Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

Children Of Today And Their Struggle For Power - Part II

The intellectual child gains power by thinking through issues prior to presentation and having firm arguments ready ahead of time. These children are resourceful, intelligent, logical and, more often than not, outwardly respectful towards their parents as they proceed to find chinks in the armor of their parents' values. Let's look at an example to clarify.

At fourteen, Sue wanted to start dating. Her parents had already told her, however, that she had to be sixteen, so she began gathering information with which she could plead her case. She discovered that her parents had gone behind their parents backs and dated at age 15. She knew that half her peers were allowed to go out if they went in a group. She learned that many kids at her school went out alone with a boy at age fifteen. She looked up movie schedules, and found movies that she knew would be acceptable to her parents and which began almost immediately after school on Fridays, so she could argue that she'd be home early, without them worrying. Armed with her information, she scheduled a time to speak to her parents and presented her case. When she finished, she suggested that they take a few weeks to think about it. Maybe they could move slowly and she could begin going out to the "after-school movies" on Fridays with a group of kids when she was fourteen and a half, then at fifteen she could go alone with a boy. When her parents began to argue that fourteen and fifteen were too young, Sue calmly reminded her parents that they had begun dating (albeit behind their parents' backs) at age 15, and that she wasn't interested in sneaking around, she was asking permission. She urged them to express their concerns, that she'd be happy to hear what they were, and perhaps she could put them to rest. By the time Sue was finished with this initial "meeting" her parents had already agreed to let her begin going out with a group to the Friday movies. They didn't even take the two weeks to think about it.

This type of child is to be admired in many respects. Their logic is often flawless and the degree to which they've researched their arguments is admirable. Here's the problem: when parents back down on a limit that has been carefully considered and which is based on solid values, the child winds up thinking that they're smarter than their parents. Often they develop a sense of disdain, and may privately roll their eyes when talking to friends about their parents, saying "I can talk my parents into anything." This attitude is indicative of a child who has too much power.

So what could Sue's parents have done? How do parents of "intellectuals" avoid setting arbitrary limits, maintain a respectful attitude towards their child's intelligence and still send a strong, clear signal about values?

First, it's always a good idea for parents to take time to think about any proposal a child makes. A week or two can give parents enough time to consider the following questions:

* Is this an arbitrary rule or is it based on a value that we can clearly communicate?

* What were our reasons for setting this limit to begin with?

* Is there a middle ground that doesn't compromise our values?

Let's say that Sue's parents had asked themselves these questions, and decided that setting an age of sixteen was arbitrary. How can they show Sue that they're not backing down on a value? They might say: "We've given it a lot of thought, and we admire your ability to do some research about this. It shows that it's important to you. In thinking it over, it became clear that we had made an arbitrary decision about what age was appropriate for dating, and we hadn't taken into consideration that you might be mature enough to handle this at an earlier age. Our decision really wasn't based on one of our values, it was more for protective reasons, and it's become clear that you're mature enough not to need that kind of protection. So, we've decided ..."

The message to the child is that the parents still have the power. They make the decisions, and yet are willing to hear what Sue has to say and take that into account as well. It's clear that they will reconsider when they discover that values really aren't involved.

But what if values are involved? What if Sue's parents feel that at age 15 sexual feelings come up that kids aren't ready to handle. What if they wish they'd even given themselves more time before being alone together in situations which required a more mature capacity to communicate? If this is the case, they might say: "Because we could tell how important this is to you we gave it a lot of thought. We wanted to be sure that we weren't creating some sort of arbitrary rule, and that our decision was based on some clear values. Our concern is that when teens date at age 14 or 15, they may not be ready to handle the kind of sexual feelings which invariably arise. It can be confusing when you're enjoying a boy's attention, when you suddenly feel more grown-up, and then he asks you to have sex with him. We want to postpone your dating so that we can talk about this with you before you're put into that kind of situation. Let's make this a part of a monthly discussion as a family, and we'll re-look at our decision in another six months." When parents can clearly state the reasons behind their limits and encourage on-going discussion, as well as communicate that the decision will be revisited within a reasonable amount of time, it helps children understand their parent's values, lets them know that their parents are still in charge, and also discourages rebellion.


Children Of Today And Their Struggle For Power - Part I