The most frustrating lesson of Parenting 101: there will be times you simply cannot make a child do what you want.
I’ll admit I was a difficult child. Even then I knew I was clobbering my mother with my need to do everything my way. I knew exactly what was in store when it was time for her curse to come home to roost: Goddamnit Brenda Sue, I hope you have one just like you!!!
I really do understand why some parents try to force their kids into a strict life script. With maturity comes hindsight, and with hindsight the knowledge of how much better/different/easier your life would have been had you just done x instead of y. When you have a child that really is just like you, you see the potential to fix those things. You know how the story can unfold if you simply steer your child the way you know will work.
Except that doesn’t work at all. If you were strong-willed enough to demand doing it your way, chances are he will be as well. And unless you are willing to employ extreme measures, you simply cannot make a child like that do what you want.
You can bet your ass I tried, though. Our biggest battles always came over school, over homework and grades. I completely squandered my bright mind and I was determined to see him do better. I threatened, I cajoled, I tried everything, but he didn’t like school any more than I did. The more I tried to force him into doing it my way the more he rebelled. We were locked in an epic battle of wills, both determined to win at all costs.
Until it hit me like a ton of bricks: what I was doing to him was what I had absolutely despised being done to me, and how much of an asshole did that make me? I was making his life miserable, both our lives, “for his own good.” I knew how far I had been willing to go to prove you’re not the boss of me. I expected nothing less from him.
I decided I didn’t want to live like that. I didn’t want to be that kind of parent. So I did the hardest thing – I threw my hands up in the air and let go of the reins. It was far more important to me that he be happy than me be in charge.
I was never one for a lot of rules, but I decided to whittle the list even more. The rules for his teen years were:
- I will trust you 100% so long as you don’t show me wrong.
- Do not lie to me, especially about where you will be going.
- I don’t care if you smoke pot. I do care if you do chemicals or smoke cigarettes.
- Do not ever drink and drive, or ride with a drunk.
- You have to stay in school until the law says you can quit.
- You get locked up for something stupid, your ass is staying there.
And that was it. Benevolent neglect at its finest.
But here’s the thing – it absolutely worked. With so few rules there was very little to fight about. Every time something came up that needed to be addressed I asked myself how I would have wanted my mom to handle it – and then I handled it that exact way, no matter how I tried to talk myself out of it.
Of course this approach isn’t going to work for all kids, nor will it even work for all rebellious kids. But some kids come out of the gate determined to captain their own lives. If they are bright, capable kids without a lot of emotional baggage you’re both going to be better off if you let them start as soon as possible.
Which will always, always be before you are ready.