Thursday, April 9, 2009

Not-so-Great Expectations

These parents sound a little....a little I don't know what. Harsh, and yet harsh in a really non-harsh way. It's weird.

Dear Annie: My wife and I are very strict with our 12-year-old son, "Jonathan." He has normal adolescent issues, but he really is a great kid — well-mannered, hardworking, gets good grades, etc. We give him lots of freedom to make decisions about free-time activities and try to teach him about life. We take him on vacations and spend a lot of time with him.
Jonathan has recently begun doing small things that show he really isn't thinking, such as walking past an overflowing garbage can, etc. We told him to go to his room and write a letter about how he was going to be more respectful and help out the family. He came back with a letter about how he wished he could live a "normal" life like his other friends. We sat down and had a tearful conversation with him, but didn't get any clear answers about why he doesn't feel normal.
Do we have anything to be concerned about?

— Hurting Parent

Um, seriously? Writing a letter about being more respectful? Sending him to his room at age 12, not for being, like, rude or unpleasant, but for not taking out the trash when he sees it? I wonder if this is one of his "regular" chores, or if it's more like "we expect you to show respect by doing all chores that you recognize need doing." Because I think it makes a difference, in terms of how they handle it, and maybe in terms of his being aware of what the expectations are.

Although either way I don't see why, if you see him walk by the garbage can, you can't just say "Hey, Jon, will you take out the trash please? Thanks." He might pout if he was on his way to do something else he conceives of as incredibly important (I probably would have), but I seriously doubt he'll refuse to do it.

Also, it wouldn't hurt if the parents gave this kid a little credit. Growing up as a kid who was, like, 93% "good," I know it could be really frustrating to see other kids getting paid to get good grades, or totaling cars and getting new ones, or asking their parents for money all the time and not having a job, when I worked hard because it was important to me, had a job and covered all my own petty expenses, and was always really careful and never damaged my parents' property. On the other hand, I know I was often flaky about chores around the house.

No, you shouldn't necessarily be rewarded for NOT causing trouble (is that like getting extra credit for showing up to class, or turning in your homework on time?), but I definitely remember sometimes, when fuming about being asked to empty the dishwasher (yes, yes, I was a whiner), thinking to myself, "they have no idea how easy they have it."

Of course life isn't fair and we shouldn't expect it to be. And yes, of course, kids should learn to value working hard and doing a good job as bringing their own reward, and understand the importance of earning their own way. But still. Come on. Give the good kids a little credit. If the hardest thing these parents have to do is get their 12 year old to help out around the house, they should be dancing in the streets, not punishing him.

Instead of focusing on one task that needed to be done, these parents inflated it to mean that their kid was disrespectful and lazy. No wonder he feels crappy. They have every right to expect him to do chores, and follow up with him when he doesn't. But I think that, if they aren't, they should be giving him some the same praise they mentioned to Marcie and Kathy.

Their response:

Dear Hurting: Probably not, but you need to watch how you handle the situation because it is likely to get more complicated as he gets older. Like many teens and preteens, Jonathan wants to spread his wings. He also sees that his friends apparently have fewer rules and he may be envious. But too little supervision can make children insecure and they often respond by testing the boundaries more forcefully in order to get their parents to react.
If Jonathan is saying his family life isn't "normal," that's OK. If he is saying HE isn't normal, however, it might indicate a problem, so watch for signs of depression. You seem to have excellent communication with your son, which will help, but try to be flexible enough to adjust your methods as Jonathan goes through his teen years.


Anne said...

This makes me sad. Obviously it's important to learn that chores are necessary not just because your parents tell you they are, but because they genuinely need to be done. Even now, though, I'll walk by a full garbage can and not take it out. Sometimes you just don't want to. If the kid is generally polite, respectful, and responsible, what's the problem? He probably feels pressured to behave in a certain manner, which is a greaaaat way to start adolescence.

Becky said...

I think what bugs me is that his parents' understanding of strict is not "we have a lot of rules" or "we give him lots of chores" but "we expect him to act like an adult, when really he's barely an adolescent." Of course, the irony is, you can't expect someone to ACT like an adult (i.e., taking care of their environment and chipping in to the family unbidden) while treating them like a child (i.e. sending them to their room to write a letter about respect).

They're his PARENTS. It's not only their place, it's their JOB to tell him what to do. I still don't see why they can't just ASK HIM TO TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE instead of turning it into a giant ordeal and life lesson.

The lesson COULD be "taking out the garbage makes everyone's life easier and takes 2 minutes if you just do it right away." Instead it's "because you're a 12 year old boy, and didn't notice the garbage, you're a disappointment to us and a bad son. You should act more like a grown-up, but still do everythign we say."

Anonymous said...

You know, I see the opposite problem every day: kids who have too few rules and expectations because their parents either aren't around or aren't paying attention. While I don't think the parents of this particular child were right in asking him to go to his room and write a letter (this seems like something a teacher should do for mischievous behavior), I do think it was right of them to reassert their expectations. At 12 years old, that is the first time kids really start to rebel in small ways, especially in comparing themselves to other friends. It really is the first time their friends are becoming more important to them than their parents, and they first start to see that their parents are human too, and can be wrong sometimes or persuaded to do what the kid wants, as opposed to what is best for him. If parents let things slide at this age, it can be disaster. Can be, not necessarily will be.

Becky said...

I totally agree that the parents should have expectations of their kids, and these should be followed up with appropriate consequences if not met. I guess I just felt like the consequences for this situation weren't appropriate. If your kid is lying to you, mouthing off to you, etc., then it seems like some forced reflection and writing about why he did those things, and why it wasn't appropriate, would make sense.

When he flakes on a chore, it seems the appropriate response is to ask/tell him to do it, with consequences if he does not (like not receiving his allowance, or not being allowed ot go out until the chore is done).

Although contributing to your family and taking care of your environment is indeed a sign of respect, I guess I think that's sort of a big leap for the parents, and the kid, to make.