Fifteen-year-old Heidi came for therapy with me at the insistence of her parents. “She’s been furious with us ever since we had her transfer to a charter school,” her mother had told me over the phone when setting up the first appointment. “Her father and I were convinced she’d do better there, and we still are. But every day we hear the same complaints from her, and see the same long face. We’re hoping you can get her to see how unreasonable she’s being. I don’t think she’s even given this new school a chance.”
When I met with Heidi, she told a different story. Yeah her parents had made her transfer, she said, but that part didn’t bother her so much because she knew she needed a different academic environment. And yeah she did complain about the school a lot, but not because she didn’t like it. Heidi said her problem was that she did like her new charter school, and wanted to stay there.
I asked Heidi how that was a problem. “The problem,” she pointed out, “is that I made such a big deal about how I wasn’t going to like it and wasn’t staying after the first semester. If I tell my parents now that I actually like the school and want to stay, they’ll think they won.”
“Won what?” I asked.
“They’ll think they won the whole ‘who was right’ and ‘who was wrong’ thing,” Heidi replied. “And then you know what? They’ll look at each other with a stupid smile and think, See? We knew she’d come around. And then they’ll use it as proof that—and mocking her mother’s voice, Heidi added— ‘We know you better than you know yourself!’ Ugh, I almost want to go back to my old school just so they won’t get that satisfaction.”
Lucky for Heidi that she had the inner resolve to stay committed to the school of her choice even though it probably meant having to watch her parents do their touchdown dance and tell her they knew all along she’d see it their way.
I’m not sure what parents think they’re accomplishing when they make a point to say “I told you so!” All it does is offend their son or daughter, and reveal a lack of sensitivity regarding how often kids are made to subjugate their emerging autonomy to the directives of parents, teachers, relatives, and others.
By choosing not to claim their daughter’s decision to stay at the charter school as their victory, however, and by emphasizing their excitement for her rather than taking credit for her “enlightenment,” Heidi’s parents would be allowing their daughter to save face instead of feeling as if she had lost a battle or given in. In doing so, they would be demonstrating a respect for her courage to acknowledge wanting something that her parents also wanted for her, something that for many other kids is a flat out deal breaker. They would receive in return Heidi’s appreciation, and her trust that they wouldn’t seek to exploit opportunities to show who’s boss.
The need to save face is human and normal but all too frequently—and unnecessarily—activated in our kids by the ways in which we, as adults, try to guide, instruct, care for and counsel them without taking into account the emotions upon which we trod. Kids who have to be right all the time will defend the most ridiculous point simply because for them, being right is better than being smart. Kids who have to be independent will reject a parent’s great idea for the sole reason that it wasn’t their own. “Solving a problem doesn’t count unless you solve it by yourself,” a sad, aloof, and lonely girl of thirteen years once confided in me.
There are times to help kids develop an awareness of how their need to be right all the time or to avoid relying on others is hurting them. But there are also times when the best thing we can do with our kids is to stop talking so much, and stop making so many suggestions, and realize that what they may need most is our quiet, gracious appreciation of the small indignities they face in their journey toward independence and self-hood. By refraining from smugly pointing our fingers or doing victory dances or saying “I told you so!” whenever our kids are proved wrong about something or change their minds, we invite our children and teens to see us differently, relate with us less defensively, and understand that, in truth, we’re really all on the same side.
Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette is a psychologist dedicated to helping parents raise conscientious, respectful children they enjoy having around. Her work with families is consistent with her belief that respect, accountability, and prudent transparency are the cornerstones to healthy, enduring relationships between loved ones. Stop Negotiating With Your Teen: Strategies for Parenting Your Angry, Manipulative, Moody or Depressed Adolescent is her popular parenting book, and her most recent book is The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Like Sports Survive Bullying and Boyhood. www.JanetEdgette.com