I talked to a father, Martin, who was having terrible problems with the behavior of his teenage daughter, Mariah, who was being rebellious, refusing to do her chores, missing days of school, withdrawing into her room instead of interacting with the family, and getting increasingly bad grades—to name just a few problems.
I asked what he was doing so far, and it became obvious that he was doing nothing to teach her, only spoiling her so that he didn’t have to face her disapproval—a common approach by many parents. She had her own new car and smart phone—who doesn’t? She did what she wanted all day, and nobody ever reined her in or taught her what would lead to a happy life.
Knowing that Martin was a physician, I said, “Wouldn’t pretty much all of your patients like you—and be happy most of the time—if you simply prescribed morphine and ice cream for everybody?”
After only a brief pause, he said, “Yes, I suppose they would.”
“But you don’t do that, do you?”
“Because I wouldn’t be treating the real problem, only the symptoms.”
“But you do that with your daughter—morphine and ice cream.”
Long pause. “Dang, you’re right. I’m such a coward.”
“Yes, actually, you are. You’re afraid of your own daughter. You’re so afraid of her disapproval that you’re not loving and teaching her at all. No teaching, and what you call love is just indulgence, which creates her feelings of entitlement. The short version is that you’re letting her parent herself, and she’s doing a lousy job, while you just watch.”
Martin didn’t like what he heard, but he listened. He began to love and teach Mariah, and it was only natural that at first she resisted fiercely, because—after all—he was suddenly changing the rules and interfering with her entitlement. When she refused to change her behavior, Martin followed the guidance I gave him, and each time she was irresponsible or gave him attitude, he imposed consequences—loss of smart phone, loss of car, loss of freedom to go wherever she wanted, and even one interaction with law enforcement authorities because of her truancy at school. During this entire process, Martin got the love he needed for himself, so that he didn’t get fearful or impatient with Mariah.
It took a lot of faith, courage, and effort, but Mariah began to realize that her self-parenting hadn’t been working. She accepted the love and guidance of her father, and then she became happier, her grades improved dramatically, and her other behaviors changed. Gradually, her privileges were returned, and one day—almost beyond belief—she brought her smart phone to her father and asked him to keep it for a few days, because, in her words, “It’s distracting me. I’m not getting anything done, and I’m feeling anxious the more time I spend on it.”
Children need to be loved and taught, not entertained or indulged. They need more than morphine and ice cream. They need real parents.
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