As my 12-year old daughter, Margaret, rounds the corner to “teen” status, I’ve been exploring ways to remain connected to her – or better put, for her to want to stay connected to me. I don’t need to know everything she’s experiencing. In fact, having been the type of oddball teenager who perpetually divulged far too much to the rents, I see the upside in having an introvert like my daughter. Still, the downside of having a budding practitioner of discretion is that she’s much more likely to keep her deepest thoughts to herself unless I pull it out of her – which I have no inclination of doing.
Heart-wrenching articles like this one, in which an 11-year old committed suicide due to a social media prank, coupled with my Shonda Rhimes-esq imagination, is what could easily keep me up at night – if I let it. But I don’t. And rather than resort to intrusion to glean all the wayward thoughts piling up in my daughter’s disconnected frontal lobes, I’ve decided to tap into the skills I cultivated from more than twenty years working as a business and management professional. I’ve come up with five key ways to glean what I need to be effective without feeling (overly) guilty.
- Knowledge Share – They say it’s who you know, not what you know. I have found this is true when it comes to my daughter. Making an effort to get to know the parents of Margaret’s friends has been extremely valuable to me over the years. I imagine this will continue to be beneficial as she adventures deeper into the big wide world and is tempted to make some regretful decisions along the way as I regretfully did. Like any relationship, whether based on convenience or genuine likeability, the greater the time and energy you are able and willing to spend cultivating it, the more you’ll get out of it. It’s amazing how much you learn about your teen (that she did not think to share with you!) simply by swapping brief anecdotes with another like-mindedly curious parent at
the PTA meeting, the carpool lane, or picking your kid up from their house.
- Intelligence Gathering – Call it legal spying, eavesdropping, or just parental nosiness, but any chance you get to chauffer your teenager and her friends to an event, do it! It’s almost as if you become invisible (even more than you already are believe it or not) while they prattle on about everything from the most perplexingly trendy YouTube personalities to their latest crush. A few tips: if you want to capture the most, pretend you’re listening attentively to NPR and no matter what, do not chime in – remember, the key is to make them think you’re not there. Of all the benefits I look forward to in driverless cars, missing out on teenage car conversations will be a huge black hole for parents who rely on this valuable yet innocuous method of intel.
- Accountability – For world dictators, bad bosses, and helicopter parents, the thought of sharing in the goal-setting and decision-making process is a more terrifying prospect than the North Koreans’ nuclear arms progress. But for forward-thinking parents, Peter Drucker’s Management by Objectives, the notion that giving employees ownership of their goals produces better outcomes by way of increased commitment, can be a powerful tool when applied to the parent-teen dynamic. I was first introduced to the importance of accountability at home years before I was married with kids, when my graduate school economics professor shared how he helped to make his daughter more accountable by giving her a fixed amount of money upfront to buy a new winter jacket she needed rather than coughing up the dough for that and every other unnecessary garment she found along the way, as he had in the past. In changing his approach, my professor easily made his daughter aware of money management and discerning between necessities and luxuries. She came home feeling empowered and he saved quite a bit of money – making it a win-win for the family. Any chance to bring your adolescent into the decision-making process is not only a way for you to clue in to how she’s thinking, it also teaches her to share in the blame if things don’t turn out well. A bonus is that you’ll also find yourself less inclined to shout out, “I told ya so!”
- Change Management – Sometimes it’s not your adolescent’s behavior that’s the problem – it’s yours. If you’re a reactor, like me, your teen might derive pleasure from pressing all of your buttons like a little kid in an elevator, as my daughter does. What I’ve realized is that I can actually influence her behavior far more by modifying mine first. Let’s face it though; behavioral change is not easy whether we’re at work or home. But thanks to Kurt Lewin’s model of changing behavior, there is hope. Lewin’s 3-step model starts with recognizing an undesired behavior exists (unfreezing), moving toward the desired change (changing), and then reinforcing the changed behavior (refreezing).
- Servant Leadership – When my kids were babies, I spent a lot of time feeling more like a servant than a mommy. We did virtually everything for them except swallow their food (though if you nursed, you actually were their food). As they grow, it’s harder to be as selfless as we were when they were adorable babushkas who couldn’t talk back or roll their eyes. But just because they now can pour their own milk doesn’t mean they don’t need our loving guidance as they grow as adolescents into young adulthood. Coined first by Robert Greenleaf in his essay The Servant as Leader, the concept of being a servant leader embraces leaders as “serving” their teams versus traditional leadership, which focuses on keeping the most power at the top. When applied in the home, it doesn’t mean relinquishing our power to our kids or bucking responsibility as parents. Instead, it means we are modeling the type of behavior that includes characteristics – listening, understanding, empathy – that will help our children be effective in life. And definitely refraining from saying, “I told ya so!” when they don’t listen to us.
There’s no one-size-fits-all remedy for keeping our adolescents close to us emotionally as they muddle through the murky waters of adolescence into young adulthood. But the business world provides a wealth of transferrable techniques we as parents can implement at home to help give them the tools they need. Just as Max Dupree says in his book Leadership is an Art, “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict?” Just substitute “parent” for “leader” and “child” for “follower” and your child should be on her way.