Or Else What?

Everything I need to know about strong-willed people, I learned from my son Matt.  And a few strong-willed students along the way.  And Cynthia Tobias, who wrote the book You Can’t Make Me, But I Can Be Persuaded, in which she calls strong-willed children SWC’s.  All right, I’ll admit to being a little strong-willed myself,  but I don’t like it when people get mad at me, so I tend to be what I like to call “charmingly manipulative.”

In preparation for teaching a parenting class, I put together a list of techniques which work for me when dealing with a strong will.  All of these are designed to avoid getting into power struggles, those toe-to-toe situations where someone finally has to give in.  I will do all I can to head off a power struggle while at the same time not relinquishing any of my authority (or my dignity).  I try never to communicate “Do it my way or else,” because a strong-willed person will respond with, “. . .or else what?  Bring it on!”

Take a look at the list and practice a couple of them this week – and don’t forget to breathe deeply, lower your voice, and keep your cool:

  • Fear and intimidation will not work on a strong-willed teen (SWT), and she will be happy to prove that to you.
  • Consistency and calm confidence are important.  Your SWT will try to trip you up by pointing out your inconsistencies.
  • Remember your SWT is challenging your authority, but not you personally.  In the same way, you need to communicate that you object to your SWT’s behavior, not to him personally.
  • Stronger consequences will not give you better results.  If you have to repeat the same consequence multiple times, then do so.  Prove that you have more stamina, and that you will be consistent.
  • State your case and the consequences calmly, and let it go.  Do not engage in a war of words; do not demand (or expect) a reasonable response.
  • Walk away when you find yourself getting sucked into a battle of Who Gets the Last Word.  Also walk away when you find your buttons being pushed to the point of an explosion.  If you explode, your SWT wins.
  • Be as proactive as you can, clearly stating expectations before the fact, whenever possible.  For example, “Tomorrow is your cousin’s wedding.  We will all wear nice clothes, which means you’ll need to pick out a shirt with buttons to wear, and no jeans, please.”
  • Always look your SWT in the eye during a conversation, but don’t engage in a staring contest.  Once you’ve stated your case, turn and walk away as if you simply expect to be obeyed or understood.  This will allow both of you to maintain your dignity.
  • Resist the temptation to ask questions that will begin the battle, such as, “What were you thinking?” or “What’s the matter with you?”
  • Don’t be afraid to delay dealing out consequences until you are both calmer.  Say, “I’m too angry to be reasonable right now.  We will talk about this later.”
  • Never forget that your relationship with your SWT is more important than getting your own way.  Compromises or draws can be more beneficial than total victories – which aren’t really victories at all.

Don’t lose sight of the goal, which should never be to prove that you have more power or can intimidate your SWT.   Your goal should be to raise a responsible, self-controlled young adult who treats you – and everyone else – with respect.

Notebook? What Notebook?

“I just can’t understand why he loses his assignments!  I made him that beautiful notebook with all those folders and dividers; all he has to do is put his papers in there!”

I hear this at least two or three times every year, usually about now, because the first report cards have arrived.  There are two big problems with this line of reasoning:
1) It’s the PARENT’S notebook, not the student’s; he had no input on it, so he feels no need to use it, and
2) Not all of us are notebook people.

Notice the pronoun “us” in that last sentence.  When I was in junior and senior high, if a teacher said part of our grade would depend on the condition of our notebook at the end of the quarter, I knew I was toast.  It just took too much time for me to open the darned thing, find the right section, open the rings, place the paper in, close the rings, and close the notebook.  Today’s binders are even more complicated – they have to be unzipped first!  Let’s face it – some of us just aren’t Notebook People.

Cynthia Tobias, expert on learning styles, calls us “Piles and Files” people.  One look at my desk and you will see how much that applies to me.  But ask me for a paper that’s somewhere in that stack, and I can produce it pretty quickly; I know just how deeply it’s buried!

When students move from class to class, they can’t rely on the piles (though I did have a student who tried carrying around his pile of papers and digging through it to find the correct assignment – he wasn’t very successful).   They need a different kind of system to keep track of their handouts and assignments.   I have seen students find success with large, brightly-colored plastic folders, with plastic cartons, and even with a shallow cardboard box.  This year one of the 8th graders is using an old, brown, expandable file given to him by his dad.  It rests on the floor under his desk in his homeroom, and he carries it with him from class to class.  The other day when I needed a class schedule, he whipped one out of his file!

Before you rush out to buy your organizationally-challenged son or daughter a neon green folder or an expandable file, keep this in mind:  in order for him to buy into it, he has to be involved in buying it.  Don’t assume you know what’s best for him; even if you do, he’s not going to appreciate you pushing your own ideas.  Take him along and let him choose whatever appeals to him.   And don’t make the mistake of thinking all of his problems will be solved by whatever system he chooses; he will need to fall back and regroup multiple times before he finds something that works for him (a process that could take years).

If you’re one of the Notebook People, you have my admiration and appreciation.  My co-teacher is one of you, and I rely on him to keep track of papers that I fear I will lose.  Please don’t think of us – the Piles and Files crowd – as suffering from laziness.  We’re just wired differently, and in our minds we’re still organized, even when it doesn’t appear that way.

(And don’t even THINK about touching those piles!)

If It’s Tuesday, I Must Be Dancing

I hear it from parents:  “I’m picking my son up early from basketball practice so I can get him to his piano lesson early so he can still get to his soccer game.”  And I hear it from students:  “Please don’t give us homework tonight!  I have to go to volleyball practice after school, then to my dance practice, and then I have youth group.  And I didn’t get last night’s homework done because right after school I had tae kwon do and then our game went late.”

How much is too much?  And how do parents determine where the breaking point is when they want their kids to learn new skills, make friends, be involved, and belong somewhere (I called it “gang-proofing” my kids)?   This isn’t just a problem for parents of teens; the scheduling nightmare can begin with kids as young as 5 or 6.

I read an article recently that suggested parents let teens be involved in only two major activities, such as one sport and one musical instruction.  Which sounds reasonable, but parents want their kids involved in school sports with their friends, in club sports for the competition, in music lessons for the cultural enrichment, and in church activities for the spiritual growth.

I suggest parents keep their thermometer handy and use it frequently.  Not the mercury-filled one, nor the digital one, nor even the stick-it-in-the-ear one, but the one that’s based on parental intuition and knowledge of their own children.  Parents need to be aware of their teens’ needs for down time as well as their tolerance for stress.  Teens who are pushed – or who push themselves – too hard will get sick and/or be more irritable than usual.  Their grades will slip, and their relationships with friends and family will suffer.  An observant parent will know when to insist on missing a practice, or even when to (strongly) encourage dropping out of something.  This isn’t an easy decision for any of the parties involved, so it’s important to keep the goal in mind:  to do what’s best for your son or daughter’s physical and emotional health.

Some red flags to pay attention to:

  1. A calendar so full of practice schedules and games that important commitments (a cousin’s band concert) or appointments (orthodontist) are forgotten;
  2. Frequent family arguments over whose activities are the most important;
  3. Teens who have neither the energy nor the desire to spend time doing the fun stuff, like friends’ birthday parties.
Learning to juggle one’s activities and priorities is a life skill which teens should learn so they can be smarter about it as adults.  Because very few over-committed, overwhelmed adults will tell you how happy they are with their too-busy lives.