The Shoulds and Shouldn’ts of Parenting

Few things illuminate the limitations of personal influence like parenting a teenager.  I once felt invincible and able to conquer anything, and it was with that sense of determination that I attacked life.  Whether conquering classes at college or graduate school, career or parenthood, I approached everything with a sense of inevitability, knowing that ultimately I could and most likely would prevail if I worked hard enough and persevered.  

Parenting a teen is a completely different game.  No amount of determination or perseverance can convince a teenager to clean their room or brush their teeth or study if they aren’t motivated to do so themselves.  For example, my husband and I have extolled the relationship between washing one’s face and fewer breakouts.  Yet our son refuses to wash his face.  In fact, the more we mention facial cleansing, the less he does it.  Despite the breakouts.  As though suffering through acne is somehow hurting us.  

My husband and I have spent many restless nights and countless walks around the block hypothesizing about what we’re doing wrong as parents. How can we incentivize (or force) our kids to study more? Clean their rooms? Read more? It’s a continual struggle, because we simply can’t understand why our logical requests go unheeded.  We can't understand why our requests to study more or clean their rooms are met with eye-rolling and indignation.  We just can’t understand why our teenagers seem to fight us every step of the way.  

And then I heard an interview with Tim Tebow on my favorite NPR station.  Tim has always been a hero of mine, going back to his days at the University of Florida (my alma mater), and he’s just written a book titled Shaken.  He talked about persevering through his somewhat brief career in the NFL, and how life hadn’t always met his expectations when it came to his football career.  I saw similarities between his situation and ours as parents.  He’d expected success with the Broncos and the Patriots, but life hadn’t worked out that way.  At some point, he’d felt that his career shouldn’t have ended in the way that it did.  Similarly, we feel we shouldn’t have to remind our kids to clean their rooms.  We shouldn’t have to admonish our son for playing hours and hours of video games.  We shouldn’t have to remind them of the importance of their grades.  And we shouldn’t have to ask them if they’ve brushed their teeth.  All of these shouldn’ts that parents deal with everyday.  Just like the shouldn’ts that Tim Tebow had alluded to in terms of his career. 

A should is based on an assumption of how things should be.  An assumption that we, as parents, bring to the act of parenting.  Why do we assume that our kids should or shouldn’t do things a particular way?  Why they should act or feel a certain way? Why their goals should match our expectations of them?  Why? Because we have ideals that we expect our children to meet.  These expectations are the bases for our shoulds, and when our expectations aren’t met, the shoulds become shouldn’ts.  

Why do we, as parents, create these shoulds and shouldn’ts?  Why do we assume that’s what parenting is? Odds are that’s how things were done by our parents when we were growing up.  All parents have a preconceived notion of who our kids will become, and consequently of how our kids should behave, should act, should perform and should be in general to become that person.  

As parents, is the concern and distress that we feel when dealing with our children based on true issues or conflicts? Is one low grade worthy of our distress? Or is our unhappiness due to the mismatch between the reality of who our child is and our perception of who they should be?  Are these shouldn’ts clouding our judgement?  Are we viewing our children through a lens colored by should and shouldn’t?  And is it fair to have shoulds or shouldn’ts when it comes to our kids?

The two biggest struggles my husband and I have been facing lately relates to grades and tidiness.  Our son is a sophomore, and he’s always been a great kid.  He’s kind, compassionate, and a gentle soul.  He’s a good student, but he is not exemplary when it comes to his grades.  Although respectable, his GPA is notA++ high.  Which in and of itself isn’t a problem.  The problem arises when I admit that I’d always assumed his GPA would be A++ high. I told myself his GPA should be higher.  That it wasn’t high enough to guarantee admission to a great college.  That he could improve it if he worked hard enough. Or if he had a tutor. Or if he played less video games.  Or if he applied himself. 

Our daughter is a spirited and driven teenager who usually has a pretty easy time academically.  Our issues with her arise when it comes to the other aspects of life.  She’s as messy and clumsy as she is driven and focused academically.  Which means she’ll leave wet and dirty towels piled up on the floor in her bedroom.  She’ll go days/weeks without picking up the food and drink containers in her room.  And let’s not talk about the tub after a shower.  Her lack of cleanliness clashes with my OCD-ish fixation on order.  I keep telling myself that, with enough direction and parenting, she’ll snap out of her messiness.  That her messiness can be parented away.  That she shouldn’t be as messy as she is.  

So when it comes to grades and messiness, my husband and I apply pressure.  Pressure to study.  Pressure to be less messy.  Pressure to study more.  Pressure to clean up more. And the more pressure applied, the more our children resist.  Our daughter continues to leave her room a mess, and our son refuses our help when it comes to his studies.  He even acknowledged during a somewhat tense dinner one night that he wasn’t going to study more as long as I pushed him to do so.  He said “you keep asking me about my homework, like you don’t think I can do it.  And the more you ask, the less I want to do it”.  Whah? I was thoroughly confused. 

