Sometimes the best approach for a parent is to give children choices. For toddlers and elementary school children, negotiating an end to an activity by offering “We can leave the playground in five minutes or ten minutes. Which do you want?” gives a child a sense of control and may be a clever way to avert a tantrum. As children approach the pre-teen and teenage years, however, some choices can be unnecessary burdens adding needless psychological stress.
A young adult, whom I’ll call Robert, shared with me his story. Robert’s father gave him choices that Robert felt were bad for him. The example he gave was around visiting his grandparents. In an effort to be diplomatic his father would say, “We’d like you to come to Grandpa and Grandma’s for dinner with us, but ultimately the choice is yours.”
Having to make the choice to go or not go put him in great conflict. Naturally, being a teenager, he would rather stay home, veg out, watch television, or be with friends. He loved his grandparents very much, but he was a teenager after all. He was too young to know for sure that it was normal for him NOT to want to have dinner with his parents and grandparents at times.
The guilt and shame around feeling that way was tremendous. Robert felt guilty at the thought of not going. He felt ashamed that he was not a “good boy” for feeling that way. Because the emotions of guilt and shame were too much for him to tolerate, he always ended up going. Still he felt shame that he was bad and guilty because he did not want to go.
Robert told me it would have been better if his father insisted that he go. He wished his father had said, “Robert, you don’t have to like it, but you have to come with us to your grandparents today. Your anger about having to go is real and valid and still you must go.” Robert said, “If my dad had said that, I would have only felt angry that he made me go, which would have been fine. I would not have had the double-whammy of feeling shame that I didn’t want to go as well. I had to go and that was that. No choice. No conflict.”
I was impressed with how clear Robert explained this to me, and it made so much sense. By a parent taking on the burden of making the decision on behalf of their child, the child is spared having to choose between their own needs and “doing the right thing.”
Parents these days often find it hard to be the bad guys. With teenagers, however, taking on the role of the heavy is often the kinder, more nurturing thing to do. It can spare their child feeling that they are bad and saddling them with unnecessary shame. For the parent, it may not be the easy road, but then again being a parent is rarely easy.