When some of my children were teenagers, they came home from school one day and told me about a big discussion they’d had at lunchtime. Their friends had enumerated all the things their parents did that drove them crazy. They mentioned such parental foibles as refusing to let them choose their own friends and clothes, nagging them about chores and schoolwork, and showing a general lack of trust and respect. My kids said they had nothing to add to this litany of complaints and felt left out because things were different at our house.
I remembered with gratitude a speech I’d heard from Stephen Covey many years before. I’d never forgotten it and tried to live by it. Covey said that in any relationship, but especially with our teenage children, we have a TRC Bank. The currency in this bank is Trust, Respect, and Confidence. As in any other bank, we need to keep the deposits ahead of the withdrawals. Whenever we demonstrate trust in our children, respect their abilities and opinions, and show confidence in their decisions, we make deposits. When we have to rebuke them, criticize them, or even just set limits, we make withdrawals. If we have not made enough deposits to cover those withdrawals, our relationship is overdrawn and on the way to bankruptcy. On the other hand, if we have a healthy balance in this bank, we add to their self-esteem and strengthen our connection.
One summer I worked part-time in the women’s section of a large department store. While there I saw the same scene enacted repeatedly: a mother and her teenage daughter waging a fierce argument over which swimsuit to buy the daughter. Looking at the suits, usually I couldn’t see much difference, even in price. I could understand the objection if the daughters wanted something totally sheer or a string bikini, or if it cost the earth. The argument, however, was usually over taste--the mother’s versus the daughter’s. These mothers were making withdrawals on already shaky accounts over something that was essentially unimportant.
I wanted to shout at them, “For heaven’s sake, she’s going to wear it, not you!” I knew when the girls were forced to submit, they would be resentful every time they wore that blasted swimsuit.
When my own girls wanted to buy swimsuits, I assumed they knew our standards of modesty, recommended what they should spend, and let them do their own shopping. They were capable, intelligent girls, and their taste in clothes differed from mine because the current styles were more important to them. If they did make a mistake and buy something horrible, they soon knew it by the reaction of their peers without my saying a word.
Of course I didn’t teach them to buy clothes that summer. Even in first grade they had definite ideas about what they liked to wear. When we went shopping, I mentioned price and modesty and then let them choose their own clothes.
There are many other ways we make TRC deposits and withdrawals with our kids.
I once heard an example of parents not trusting their son, a 13-year-old seventh grader. Two of the boy’s classmates accused him, as a joke, of threatening them with a knife in English class. The vice principal investigated and was about to call his parents when the teacher said the accusation was ridiculous and nothing had happened. The boy was relieved because he told my son, “My dad never would have believed me. He would have believed those other guys, and I don’t know what he would have done to me.” Whether this was true or not, he believed it. He honestly thought his father had no trust in him.
I’ve been asked, “What about friends? What if your child suddenly takes up with a real scumbag?” When I was a teenager, one of my best friends had a boyfriend her parents didn’t like. They constantly criticized him and finally forbade her to go out with him. Like a Victorian heroine, she left the house with her friends, then left us to meet him. We watched this go on for months and often talked about it. Frankly, we didn’t like him either. Our teenage wisdom told us her parents were going about it all wrong. “If they had trusted her,” we told each other, “she would have seen by herself the kind of guy he was.” Eventually, she told us she was only dating him to spite her parents because by then she didn’t like him either. Meantime, she had wasted nearly a year on that loser.
Our neighbors had a teenage daughter who babysat for her two little brothers after school while her parents worked. She told my daughter she didn’t mind babysitting so much, although it was hard to clean the house, do the laundry, and fix dinner when she had a lot of homework. But what infuriated her almost to the point of running away was being taken for granted. Her parents disregarded her efforts, and treated her the same as her brothers--ordering her to go to bed, criticizing her clothes, etc.
As I listened to this girl talk to my daughter, I could see she was crying out for respect and appreciation. Her parents could have made large deposits in their TRC bank if they had treated her as a third partner in the family organization. They had given her many adult responsibilities with no adult rights and privileges. I knew two other families in almost the same situation, and in both cases the girls left home prematurely: one married at sixteen and the other ran away and got pregnant. A little appreciation would have made a big difference.
A less spectacular but still important way to show respect for children is to believe them. When mine told me they didn’t feel well enough to go to school, I always let them stay home and it never got out of hand.
I shudder to think what would have happened to our relationship if I had ignored her feelings, rushed her out the door because she was going to miss the bus, and sent her off to school in tears. Admittedly this was easier for me because I wasn’t rushing off to work myself. But even if i had been, I like to think I would have found some way at that moment to ease her bruised feelings, maybe simply by acknowledging them.
One day Kristen, 15, came home and told me about a conversation she’d had with a friend at school. Her friend had complained, “Don’t you hate it when your mother tells you to do the dishes, then says, ‘Be sure to scrape the plates and don’t forget to turn on the dishwasher.’ Don’t you hate it when she tells you step by step as if you didn’t know anything?”
Kristen replied, “I sure would if it ever happened.” She told me she was glad that when I gave her a job, I let her do it. In other words, I showed confidence in her ability. She had been doing dishes, as well as many other chores, for years and by now we both knew her capabilities.
I saw the sad results of too little confidence and too much parental interference among my college roommates. One of my first roommates agonized every morning about what to wear because her mother had always laid out her clothes for her. When she left for college without her mother, she was in trouble. Several other girls could not make themselves study because the habit had never been internalized. Their parents had always told them when to study and how to do their homework. Suddenly, there they were, far from home and on their own, nobody nagging them to hit the books, and they folded. Because their parents evidently had no confidence in them, the girls failed to develop the necessary skills and confidence in themselves.