Recently I heard from one of my friends about the challenge of dealing with a 15-year-old who was using curse words at the rate of two a sentence. My friend, let’s call her Jenny, was very distressed about this, and wanted my help in figuring out how to get this behavior to stop.
This got me thinking. It was evident to me right away that if the same behavior came from her partner, she would have responded differently, and even more differently if this were a neighbor, a co-worker, a supervisor, or a staff person she supervises. What varies, I realized, is the nature of the relationship, not the effect of the behavior itself. In each type of relationship we have some belief about whether or not we have the “right” to expect a behavior change from the other person.
Jenny knows me well, including what to expect of me in terms of my parenting philosophy, so I knew she would be open to hearing my very radical views about parenting. So I shared with her my own memories, from very early on, of how I wanted to raise the children I thought I would have (before deciding at 17 that having children was not for me). I’ve been both blessed and cursed to have vivid and acute memories of what it was like to be a child in a world of adults. I thought then, and I still think now, that no one asks children if they want to be born or if they want to live with the very particular parents they have with their very particular preferences. The whole idea of children “owing” something to their parents never made sense to me. Not as a child, and not even as an adult. And yet I know that most parents have a sense of both responsibility and entitlement to influence their children’s behavior.
When Jenny and her partner chose to move in together, part of that kind of choice usually entails an agreement (hopefully explicit, usually implicit) of fundamental goodwill toward each other, a basic willingness to consider the other’s well-being and adapt accordingly. If something her partner does is not to Jenny’s liking, they both have a context for engaging in dialogue. Within that dialogue I hope, always, that both of them can examine together what’s leading the partner to the behavior that Jenny doesn’t like, and what it is inside Jenny that’s responding the way she does. Together, they can then choose how to proceed: will the partner offer to change the behavior? Will Jenny offer support for that? Will Jenny offer to work with her own response and come to acceptance of the partner’s behavior? Will the partner offer support with that? So long as they are together in this process, they will figure it out, because they hold shared responsibility for their mutual well-being. This is the nature of a working relationship between partners; precisely that fundamental commitment to each other’s well-being.
With her child, such an agreement could never have been secured. Any attempt to create change in a child’s behavior, especially an adolescent who is already the same size as she is, is very likely to be experienced as an intrusion or an attempt to control. Children, by and large, never take on a commitment to support the well-being of their parents as part of living together. As human beings, in a manner entirely similar to adults, children are likely to naturally care about their parents well-being. However, the fundamental expectation, which starts early on, that a child is to do what the adults tell them to do, interferes with the natural flow of generosity and care. By adolescence, the combination of the insistence on independence with regards to emotional needs mixed with the thwarting of autonomy with regards to life choices leaves children with far less access to their essential care and generosity than they might have otherwise. Which is why I suggested to Jenny that she adopt an attitude of gentle exploration with her child rather than an expectation of change. Jenny could approach her child and let him know that this behavior is challenging for her and that she is very open to working on her end of learning to accept it. Then, once he knows she is not about to exert subtle or direct pressure on him in the form of punishment, withdrawal of connection, or reduced access to resources, she can ask him if he has an interest in changing the behavior for his own reasons that have to do with who he wants to be. The spiritual stretch comes when he expressed no interest of his own in changing the behavior. This is quite likely, at least the first few times, if previous interactions have been coercive, however subtly so. I know very well from memory what it’s like to be told that I can do whatever I wanted and then discover silence and anger when I made the choice that was clearly not approved. Jenny can only do this form of parenting justice if she is truly open to stretching on her end to accept her son’s choices.
Children and life partners are not the only people who will do things we don’t like. Since having that conversation with Jenny, I’ve been thinking about the many different contexts in which this happens. Most people tell themselves, for example, that they “have” to put up with unpleasant behaviors from a boss. I know this, because I work with people in organizations, and the idea of offering feedback to a boss is entirely novel to them, even scary. I’ve seen a bewildered I-never-thought-of-this-as-an-option-and-I don’t-think-I want-to look even on top executives’ faces when I suggest they let their boss know of their challenges with the boss’ behavior. Conversely, staff are often in the same position as children, in that their bosses expect them to change behaviors just because they don’t like it, whether the behavior is relevant to job responsibilities or not.
In yet other kinds of relationships people distance themselves or even exit a relationship rather than naming a behavior they don’t like. The commitment to each other’s well-being, or the expectation of it, is not built into many of our relationships, and in its absence we generally either fill it in with our belief that we are entitled to it in the particular relationship, or recede from it when we don’t have such a belief, and remain less strongly connected to the relationship.
I am continuing to think about this. I know I am not done, because the questions and permutations remain many. I am particularly curious to hear others’ experience in this area. I remember hearing from Marshall Rosenberg his experiences in creating imaginary written role-plays during parenting workshops, one with an adult neighbor and one with one’s child, about the same unwanted behavior. Both dialogues would be posted without people knowing who was who, and invariably they all rated the dialogue with an imagined neighbor as more loving than the one done with the child. What would happen if we did a similar exercise in many types of relationships? What would prevent us from being fully loving, open, flexible, and ready to hold our own and others’ needs with care in all of our relationships?