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