My daughter and I take turns behind the wheel driving south through Virginia on I-81 with my 10-year-old granddaughter in the back. Riding shotgun, Brooke calls home to tell her 13-year-old daughter and husband that we will be arriving tomorrow around noon.
After the mutual exchange of passionate I-can’t-wait-to-see-you’s and it’s-been-so-long’s and I-love-you’s the teenager says: “Can you take me and Elizabeth to the mall tomorrow?”
Without missing a beat or expressing exasperation, she answers, “Well, that was not quite the welcome-home-Mom reunion I was imagining.”
After talking of other things for a while, Brooke concludes the phone call with, “We can talk about the mall when we get home. Meanwhile, work on your sales pitch.”
Several years ago, Brooke explained to me her strategy for handling the endless stream of requests from her kids: “When they ask me for something that I am not sure I want to give or do or allow, I say, ‘I love you. I want to say yes to you. Can you ask me in such a way that I can’t say no?’”
Brooke, a professor of political theory, asks her children to think about others, even when they are thinking about what they want. This includes even thinking of their mother’s feelings (counter-intuitive though that might be for a parent)—like being tired after a 2 day drive, or how she would feel about a person skipping out on a promise or a commitment–like homework.
Now entering adolescence, her children have learned to make what she calls “a combo-offer.” (Her personal favorite is, ”Mom, I have finished my music, emptied the dishwasher, finished my homework, brushed my teeth, can I please fold laundry and watch TV?”)
In both her personal and professional life Brooke is committed to creating societies where everyone’s voice is respected. This means that everyone has the responsibility to voice their wishes in ways that are sensitive to the wishes others. Harmonizing your needs and interests with those of others is, of course, a lifelong challenge. For best results, training in the art and science of creative conflict begins at birth.
The educational value of finding that point of mutuality with someone else is at the heart of a democratic society, too. Waiting until 8th grade to learn civics won’t do the trick.
In her Atlantic article entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. A therapist and mother reports” Lori Gottlieb writes about how parents (some, at least) are preparing their children to be incompetent and unhappy. In the comment section Lois wrote:
YES! My husband gets programmers straight out of school who have all these problems—lack of initiative, entitlement, don’t know how to handle challenges, etc. He can’t hire most of them, because even the most brilliant ones are just too hard to work with.
Responding to my July post on self-determination Andy emailed:
Loved the article. I have also cast sideways glances at my kids as they struggled with something—tight lid, bothersome sibling, tricky puzzle—hoping they would figure it out on their own. In my classroom I ask a lot of questions and offer few solutions. When I teach less, my kids definitely learn more! Thanks for the reminder.”
Lois, Andy and Brooke understand the key thing: whoever does the work gets the benefit. Giving to our kids and solving their problems makes us feel good, virtuous and loving, but it doesn’t strengthen their problem-solving mechanism. This concept—or lack thereof—is at the heart of what seems to be a national problem—a weakening work force and a vulnerable democracy.
Why do affluent American parents treat their kids like royalty? Sure, because they can. They want their kids to be happy. But what are they communicating to the children by acting as if their whims and needs are the most important in the world? Read Lori Gottlieb. The secret of raising responsible kids is saying and believing: “You can handle it.”
In a way, all we have to do is become a little more farsighted. What do our children really need? They need practice thinking creatively and the confidence of knowing they can work problems out with other people and still be friends. This attitude of radical faith in children begins at home in every parent-child interaction. For more on radical faith read Vicki Hoefle’s Duct Tape Parenting.