One hundred percent of the parents I know want to be as sure as they can that their children have what they need to get by in the world. There’s a lot of variation in what each parent believes their children need, but that underlying commitment is the same.
Where it can get challenging is in the delivery. To many parents, it seems as though children don’t want what they and other adults have to offer. Young people argue with us about how things are, or they refuse to go along with what we suggest, or they seem to ignore our input.
I think about this a lot because these are fairly common complaints among the families I work with. This week I heard it from one parent who wants her child to be more careful checking her school work. “I’m trying to get her to care,” the mom told me. Another parent tried to explain to her son that when the worker at the post office asked him a question and he didn’t answer, it may have been perceived as rude. “He just argued with me,” she told me. “I know that social situations are not easy for him, so I want to let him know what’s expected.”
This morning I caught myself grappling with a similar situation but sort of in reverse (because I was trying to offer some input to my father, rather than receiving some from him). My dad will be selling his house soon, because he’s no longer able to live alone. As the day grows nearer when we will get to work at cleaning out Dad’s house, he gets more concerned that we are going to throw away all of his stuff. He’s been explaining to me that what he plans to do is put it all in boxes and label the boxes carefully, and that he doesn’t need to get rid of anything. I think he actually realizes that he will need very little of what’s there, but I think I understand why he’s talking about it this way. He’s uneasy about not having a house anymore, and uneasy about what his next living situation will be. And probably also generally uneasy about the later stages of life. Certainly he is uneasy about being dependent on his children.
I also know, though, that he has told us for years that he doesn’t want so much stuff, and would like to live in a much smaller place when he leaves his house, and with much less stuff. So it’s pretty clear to me that his general commitment (less stuff, more simplicity) is clashing with his nerves about what’s changing. It happens that I’ve been reading about less stuff and more simplicity because my own house is more cluttered than I would like. One of the books I’ve read, by the wildly popular tidying guru Marie Kondo, writes about giving attention to the things you want to keep rather than the ones you are discarding. This gave me the idea that for my dad, it might be worth thinking through which things he has really missed in past several weeks (when he’s been away from the house). He has had the unusual opportunity to find out what he does and doesn’t notice the absence of.
As soon as I had the idea to propose this to him, I felt a pang of anxiety. I imagined that he would probably not want to hear about it – would probably see my suggestion as a ploy to get him to throw things away. He would probably tell me he’d already sorted through everything and there wasn’t anything left that he didn’t need or want. I could imagine getting defensive myself and being tempted to try to exclaim things which, while possibly true, would likely just agitate him more.
When I find myself anxious about a conversation like this in which I am planning to have in which I try to offer something to someone else, I get tempted to decide not to have it after all. It would be so much easier to not talk about the thing. What I have been trying to remember to do is check with myself in order to find out if the source of my anxiety is that I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get the response that I want. If I need for the conversation to go a particular way, if I need for the person to respond a particular way, I’m setting myself up for resentment and disappointment.
As it turned out, I was indeed setting myself up for this in this case. I was nervous because I wanted the conversation to go something like this:
Me: Dad, I was thinking, what if you…
Dad: Oh, OK. That sounds much better than the way I’ve been thinking about it. I’m going to make a list right now of things I think I really want and need to keep, and then we should just get rid of the rest.
I’m exaggerating for the sake of illustration. That would have been my ideal outcome. I also wouldn’t have minded something like the following as an indication of success:
Me: Dad, I was thinking, what if you…
Dad: Yeah, I guess that makes sense. I’ll think about it.
What I was worried about was that it might go more like this:
Me: Dad, I was thinking, what if you…
Dad (interrupting me somewhere in the course of it): I’m not going to just get rid of things because it’s more convenient for you. I can fit most of what’s there at the house into… (and on like that with no acknowledgment of the content of what I’ve said)
If it went that way, it would feel like a failure, like I hadn’t done a good job proposing what I was proposing, or I’d chosen the wrong moment to bring it up, or he’d been a jerk about it, and it would have been a waste of time. A failure.
But all of that is about my interpretation of his response. If I were right that each of these outcomes meant whatever I thought it meant (success or failure), then indeed it would be a failure if I got the third outcome. On the other hand, I could be wrong. I have had enough conversations like this one – in which I suggest something and am met with a snarly response only to later discover that my suggestion was taken to heart in some way (likely not exactly the way I’d intended, but still taken) – to know that the way a person responds to something in the moment it’s offered is not a reliable predictor of how they will use the information or content of the conversation once it is over. Especially if the person doing the offering (in this case me) is doing the predicting! It’s easy to be attached to how a person responds to an offering and to let it prevent you from doing it at all, or make you wish you hadn’t bothered. But if you can get good at checking to make sure that it’s the content of the offering that you really care about, and not whether or not you get a good grateful gracious response, then it gets less scary to approach people with sensitive suggestions or recommendations.
I talked about this with the mom who had tried to explain to her son how his silence at the post office may have been received. She and I were able to find a few examples of situations in which she’d talked with her son about his interactions with others and responded really defensively and angrily, but then later showed in some way that he’d heard her and used what she’d suggested in navigating a subsequent situation. His response in the moment wasn’t necessarily an indication of whether or not he’d heard or appreciated or taken to heart what she’d said. If she could manage her own expectations going into the conversation, she could continue to offer him information and suggestion that he might want and be able to use.
We put together a two-pronged strategy for situations in which she wanted to offer advice or counsel to her son. The first prong was that she would, before making a suggestion about something, remind herself that how he reacted in the moment would likely depend on many factors other than simply the content of what she said. He may respond angrily or in a grouchy manner, giving the impression that he was rejecting the content of her suggestion when other factors might be driving the response entirely or in part. (Maybe the suggestion took him by surprise, or he was especially tired or still upset about something else that happened earlier in the day.) If she felt that it would still be worth it, in case the suggestion planted itself for him in some way regardless of how he reacted, then she would proceed.
She also decided to set aside time with him for such suggestions and wait for the go-ahead from him to offer them, rather than bringing them up in a way that might feel sudden to him. We talked about how sometimes it can feel blindsiding and invoke defensiveness to be confronted with something about your own behavior or choices when you don’t realize it’s about to happen, and it makes it much more difficult to take it in even if it’s information you’d really like to have. So she planned to set aside time when things were relatively calm and peaceful between her and her son, and let him know that she had some feedback for him if he wanted it. If he was up for receiving it then, they’d talk about it, and if he wasn’t, she’d offer again another time.
I decided on a similar plan for future conversations with my dad, (and other family members and adults!). With adults I think we’re more likely to ask for the go-ahead before offering advice or other input, so that part is likely easier adult-to-adult than adult-to-child, but the piece about releasing attachment to a particular response and recognizing the limits of our ability to know how something has been received by another person is no different between adults than between adult and child.
This inquiry reminded me of Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s timeless book on talking with kids. Here’s a link.