And then I read The Awakened Family, which helped me understand this parenting struggle a little bit. The book, written by Dr. Shefali Tsabary, is based on the premise that, as parents, we are here to shepherd our children through childhood with love and support, with our ultimate goal being to help them become the people that they are meant to be.  As shepherds, we can only guide them, not dictate what they become.  The author states it more elegantly than I can. 

"Our children come to us with they own unique blueprint.  This implies that they come with a particular temperament and way of relating to the world.  Some come with boisterous energy, whereas others are calm and quiet.  Some come with angst and colic, whereas others glide and float.  We don’t get to keep the qualities we like in our children and discard the ones we don’t.  Certainly we can help them develop the qualities that are most in alignment with their true self, but not through control and imposition.  They are who they are. It’s only when we accept this about our children that we will be able to attune to them and meet their emotional needs.  Surrendering to their inherent nature, which includes their talents and their limitations, is the forerunner to endowing the relationship we share with them with respect and meaningful connection."  

And I realized that my stress was due to resistance to my son’s desire to chart his own course academically, and resistance to my daughter’s need to figure out her own path through clutter.  My focus on my son’s grades was, in effect, telling him that I considered him to be inadequate.  I had an expectation for the type of student he should be (whether realistic or not), and I was communicating through my words and actions that he wasn’t good enough.  Hence my son’s negative response.  And the same was true of my daughter.  My continued nagging about cleaning up her room or the bathroom only made her feel that her efforts to be less messy weren’t moving fast enough, and that she was inadequate as she was.  

I now understand that my son saw my continued focus on his grades and studying as a lack of confidence in him and his abilities.  Whenever I asked if he were going to study, he saw that as a criticism. Whether explicit or implicit, I was telling him that I didn’t trust him to do it on his own.  What he heard most was that he wasn’t meeting my expectations, and that he wasn’t enough.  And so he ignored me and didn’t study.  Which would irritate me more, resulting in more pestering and niggling.  As Dr. Tsabary states in the book, 

“The reality is that as long as we focus on changing our children - or anyone other than ourselves - we’ll discover that it’s akin to trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.  Because this is how we believe parenting works, we mindlessly repeat the same actions over and over.  But just as the waves of the ocean keep rolling in, so too our children’s behavior continues to set us off again and again.  The problem isn’t the child’s behavior, but why it sets us off.  Unless we examine why the behavior causes us to react negatively, we will never change the patterns of interaction between our children and us - and this is true of any close relationship.”

Why was I so focused on his grades? And why did I get so irritated whenever the topic of grades arose?  I focused on his grades because my mom focused on my grades when I was his age.  Most of my time in school (be it grade school, high school, college or graduate school) was spent worrying about my grades.  Why? Because in my household, getting an A wasn’t enough. When asked what grade I got, the next question would inevitably be “what was the highest grade”?  If I got an A but not the highest grade in the class, I was scolded and told that I “obviously hadn’t studied hard enough”.  It sounds harsh now, but at the time I knew my mom was simply trying to motivate me to exceed.  

That all came crashing back when I thought about my interactions with my son.  I realized that I was projecting my obsession onto him, and using his grades as a measure of his worth as well as my own worth, and as a proxy for his future success.  If he didn’t have a stellar GPA, what did that say about me as a parent? And how was he going to get into a great college with an average GPA? How can he land a great job and provide of himself if he gets a B in history?  

I realized that connecting a B in one sophomore class to failure as a forty-year old was asinine.  But denying the importance of grades also seemed irresponsible and negligent.  Until I realized that what I was doing wasn’t motivating him to get better grades.  It was projecting my fears and concerns onto him.  I was forcing my son to fit a mold that my parents had created for me.  And releasing him from this burden wasn’t denying the importance of grades, but was actually acknowledging that my perception of grades was not my son’s burden to bear.  

“With our children especially, our feelings about ourselves entwine with their own feeling about themselves.  It’s because we feel afraid for them that we then seek to control them.  However, what we are really trying to do is control our own fear.  Our inability to extricate ourselves from their lives creates all sorts of projections onto them, which muddies our ability to raise them to be who they really are.” 

This obsession really isn’t about my son or his grades.  It’s about me and my fear of being average as a parent.  It’s about my fear that his grades somehow reflect poorly on me.  It’s about my concern for his future success and his ability to get into a good college.  And it’s about my fear of waking up one day with a forty-year-old son living at home asking me to toast him a waffle before a full day of video game playing.  An extreme fear, I realize, but a fear nonetheless.  

I have a similar fear of walking into our daughter’s dorm room at college to find flies milling around the dirty dishes under her bed and piles of dirty clothes mixed with clean clothes on her bed. Or to watch her walk down the aisle on her wedding day in a dingy, smudged dress with a Pig-Pen like cloud of dirt surrounding her.  Again, somewhat extreme.  But a recurring thought nonetheless.   

And that’s the real source of our shouldn’ts.  Our own fears and concerns.  We create idealized images of who our kids should be and try to force them into those molds, hoping they will achieve the goals that we set for them.  When they don’t fit into our preconceived notions, we fear things aren’t progressing as they should. That life is as it shouldn’t be.  And this creates stress, disharmony and conflict with our children.  

