Maybe you could use a word of encouragement about parenting this week. It’s mid-February; for most men with families this moment on the calendar isn’t loaded with holidays or major events like graduations.
We’re finishing up the book “Generation Z: Unfiltered” this month. If you’re part of our online mastermind groups, you might have been at our recent ISI All Hands meeting where we interviewed the author, Tim Elmore.
Tim presented us with a counterintuitive challenge as fathers. He shared stories of parents making too many assumptions about what their children actually understand. If there’s one thing worse than telling a child sugar-coated lies about how special they are … it’s sending the message they’re unqualified.
One of the men watching in our mastermind groups chimed in with a relatable story of going overboard on things he assumed his kids could not handle.
It turns out he’d faced years of resistance from his children on simple things like doing their own homework. It suddenly dawned on him that the reason the kids kept resisting was because he kept showing them, over and over, how to do the arithmetic.
Now, being a parent automatically means being a mentor or coach. You don’t want to give your child a math book and simply say, “Good luck.” But what would happen, every time he did this? The children would simply demand more help each time he told them to do their homework.
“I’d show them how to do it, and then take them through the exercise a couple of times,” he told me. “With each pass, I’d have them do more and more of the problem until all I did was ask them the answers to each step.” So far, so good, right? That’s the mentor’s role.
“But then, they’d keep asking me to show them over and over again, every time they did it,” he went on. “It was like they understood, but suddenly pretended not to. It turned out this was a form of resistance, because they couldn’t sense the boundaries of where my responsibility ended and theirs began.”
In his “Total Transformation” program, behavioral therapist James Lehman says that lack of motivation in children doesn’t mean they’re “not motivated.” They’re motivated all right - to resist, because they feel powerless. They withhold cooperation because it’s the only way they can feel powerful in the moment.
Bizarre as this might sound, stay with us because the young father who told me this story had a very happy ending!
A Little More Descriptive
Elmore argues in his book that parents, educators and mentors need to move away from the prescriptive child rearing model of the last 50 years to a more descriptive one. The difference goes like this:
Prescriptive parents set goals and furnish steps for the student to take. The learner doesn’t need to think for themselves; they only need to follow the plan.
In business, you might have heard a parallel concept called “waterfall,” which is where organizations operate from top-down authority, doing only what executives and managers tell them to do. Some of this bleeds over into business coaching services; it’s why I prefer the more collaborative model of the mastermind business.
But descriptive parenting correlates more to the “agile” business methodology. Descriptive mentors describe the goal and allow the learner to create their own steps to reach it. This allows for creativity and personal style to emerge so the outcome matches the learner.
Does this sound a little risky? Well, there’s no surefire way to perfectly raise a child. But if you’re encountering resistance in your children for basic things, like participating in household chores or performing their responsibilities … you may want to read on to the end.
Describe and Disappear
Our friend who’d been “prescribing” for his children reported a fascinating turnaround.
“I started telling my kids, ‘This is your homework assignment. I am your father. I’m not your study buddy, and I won’t do the work for you. I will correct and advise you once you have done the work. But there’s no sense in asking me to help you right now, because I have other things to do. Come to me with a completed assignment, and not before.’”
The kids protested, as you might expect. But Daddy wasn’t deterred. “I told them, ‘Look! Dinner is in three hours. If you would like to eat this evening, you’ll present me with a completed assignment before then. If you prefer to go hungry, you can continue arguing, but you’ll have to do it alone.’ And then I turned on my heels and walked out of the room, not waiting for a reply.”
Are you beginning to see how it works? This father refused to let the fairy dance continue. He treated his children as though they were responsible adults who’d been given a task to complete and would not “baby them” through it. Psychologically, this had precisely the desired effect. The kids were both respected and restrained. He called them “up” while also calling them “out.” That’s leadership!
Describe the Solution
As a Christian life coach, I love hearing stories like this. Just like in business, as household leaders, parents are both the problem and the solution. If relations with your children aren’t what they should be, there is always something you can do to change the way you interact with them.
A word of strategic caution though: do not tell people ahead of time about how you’re going to “flip the script” on them. Just do it, and let them react. Simply begin relating to them differently, better, with greater compassion, cleverness or self-control. It would also be good to do this from a mindset free of expectations on the outcome. Your children are unique individuals, and won’t necessarily respond the same way.
When you learn to do this, you begin to wield the kind of influence that trains your child in the way they should go. And that way, when they’re older, they won’t depart from it.