There are certain things I think I’ve gotten better at as the kids have gotten older—and wish I had practiced more when they were younger. One of these is defining the boys’ behavior in terms of goals. Rather than getting into judgments based on “right” and “wrong,” it helps when the focus is on “Where do you want to be?”, followed by “Are these behaviors/choices helping you get there, or getting in the way?”
As with most things parent, putting this “wise mind” approach into practice is easier said than done, and involves juggling a number of factors:
- Number 1—Separating either kid’s goals from my goals for him. I certainly think it’s fine to have goals for your kid (mine generally involve them making enough money to fund my retirement), but these don’t form a great basis for a kid-centric goals-based approach to behavior. Someone it just doesn’t carry quite as much punch to say: “Here’s what I think is right for you. Are your choices helping you achieve this?” So keeping the focus on what they describe as their own goals is key—and this requires a lot of listening, gentle probing, clarifying questions, etc. Sometimes helping your kid get clarity on his or her own goals is one of the greatest gifts you can give. (And when you have a kid like Mark, helping your kid get clarity on his goals is both a necessity and a full-time job. If “I don’t know” were an actual goal, he would be the most accomplished human in the history of the species.)
- Number 2, now that you’ve done a great job letting your kids educate you about their goals—Helping them gauge their behavior and choices in terms of achieving these goals. To oversimplify, any choice can help, hinder, or be neutral with respect to achieving a given goal. Helping the kids understand this is another great gift. The complicating factor here: As the smart grown-up, you often have a better sense of the types of choices that will help bring about a desired goal. For example, when Daveon went through the period where he was sure he would someday be a Major League Baseball All-Star, it occurred to me—but clearly not to him—that once in a while he should pick up a bat. In situations like these, once again we enter balance territory, where you want to offer useful information without taking over ownership of the process. I don’t have any magical wisdom here—sometimes I throw out, “I have some thoughts about some things that might be helpful in your situation. I can share them if you like, or not.” I often get a yes, though more often as the boys get older, a no. Which is fine for the most part. Usually. Which leads me to …
- Number 3—All of this kid ownership is fine and good and healthy, but the reality is, for almost every single one of your kids’ goals, you as parent will be making a substantial commitment of time, money, other resource, or any combination of the above. This is important because it gives you the right—and, I would argue, the obligation—to say, “I’m happy to work along with your process. At the same time, I except to see some level of effort and/or outcome. If your way of doing things isn’t producing this effort/outcome, I reserve the right to step in in a more decision-making way.” (I don’t actually talk to my kids like this. It’s more like: “Look. If you want to keep taking sax lessons, you need to practice. If you don’t want to practice, lessons are done. Your call.” But you get the point.)
We’re in the middle of “goals and how to reach them” experience right now. Mark is at an advanced enough skating level that he realistically needs to devote more time and energy on the ice and in related activities if he hopes to stay competitive. This in turn means cutting down on social activities, watching what he eats, and so on.
So: goals. Do you want to complete in a national championship? Do you want to have a “normal” high school experience? Do you want to juggle both and let the chips fall where they lie? And the accompanying choices: whether to have the extra cupcake, go to the party, take the extra stretch class, do a quick workout each night at home, and on and on.
By continually asking these questions and guiding through the options (did I mention Mark needs a lot of help sorting through goals and priorities?), I hope and believe that Mark can take ownership of and feel pride in his decisions and outcomes.
Which can be whatever he wants.
As long as it involves checks made out to Dad.