By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose
In my professional and personal life, I have learned that there are only three ways to lead our kids: The Supporter, The Consultant, and The Boss.
The Supporter encourages, give compliments and praise. The Boss gives rewards and punishments. The Consultant gives advice. Of the three, the Consultant is the most difficult.
The art of being the Consultant is always in the delivery. Generally, success with this leadership style is based on how well the parent can deliver the message so that it will be heard. Anyone can tell someone what’s wrong. That’s easy. The hard part is telling someone what’s wrong in a way that they will actually listen, and hopefully make some changes. That is the goal of the Consultant: Deliver the advice in such a way so that it might actually be received and used.
The genius of being tentative lies in the fact that it allows your child to save face. It allows the advice to be their decision, instead of it being your decision. It’s amazing how many times kids will do the opposite of the advice given, just to prove they have a mind of their own. Being tentative increases the chance that they will heed your advice.
Put yourself in their place for a moment, using an adult scenario. Suppose you are in a meeting with your boss. You are planning a presentation that you have to do together. Your boss would like it to be a lecture presentation with a question/answer period at the end. You think it would be better to have some audience interaction during the presentation, such as breaking into small groups.
Your boss says, “I know these people better than you. They are engineers and they hate small group participation. They just want the information so they can get back to work. Small group stuff never works with them.”
How do you feel? Ignored? Angry? Unimportant? Stupid? Frustrated? What is your opinion of your boss at that moment? He’s dismissive, arrogant, a jerk? In this situation, you might be thinking, “Even if he’s right, I’d like to prove him wrong since he thinks he’s such a know-it-all. Why did he want me along if he’s just going to tell me what to do and not listen to my ideas?”
Now, since he’s your boss, you probably won’t defy him. But your opinion of him has decreased, and the relationship is strained. You probably won’t bring up any new ideas out of fear they will be immediately rejected.
How would it feel if, instead, he said: “I’m wondering if it would be better to avoid small group activities? This group might be less interested in small group interaction. What do you think?” By being more tentative, your boss is increasing your participation and valuing your opinion.
These are the same things our kids often feel about direct advice. The difference? They know we can’t fire them. Their sense of independence will lead them to defy us—just to show us who is in charge.
A typical situation I encounter with families is how to get students to spend more time studying for quizzes. A direct approach that might backfire looks like this: “You need to study more. You got a bad grade last time because you didn’t study enough. You need to spend at least another 30 minutes studying.”
For most kids, the minute you say, “You need to,” their response is “No, I don’t.” It’s a normal human reaction. Instead, consider responding tentatively. For instance: “I’m wondering if you studied enough for that quiz. I think I remember that the last time you didn’t get such a great grade. Do you think it would be helpful if you spent more time on it?”
This approach allows for a conversation and will increase the chances that your child will spend more time studying. It becomes their decision instead of your decision.
A refrain I hear from many parents is: “If they would just do what I told them to do, their life would be so much easier. They would have better grades, more free time, and we would get along so much better.” This is all probably true. But from a kid’s perspective, if they did it the way you told them, then they wouldn’t be a human, they would be a robot. Some children’s desire for being an independent person is so strong that they do things that are clearly harmful. But for them, the harm is less important than the desire to be their own person. So, remember: Be tentative. Let your ideas become their ideas.
Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of “Homework—A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org