First, my four sons are growing older and my boundaries and authority are wearing thin. And, I want them to develop a healthy sense of autonomy too. But now others are asking me for advice on managing their adolescent rebels and rogues too!
Ironically, people are at their wits’ end saying no to adults as well. Spouses, friends or coworkers who fit the category of “adult adolescents”! There seems to be a certain “self-awareness” and “other awareness” latent in many of us, even beyond our 20s.
Overall, I’m finding that saying “no” only breeds more “no’s” from others. This is a problem for people who, like me, have used “no” to manage children through the younger years. “Because I said so,” and “no means no,” have lost their effect and I have had to move to more ninja parenting skills.
I find that I save my self a lot of trouble when I simply find other language to say “no” or better yet… when I simply absolve myself of responsibility by saying neither, when I don’t really need to.”
7 Best Practices
Boundaries, but not walls
Assess where “you” stop and where “others” start. Psychologists call this differentiation. What are your roles, responsibilities, and expectations… for yourself and for others? Can you anticipate how others perceive these boundaries? Are you able to express when there is disagreement or when boundaries are crossed?
These are all helpful practices for yourself and to teach to your children. It is okay to assert your expectations on others. Just remember that others may use their boundaries to say “no” to you too!
Setting boundaries is not building walls however. Don’t be that person that is so psychologically “Zen” that we can’t even get to you! Just as it is healthy to be self-asserting at times, it is also healthy to be self-limiting at times too. The key is being aware of motivations and limits. Boundaries are good. Isolation is… not so much.
At times, leveraging rewards is your quickest and shortest path to success. This is the proverbial “carrot at the end of the stick” and yes, it is pure manipulation.
I can motivate my children (and some adults) by pure reward. “You can watch TV, but I’d like for you’re to help me finish the dishes and sort your laundry first please.” I avoid words like “if you don’t… you need to… or, you have to,” and I prefer words like, “I would like you to… would you please… etc.”
This language reinforces the difference between my self and their self and invites them into relationship with responsibilities. It avoids controlling and using power as a means.
The key again is motivation. If you can be enthusiastic and respectful of their autonomy, this can be very healthy. If your motivations are hidden or driven by laziness and lack of creativity, the bi-product will likely be unhelpful.
Freedom… Connecting choices and outcomes
This has been one of the most helpful techniques for our family. Often, when I want to say “no,” I say instead, “you absolutely can do that, but I think you should consider the outcomes.”
This can be gentle—You can have another snack now, but you probably won’t be hungry for dinner and then I’ll be frustrated that I worked so hard for dinner and you didn’t join us in eating it. And it can also be tough—I would rather not drive you to the movies because you spoke to me so disrespectful after school. It appeals to reason and encourages goodwill.
This often opens up multiple options forward… one might realize how their behavior has affected their relationship with you and even apologize. It can quickly become a “win-win,” but only if done freely from the heart, not out of obligation or control.
Creating a larger culture
We have moved internationally twice in the last several years. In each place there is a unique culture within which our children have to find their fit. Each time we’ve tried to reinforce our family culture too. It is tough when others at school (or work) have different values than us (language, attitudes, behaviors, etc). Knowing where their values stop and our values start is also a healthy form of differentiation.
In this case, flexibility requires a critical inner confidence. A part of the evolution from adolescent to adult is being able to shift appropriately when the context changes. Norms at home, at school, or in public, require different language, respect, and responsibilities. We can reinforce a deeper culture of values to help others interpret and understand the world around them.
Nothing is probably more dangerous to our society today than lack of commitment to others. Our world is one of extreme individualism. Ironically, people are selfish, but suffer from a healthy sense of self-awareness (i.e. a healthy sense of identity and self understanding). But, we’re also in a crisis of “others awareness.”
Our attitudes and actions affect others like the sun, rain, and soil affect a plant! A lack of empathy (awareness and concern for others) is the root cause of much mental illness today. It is healthy for children and adults to invest their “yes’s” for the well-being of others.
Being a part of a larger Kingdom
Several years ago, I asked another expat living in Europe, “how do you protect your children’s sense of being American when they grow up overseas?” His response was both corrective and priceless, “You don’t need to… bring them up to be citizens of God’s Kingdom and they will be able to live well anywhere on earth.”
If you share my larger spiritual picture, you are more than your nationality, your ethnicity, or even your gender… you are a member and participant in another Kingdom all together!
Appreciative Inquiry and Error attribution
Two broad concepts in behavioral studies are tremendously helpful. Appreciative Inquiry teaches us to avoid “problem-solving” and to focus on strengths and successes as means of growth. As much as possible, we need to avoid focusing on what we can’t and shouldn’t do and invest more in what we can and should be doing. This also shifts motivation from extrinsic (what I want you to do) to intrinsic (what you chose to do).
Error attribution warns us to not over accentual the attribution (blame) of error on the individual when environmental or contextual considerations are actually important factors. Sometimes we are frustrated and puzzled by an individual’s choices. But if we dig deeper, we may find there are other causes motivating their behavior. Children in particular, may be meeting basic emotional needs with confusing behaviors (although some adults are doing the same). Children also have less capacity to understand or articulate their needs, so be careful and be thoughtful!
Don’t be afraid to stay silent
I’m usually scrambling to know how to respond to various demands from my children, friends, family, and parishioners. When all else fails, I remember:
Say yes as often as possible, be willing to say “no” when you must… but always encourage others to make the call themselves if you can!