I witnessed recently a relationship between a parent and a child that caused me to reflect on lessons I continue to learn about parenting.
I am the father of four children. They now range in age from 5 to 25 years. I will state up front that I do not claim to be an expert on parenting nor anything more than a person who continues to strive to learn more and be better everyday at things that are important to me in my life.
The relationship that I witnessed reminded me of myself particularly as I remember how I interacted with my eldest when he was young.
I watched as this father and his teenage step-son played out a very typical interplay of control. The step-father, with best intentions, I know, wanted to better the young man with suggestions, mostly in a forceful manner, about how to act, how to look, and how to be constantly. The son’s reactions were consistently disrespectful with an abhorrence for authority.
The specifics of the interactions aren’t necessarily important as each parent/child relationship has its own unique details.
What occurred to me is that there was a basic lack of respect on both sides. Many of the communications from the father were made in public with an overtone of ‘you are not good enough.’ The son’s mostly silent reaction was to grit his teeth, grunt in reply, and usually comply. On the surface, it would seem to most that the child should show respect because the parent is the parent. “Respect your elders” is a very common default to base a relationship upon. Unfortunately, that is not always, in fact from my observation very seldom, the way relationships work these days. Even if a child shows respect on the outside, many seethe inside while putting on a stoic facade.
Every parent, in fact every person, has boundaries that we learn to live with or perhaps put up with. More specifically, in the case of a parent, we set the boundaries of what behavior we are willing to accept before we react to correct or stop it. I am not suggesting that boundaries are unimportant or need to be established and maintained.
With that in mind, my entire post here is about the approach to a relationship rather than the details of those boundaries.
The dynamic between two people is the combination of understanding that each person brings to the relationship. Thus the only way to alter a dynamic is adjust the understanding of one or both of the people. If the dynamic is not working, then something needs to change and likely not just raising the volume on one side.
It might be easy to say that a young person should just learn to be respectful in response to the comments and insistence of a parent because that is the way it should be and the parent knows best. And the next thought might be that if the child just learned to behave or comply, the parent would not have to treat them this way. However, my opinion is that a parent has much higher likelihood at this point in their life to have a shift of understanding.
I do not believe it is possible to force another to alter their understanding, however I believe that it can be inspired and shown through example.
What I wish I knew years ago was that my insistence on a change of behavior in order to create a change in understanding was doomed to failure. What I understand now is that if I approach someone with respect (while still creating and living within my limits of what I will tolerate in behavior), I maximize the likelihood of inspiring a change in understanding.
Specifically, my suggestion to this parent would be that he treat the young person with respect rather than command. It certainly is not a guarantee that the child will alter his behavior, but perhaps the one thing they will learn is how to respect another person by example.
And that I think is more important than any surface behavior that might be demanded.