But when we look further, we realize that our stress is not due to their inadequacy, but is instead due to a lack of congruence between who they are and who we want them to be.  That the reality of who our child is doesn’t match our image of them.  We forget that our children are unique individuals with their own goals.  It’s well within their rights to have their own goals and aspirations, their own personality and character, their own likes and dislikes outside of our expectations.  We have to realize and appreciate that their goals will likely not align with ours.  And that’s ok.  As Dr. Tsabary writes, 

"When we treat our children as if they were our possessions, our expectations of them inevitably lead to anger and disappointment when they fail to live up to the ideals we have for them.  Because as parents we believe we have the right to demand things of our children, even if what we expect of them falls outside their interests and perhaps even their native capability, they suffer from the burden of having to become something they really aren’t.  This forces them to abandon their true self, which is the most damaging trauma any child can experience, since it involves self-betrayal."

We really have no control over our children and the people they are destined to become.  This becomes achingly obvious when our kids reach the teen years.  Where once we could “make” children behave, any semblance of control disappears when they become tweens and teens.  We can’t control our teenagers any more than we can control a stranger.  We can only control our acceptance of their innate uniqueness, and the environment that we create to lovingly shepherd them through childhood.   

My husband and I have decided to reaffirm the importance of college and academic success in our household, and have made sure that everything we do is aligned with that expectation.  We give them college guide books and take them on tours of different colleges.  At the same time, we’ve decided to relinquish the desire to control how they succeed academically, realizing that they are individuals who can chart their own academic course.  Whenever frustration arises (which is often), we try to remind each other that our frustration usually results from our fear or concern about their future, and not their grades themselves. As Dr. Tsabary states:

"The only control we have, as parents, involves our own feelings and reactions, together with the conditions we set in our home. Our problem is that we don’t really know how to control ourselves or the conditions we create in our home, which steers us in the direction of controlling our children instead".

Tim Tebow’s Shaken is a book about finding yourself throughout life’s ups and downs.  It’s filled with inspiration and talk of salvation.  It’s definitely not for those averse to religion and talk of God.  But at the book’s core, I think his message is similar to that in The Awakened Family.  Tim Tebow talks about accepting what life gives us without comparing it to what we expected to happen.  Realizing that life doesn’t always align with our expectations.  And when it doesn’t, we should remain steadfast in the fact that life has a bigger plan for us.  The same sentiment runs throughout Dr. Tsabary’s work.  The Awakened Family teaches us that parenting isn’t about forcing our kids to meet our definition of success or fit into our molds.  Parenting is about loving and supporting our children while they discover or create their own definitions of success.  Letting go of the reins and realizing that our children will reach up to meet or even exceed our expectations if given the freedom to do so.  

After reading her book, I now know that instead of focusing on our son’s grades, I should focus on the traits that make him uniquely himself.  Instead of focusing on our daughter’s messiness, I should focus on her grand spirit and all of those intangibles that make her uniquely herself.  I know my son wants good grades (as he’s set a specific GPA goal for himself), so why continue to dwell on it? Instead, I should focus on loving him for who he is, and allow him the freedom to chart his own academic path.  We should allow our daughter to set her own course.  One that is outside of our expectations of who he or she should be.  

“A sense of our children’s worth flourishes when the way we look at them, the way we listen to them, and the way we speak to them reflect just how lovable they are.  This is how we empower them - how we draw out in them their innately powerful sense of self, which is what will carry them successfully through life.  Only when we can separate our fantasies concerning who our children should be from who they actually are can we do justice to their original essence and craft our parenting to allow for this essence to flourish”.   

To be clear, Dr. Tsabary's book doesn’t condone disrespect or lax parenting when it comes to expecting respect and compassion from our kids.  It doesn’t tell us to ignore their poor behavior.  And it doesn’t say we should accept everything about them without question. But it does remind us to think twice when we are conflict with our children.  Does the conflict arise because they’ve exceeded a necessary boundary? If so, that’s just a normal part of parenting a teen.  Or is the conflict arising because our expectations of what our child should be doing doesn’t match reality?  Are we fearful or concerned that our child is deficient in some way? And how will we know the difference? Our state of mind will let us know the difference.  If we are parenting without expectation or fear, our exchanges with our children should be devoid of anger, frustration, or yelling.  But if we’re annoyed, we need to look further.  

As parents, our greatest sense of control comes when we release the reins and allow them the freedom to define themselves.  The same freedom that we wanted when we were teenagers.  The freedom I wanted as a teen to wear a Madonna-esque crinoline skirt or skin-tight Guess jeans.  Or to get a second ear piercing.  Or to major in dance in college.  All things that I wanted to do but wasn’t allowed to do.  All things that wouldn’t have made me a horrible person, but things that didn’t match up with my parents’ ideas of who they thought I should be.  And all things that I still wish I’d been able to do, or ultimately did as soon as I became an adult.  

I’ll try to keep all of this in mind the next time our son asks to play video games the night before a test.  Or when I find five half-opened cans of seltzer and crumpled candy wrappers in my daughter’s room.  I’ll probably need to re-read this post.  But I’ll keep trying to remember that my angst is due to my fears, and not the grades or cans of seltzer.