Q: Our 13-year-old daughter told us she wants to be like everyone else, even if that means doing the wrong things. She gets as close to trouble as possible, and lots of times goes head on into it. We let her “hang herself” and then suffer the consequences, which are not pleasant. We see a very turbulent future ahead for her. Any advice?
A:Your daughter sounds very much like a certain headstrong teenager I once knew who, although reasonably intelligent, seemed determined to make stupid decisions— mostly because he, too, wanted to be accepted by his peers. He eventually straightened himself out (with the able assistance of a few college professors, and later, a wife) and managed to become a respected (if controversial) parenting pundit. Like your daughter, said young man had to learn his lessons the hard way.
That turbulent time in my life taught me several things that have proven valuable in my career: First, good parenting does not guarantee that a child will make good decisions. And the fact that a child makes bad decisions, even lots of them, does not mean the parents have done anything wrong. Free will is both a blessing and a curse.
Second, there comes a time when some parents need to accept that they’ve done all they possibly can to help their kids learn that happiness and responsible behavior go hand in hand. They need to accept the fact that they are not the appointed agents of change in their kids’ lives; that those agents may not show up until their kids are well into their adult years. The older I get, the more convinced I become that something one might call Fate is active in each of our lives.
The third lesson is what I call the “keep on keepin’ on principle”: if a child does the wrong thing and the parents do the right thing (which it sounds like you most certainly are), and the child willfully keeps right on doing the wrong thing (like your daughter), the parents should simply keep on doing the right thing, even though it seems to be having no effect.
I suggest that you have a defining conversation with your daughter. Tell her you understand her desire to be accepted. Unfortunately, she’s decided on the wrong people, and she ends up doing wrong things. Therefore, you are forced to punish her.
Say, “You’re much too young to understand this, but we punish you because we love you. It would be irresponsible of us not to punish you when you misbehave. You probably know other kids who have that kind of irresponsible parents. You’re trying to be like their kids. We are not going to be like their parents. So when you misbehave, we’re going to take away your freedom. That’s what will happen if you misbehave when you’re an adult, and we’re trying to help you learn that lesson now, not later.”
The purpose of this one-sided conversation is not to change her thinking, because you probably can’t right now. It’s to put your cards on the table so she knows you’re going to be purposeful for as long as it takes.
There will likely come a time— maybe next year, maybe years from now—when your daughter will tell you she finally understands and appreciates what you’re doing. Until then, just keep on keepin’ on.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.