can instill in him a deeper sense of identity now and, maybe, even turbo-boost his job search: Clarify what his unique characteristics are. Not as an executive, or husband, or father, but simply as an individual. How? By articulating how he contributes to the world in ways that are distinctive and which benefit others. Knowing that answer is the key to success—in business and in life. His sense of purpose doesn’t depend on him getting his next job; it depends on him developing a strong sense of identity that transcends his job, but informs what it is and how he performs it. If you can help him make that distinction, and act upon it, he will find the hope he so deserves.