I wrote last week about the value of humor and today I was going to write specifically about sarcasm. But as I wrote, I had lots of thoughts I wanted to unpack with more thoroughness, so I'm going to wait for a week or two and talk about something else that's been on my mind lately.
The other day I was in the kitchen and heard a horrendous shriek. My 5 year old came running in screaming at the top of his lungs. When he was able to calm down long enough to be verbal again, he showed me a very minor abrasion on his knee. It was not a big deal, although I knew it stung badly.
So, I freaked out, too. I screamed and cried and assured him that he was right--it was a terrible wound and he was in imminent danger. So, we screamed and cried and freaked out together, each pushing the other to a more fevered, frenzied state.
Of course I'm joking.
I calmly told him it was okay, that he'd be fine and that it would stop hurting soon. I told him it wasn't serious. I put some antibiotic ointment on it, slapped a band-aid over the scrape and sent him back out to play.
I wrote a few weeks ago about being the shelter in emotional storms of adolescence. You can read that here, if you like.
Those suggestions were applicable to all kinds of emotional dramas, but I want to deal with one aspect of that a little more specifically.
Adolescence is a time of heightened emotion. Adolescents tend to experience the world via very strong feelings. They aren't just tired, they are exhausted. They aren't just mad, they are furious. They aren't just hurt, they are devastated. Emotionally, they are very much like my 5 year old in the anecdote above--the reaction is usually disproportionate to the severity of the situation. These situations might include problems with peers, grades, disappointments or setbacks in the things they like to do (eg dance, sports, theatre, whatever) and so on. They are the emotional analogues of a scraped knee in that they sting but won't have long-term effects.
Over my teaching career, I've found that there are many different kinds of parents and styles, as varied and unique as the personalities of the parents themselves. All of us--parents, teachers and students alike--are imperfect and flawed. We all make mistakes and have imperfect approaches and styles.
That being said, I've concluded that all mistakes are not equal. I have found, in my own classroom, that I can err on the side of harshness or mercy. I nearly always regret when I err on the side of harshness and very rarely regret erring on the side of mercy because the consequences of making a mistake are far less serious and damaging.
On that idea, then--that you should choose carefully which mistakes you are going to make--let me talk about one three parenting styles I have observed.
Parents in the first group are what I call emotional arsonists. They start drama like an arsonist starts fires. Other parents, teachers, their child's classmates--everyone and every situation is potential kindling just waiting for gasoline and a match. They pick fights, cause controversy and escalate natural, minor disagreements or conflicts into bonfires. Happily, they are fairly rare and they are so obvious that most people tend to avoid them.
If every teacher is out to get your child, if no coach ever gives them their due, if all the other kids are mean, then you might want to consider carefully if you are an emotional arsonist. I'm not saying that some kids aren't picked on unfairly, or that every teacher is just and virtuous, and kind. But I am saying that if it's always you and/or your child against the world, you may want to give some deep thought to how you are engaging the world. The odds that everyone you or your child meets is a mean and a bully are not impossible, but they are small.
But there's another approach which I think is perhaps more pernicious because it's more subtle. This group doesn't start the fires, but they are right there when it happens shining a spotlight on it. They get involved and drawn into the drama, living it along with their children in heightened terms. This could involve social problems, conflicts with a teacher or coach, general disappointment in life--whatever it is. They are like those morbid reporters who, when a disaster strikes, are there 24/7, priding themselves on never leaving the scene. They lack objectivity and detachment, though, and end up getting so drawn in that they make some kind of faux pas as a result--at the very least being insensitive or far too close to the situation. I call these spotlight parents. They may not start the fires, but they shine the light on them for all to see.
I think most of us have this tendency in us and I think most parents fall somewhere in a continuum inside this group. I know I do. It's natural, when you love your child to want to run to them when they are hurt, to suffer along with them and so on. And, the reality is that you do suffer. When your child is hurting, most parents feel that same hurt plus more. So it's easy to be drawn into this.
These parents do with drama what I did not really do with my son's scraped knee--they overreact and freak out, stir things up and make things worse instead of projecting calm and sending the message that this really is not a big deal.
Here's a warning sign, and it's one I will admit to experiencing. If you react emotionally to your child's peers or teachers, if you end up reacting on a vsiceral, as opposed to a rational, basis, you might be a spotlight parent. If you talk, weeks later, about drama that happened some time ago, you might be a spotlight parent. Notice I say "might." There's a fine line between loving and protecting your child, and going too far. But it is a very fine line.
I have known other parents who are exactly the opposite. This is a fairly small group, unfortunately. They are like shock absorbers for drama. They don't seek it out and don't stir it up. They don't talk about it if they are involved. It goes no further than them. They see their children not as heroes in a melodrama, but as imperfect actors in an ensemble of equally imperfect actors. They see two sides of adolescent conflicts. They don't hold grudges (or at least don't act on them). They talk to the teacher before getting mad. They can grant good intentions and good faith even when disagreeing. They don't really worry if their kid doesn't get the game ball or the leading role (although they enjoy it when they do). It just doesn't upset their equilibrium or rock their boat.
Essentially, they do with emotional situations what I did with my 5 year old's scraped knee. They use their life experience and more developed rational capacity to say, "It's going to be okay. Calm down. I know it hurts, but it will be fine very soon."
It can be very difficult to do this when you are the parent because it requires a level of detached rationality that many of us do not naturally possess. It's easier to be calm with my 5 year old because I'm not hurting, too. But when someone hurts my adolescent's feelings--I am hurting too.
And so we get to the idea of habits and self-discipline. Of learning to act a certain way in specific situations, of not getting drawn in. Of being a bit detached and thinking before we act. This is, I'm convinced, a skill that can be learned.
Is there a risk with this? Yes, I think there is. It's possible that the shock absorber parents may not always be empathetic enough, I suppose. As a parent I worry that I might not be loving or nurturing enough.
As a teacher, though, I think I have a different perspective and I really believe that, if you have to err, this is the side on which you want that error to occur.
In my experience, the children of the shock absorber parents are much better adjusted, more confident, more resilient, confident, and have more friends. They seem much happier to me. As an aside, the shock absorber parents tend to be happier and are more well-liked than the spotlight parents.
The children of the spotlight parents tend to be much less secure, more dependent, and usually struggle quite a bit and are less happy. This varies quite a bit depending on the intensity of the spotlight behaviors. But the more engaged on an emotional level the parent is, the less happy the child usually is.
The fire starter's children are usually totally messed up. Friendless, very dependent, and quite unhappy.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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