Q: While exploring your Web site, I ran across a column you wrote a while back about a 13-year-old boy who wanted a Mohawk haircut. You told the parents not to allow it, pointing out that if you give most teenagers an inch, they are eventually going to push for a mile. I think it’s generally wise for parents to say yes to small things so that it really means something when they have to say no. Doesn’t choosing one’s battles carefully reduce the likelihood of rebellion?
A: You’ve made a good point, which is that parental micromanagement can lead to rebellion—but the operative word is can; as opposed to will. I have lost count of the number of times I have used this column to rail against that parenting style, which seems to be everywhere these days.
But micromanagement is much more than simply saying no three times. Micromanagement is an ongoing pattern of protecting a child from experiencing the consequences of his own decisions or potential decisions; it is the effort to prevent a child from making mistakes that will not threaten his or her health; and it is making discretionary decisions for a child, such as his or her recreational choices.
But definitely it is not micromanagement to insist that a child properly reflect his parents’ values in his behavior, appearance, and social choices. That is part and parcel of the proper discipline of a child.
A Mohawk may, in certain family circumstances, reflect parental values. So be it. However, concerning the question to which you refer, it clearly did not reflect these parents’ values. It would have reflected a contrary, even rebellious, attitude toward those values. That is precisely why the parents were seeking my advice.
Parents should not say yes to rebellious things, even if the child in question is not and never has been rebellious. I have heard too many parents say, with great regret, that shortly after giving a non-rebellious child permission to acquire some rebellious symbol—such as a T-shirt emblazoned with a disrespectful message, sexually provocative clothing, a peculiar haircut, abnormal hair coloring, punk or goth clothing, a tattoo, body piercing, or an earlobe thingamajig—things began to go downhill very rapidly.
The rebellious symbol attracts the attention of rebellious kids, who encourage other rebellious behaviors on the part of the previously non-rebellious kid, who begins to want the approval of the rebellious kids, which he can obtain only by beginning to act in increasingly rebellious ways, and pretty soon everyone is shaking their heads and asking what in the world happened to this child who had been so cooperative!
Today’s parents often cite two nouveau adages—“choose your battles carefully” and “don’t sweat the small stuff”—as rationales for not saying no to certain requests. What they do not seem to realize is that almost all of the big stuff begins as small stuff. A relatively small act of defiance, overlooked, blossoms into full-blown rebellion within three months, for example.
That is precisely why I tell parents that when it comes to teenagers, the three most applicable adages are “give ’em an inch and they will take a mile,” “nip it in the bud,” and “better safe than sorry.”
Those are very old-fashioned adages, which prompts a fourth adage: There is nothing new under the sun.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For more information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.