The other day a mom (I’ll call her ‘Judy’) came to me for coaching about a conflict over homework with her 14 year-old son (I’ll call him ‘Ben’). She explained that they have been fighting about homework for a few years but now that he’s taller than her and more independent than before, her tactics just aren’t working.
“I used to take his phone away and tell him no screen time until the homework was done, but now half his homework is on the computer and he’s using his phone as a calculator. Of course, he is also Facebooking and Snap Chatting so what do I do? How can I get him to focus on the homework? This battle is exhausting!”
I acknowledged the battle and validated her feelings, “a few years is a long time to argue over anything. I’m not surprised to hear you feel exhausted. I bet your son is too.”
“Oh not him,” Judy said, “he’s so stubborn I’m starting to wonder if I should just give up.”
“What would it mean if you gave up?” I asked her.
“I guess it would mean that I stopped caring. I would have to convince myself that I wasn’t concerned about his future anymore.”
“How likely is it that you could stop caring or stop being concerned?” I probed.
“Ha! Obviously that’s never going to happen!” she laughed.
“Sounds like giving up caring is unrealistic,” I observed. “But what if you stopped being attached to this homework business? It’s not like it’s YOUR homework.”
“But that’s the problem! If I don’t police the situation the homework won’t get done. And we all know that school is a cornerstone of success.”
“Here’s what I think,” I started, “these aren’t your essays or your math questions, so they aren’t your problem. But you are making them your problem. Why do you do that?”
“That’s exactly right!” I responded. “Here’s what I know: some people do well in high school and graduate but then bomb at adult relationships or in college or in their job search; some people never graduate from high school and they go on to attain multiple post-secondary degrees. I have a close friend who is a high school teacher with a master’s degree in English literature and she dropped out of high school at 15. I also have an ex-boyfriend who has a master’s degree and teaches robotics at a large college, and he dropped out of high school before he could finish grade 12.”
“That’s interesting,” Judy notes, “I read somewhere recently that the best college students are kids from a homeschooling background.”
“I’ve heard that too,” I replied. “So I have a question for you.”
“What is it?”
“I want to know what you would have to feel if you decided to abandon your expectations of Ben in relation to his high school performance.”
“Oh god,” she sighed, “that’s a terrible question.”
Judy went on to tell me that if she abandoned the homework expectations she has of Ben she would have to face her fears about him failing his classes and ultimately failing to graduate. I asked her a version of The Five Whys to dig deeper into this fear.
- Why are you scared about him not graduating? Because then he won’t be able to go to college.
- Why are you scared about him not going to college? Because then he won’t get a decent career.
- Why are you scared about him not getting a decent career? Because then he won’t be financially independent and able to look after himself or a family.
- Why are you scared about him not being financially independent? Because then he won’t be able to go after the life of his dreams.
- Why are you scared about him not going after the life of his dreams? Because then the whole thing would be a gigantic waste and all the love and attention I poured into him since the day he was born would be for nothing.
That’s when Judy burst into sobs.
Wow. Judy felt scared that her last 14 years of parenting would be a gigantic waste and all her efforts would be for nothing if her beloved son couldn’t live the life of his dreams.
The fact that Judy wasn’t consciously aware that this fear was driving her made her vulnerable to acting it out by way of trying to control Ben.
But what was she really trying to control? Not his homework habits. She was actually trying to control her feelings of failure as a mom. Judy didn’t want to feel like she was doing a shitty job raising her son and not giving him what he needs to go after his dreams.
And what does she gain with her efforts to control Ben? Judy gets to avoid her true fears and feel like she is actively contributing to Ben’s success. Even though part of what she ‘gains’ is a less trusting and less close relationship with him. Those are big prices to pay.
When you have a problem with your teenager, how do you manage to own that problem and not try to control your kid? Let me know in the comments below!