When asked about consequences, both past and current, the passion with which this goal for making Jonah accountable was expressed dissipated; the line went very quiet again. They both very honestly admitted that Jonathan had never been punished-ever-not for grades, loosing his stuff or being disrespectful. Both of them shared an underlying belief that if they punished Jonathan, they would damage him. In fact, the idea of doing so made especially his father choke up. They were permissive parents–sensitive and responsive to the unique needs of the child, but lacked control limits and expectations (ibid 15). They were doing everything they could to prevent him from failing and in doing so, they were failing to provide the edge that adolescents need, precisely because, as stated above, they are not yet ready to assume full responsibility for their lives.
What the coaching uncovered was that their well-intentioned actions were actually being perceived by Jonathan as controlling. For a year, his parents had checked his homework online everyday, were outraged about missing assignments, but then dropped off his homework at school. They lectured him about responsibility when he lost things right before they replaced them. Without clear boundaries, his parents were “spilling over” and that made Jonathan lash out. At his age, the goal is to
develop adequate means to regulate his own behavior and emotions
but with all this push/pull, that energy was expended on countering his parents’s actions by being defiant and passive/aggressive instead (ibid 13). With clear boundaries in place, there would be little room for argument and with meaningful consequence, he would have to learn through experience about accountability, not a lecture.
The goal was a shift they were not expecting, from permissive to authoritative parenting, a word whose connotation alone made them uneasy. While they were scoring high on one dimension of parenting, what Jonathan really needed was the
combination of love and affection with expectations and consistent enforcement of standards (ibid 15).
In the ideal circumstance, there is a healthy balance struck between clear boundaries and the freedom to explore, enabling a teen to become an individual without devoting excessive energy to defiance. When there defiance in adolescence, it is a nasty blend of pushing off to gain space that is not given freely and frustration for lack of clear boundaries. (Altabef) That understood, it is not surprising that children of parents who regularly balance love and support with firm boundaries are more
self-regulated, socially responsible and cognitively competent (Oliver 536).
Being that Jonah was naturally charismatic and personable, this change in style would also allow his strengths as a leader to flourish.
Separately, I brainstormed with both parents and Jonathan to create a set of guidelines that everyone agreed upon as being fair. Going forward, homework was checked by mom only on Friday on the school’s portal. If there were any missing assignments, social privileges would be revoked for the weekend. If all was turned in, Jonathan was free to do the thing he cared most about–be with his friends. In addition, there would be no negotiating about household chores. If they weren’t done, all electronics had to be turned over to mom. The rules were simple and clear.
For the first few couple of months, this was incredibly difficult for both parties to accept. There had already been established a cycle of inconsistency, and Jonathan tested his parents weekly. Every Friday, my phone would ring and mom and I would have a laser session to review the importance of the plan. And though he cried in frustration, after four weeks, there were no more zeros for homework. After eight weeks, his grades had jumped significantly. At the end of five months, his average was in the 90’s. He continued to send me texts of his evolving artwork and our rapport was something I was proud of. Everyone felt good about the progress made and it was decided that my time with the family had run its course.
Unfortunately, old patterns die hard. Everyone managed to uphold their ends of the deal for another marking period, but by the last quarter of 8th grade, everyone’s commitment to the structure waned. Apparently, he had adapted to his punishments, making his parents perceive them as futile. His grades dropped significantly, and he ended up failing one of his classes.
This summer I got a call from Jonathan’s mother again. She asked me if I would agree to work with the family again and I did. The model for my coaching is built on the knowing that life will continuously ask us to realign ourselves with our values, and this is what had happened with these folks–they needed a tune up. I started back up with the family in September and was surprised at how much structure we needed to reestablish. Though the work is largely about Jonathan’s interest in school and his work habits, it is so intertwined with his parents ability to be consistent. Recently though, his mother revealed a clear shift in thinking that I take as a promising. She recounted a conversation between her and her husband during which he suggested that I come everyday to help Jonathan with school. She replied that she thought Jonathan might need to fail and go to summer school to really learn this lesson. I was shocked by her conviction and supported it. Intuitively, she is learning that Jonathan is the only person who can really teach this lesson of accountability. We also concluded that it would be important for him to know that her expectations changed, that she would no longer baby him or punish him, nor would she continue to spoil him. If he really wanted to be left alone, it would mean leaning on her less to do everything for him. When I saw him next, he seemed humbled and less edgy than he has been.
When the chaos of adolescence arises, parents can be most supportive by providing clear boundaries that help contain it. Doing so with give a frame in an otherwise messy and muddled period of development. The misunderstanding with permissive parents is that because it is coming from a place of love, it can only benefit the child. Consistent, clear structure will only help the child to deal with new struggles of establishing order as they define who they are.
Altabef, Morry. Personal interview. 15 Apr. 2012.
D'Angelo, Sandra, and Hatim Omar. "Parenting Adolescents." International Journal of Adolescent Medicine15.1 (2003): 11-19. Web.
Hunter, Jeremy, and Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi. "The Positive Psychology of Interested Adolescents." Journal of Youth and Adolescents 32.1 (2003): 27-35. Web.
Oliver, Pamela. "Adolescent Family Environmental Antecedents to Transformational Leadership Potential."Leadership Quarterly 22 (2011): 535-44. Web.