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|Vertically Challenged - Page 5|
Marlena, by contrast, was anything but obtuse. An attractive young adolescent, she was ruminative, depressed, and increasingly isolated because of her hesitation about joining in on weekend partying. For various reasons, the most important being her learning-temperament, she craved crystal-clear adult authority. For her, the worst kind of opinion was her parents' balanced, approach when she asked for advice on socializing: "Well, it could make you feel better about yourself on one level, or maybe worse, if you hooked up with that boy you just met." This would make her feel they were M.I.A.—like their adult presence was missing—and drive her into a deeper malaise.
Marlena's learning-temperament meant that she had to be approached without any hints of ambiguity. With coaching, her parents learned to be less wishy-washy and say, "Think about this fact: everyone in school is going to know exactly what you did with that boy, every single detail. No question about it, you're going to feel bad afterward because of what you'll hear about yourself!"
Now, instead of retreating for days on end, she became more open, supplying just enough details—who she thought was hot, which romantic triangle or new alliance currently needed attention—for them to guide weekend decisions about drinking and hooking up. Gradually sensitive topics were no longer off-limits to her mother, including the high-risk world of adolescent fun.
How "Disrespect" Strengthens Hierarchy
I've learned, and research shows, that it's often essential in building adult authority that kids have the freedom to disagree disrespectfully—or the rules won't stick. This isn't your mother or father's house. Today's kids feel entitled to air their views, in real-time, no matter what.
Even younger children expect a turn to speak their minds. Take the case of 7-year-old, Emmy, whose mother, Nicole, had tried to tell her the rules of fair play with friends. Emmy wouldn't listen. As she put it to Nicole, "Mom, you need to take me seriously. I have my reasons, too!" Emmy expected her moment on center stage to share her own point of view. And, to her credit, she'd already formulated complex dos and don'ts of second-grade friendship.
If 7-year-olds demand time to disagree, what about teens? Middle-schooler Eric was explosive in school with his English teacher, who, he believed, had graded his last presentation "unfairly" and often ignored him in class. His animosity toward the teacher continued to mount, despite his parents' best efforts—a serious situation, since Eric was nearly flunking several classes.
I worked with Eric's mother, Lindsey, on how to offer realistic guidelines that would leave room for sharp back and forth—even Eric's maddening view that teacher–student relationships should be entirely determined by kids' needs. In their next talk, Mom patiently listened to her son, and, as I suggested, then went back to stating her core belief that growing up meant finding ways to deal with responsible adults: Eric could figure out how to cooperate, or he'd end up in a class next year with kids he didn't like. At first, he left this and similar discussions furious, saying he didn't think any of her approaches would work, and the teacher and his mother were "hopeless." Lindsey wasn't happy with me for outlining a tack that allowed such disrespect.
Several weeks later, however, Eric unexpectedly went ahead with one of Mom's suggestions. He approached his teacher privately to say how unhappy he'd been about not being called on more often. Much to his surprise, the teacher said Eric was right—he'd been upset that Eric openly criticized classmates, and this was why he wasn't calling on him as much.
This change in direction, stemming from Lindsey's ability to restate her beliefs while allowing room for Eric's retorts, transformed the course of the school year. Eric independently approached several other teachers and got a positive response. By the end of the term, he'd moved from a place on the guidance counselors' "watch-list" to being a contender for advanced classes in the next grade. Unexpectedly for Lindsey, Eric began asking her for advice about the difficult territory of girls, and then, of course, arguing with her about her views—a new, if fitful, kind of closeness that Lindsey hadn't imagined possible.