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On Being an Incompetent Parent

It’s 10 o’clock at night. We’ve put the younger children to bed. My husband, too, is already asleep. I peek in at my 13-year-old son—and see the glow of his Kindle peeking over the top of the bed covers.

“Mom?” he says, looking up. “Can I talk to you?”

What follows is an hour-long discussion of the latest social drama at middle school, lots of he-said, she-said, confusion and angst. As he rattles on, I find myself stumped. It feels obvious to me, from my middle-aged perch, that he should have handled things differently. I worry that he’s making a muddle of at least one friendship.

But should I tell him so? Or should I keep my mouth shut and let him figure things out for himself?

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Maybe a little of both, says Jody McVittie, the executive director of Sound Discipline, a Seattle nonprofit that advises schools on a comprehensive approach to classroom discipline, and a lead trainer for the Positive Discipline Association.

“Our tendency,” she says, “is to want to rescue him and tell him how to do it.”

Well, of course—I have three decades more experience than he does.

“Instead…. Become not-so-competent,” McVittie says.

Huh?

Wendy Mogel, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and author, most recently, of The Blessing of a B Minus, agrees. “If you give a lot of advice, this means you are telling your child, ‘You do not have enough competency to handle this on your own.’”

In other words, I guess I am supposed to let him start to navigate his own path, mistakes and all.

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“Solving the problem for them,” Mogel says, “is short-circuiting one of the absolutely essential tasks of middle school: learning social navigation when the hormones are swarming around your body, the social groups form and reform daily and the mode of social communication is crude and primitive.”

There are other reasons well-meaning parents might want to delve in, as well, Mogel says. Maybe we’ve been running around all day, working, managing the household, and now we see—our child is in pain. We see a chance to connect, while helping out as well.

But offering teens solutions to their social problems, she says, “is very similar to doing all their homework for them.”

I just can’t sit there, though, like the Mona Lisa, an enigmatic smile on my face, as he moans on about his troubles. McVittie advises trying this: “Say, ‘Hey, this sounds pretty awful. What’s your plan? What would you like to do about it?’” If he says he doesn’t know, she says, follow up with: “Would you like some suggestions, or would a hug help?”

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Having tried this myself since talking to McVittie, I can tell you her next observation is spot-on: “Often, he’ll say, ‘No,’ but 15 minutes later he’ll come back, and you can try offering your thoughts.” This, my friends, turns out to be the great moment I hoped for at the beginning of the conversation. He actually wants to hear what I have to say.

Now I just have to remember: Give advice, not solutions. Ultimately, it’s his life to live.

“Your job,” McVittie says, “is just to listen and relate.”

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