Something that keeps coming up in my class and in my own parenting is the power of the tension of life. I’ve been thinking about how Jessica Lahey and Ned Johnson both talk about getting out of our kid’s way. We have to get out of the way so our kids can feel the tension of life, make decisions, and make choices from their own internal compass instead of doing what they’re told. I think this is a radical idea. It’s very personal to me because of what I’ve lived through with my daughter who opted out of high school at the start of junior year. I’ve talked about it a lot, but it wasn’t easy for me. I was not in a place of excitement around her declaring what she needed – I was terrified! I didn’t know what it meant for her, there were mental health issues going on too, and it was really scary.
I talk to parents who have teens who are pushing back against the traditional model of school and success in a variety of ways. The illusion that “this is the way it has to look” and the whole public education system has really been rocked through the pandemic. Being home and doing school on their own terms has been useful for some kids, but other kids are realizing, “Oh wow, I can do other things. I’m not sold on this path of four years of high school, four years of college, then getting a career.” Kids are saying “Screw this! I don’t care about school. I’m going to do what I want.” As parents, we get really worked up about this. We take it personally, and we’re afraid they won’t take care of themselves and be able to pay their bills. We don’t always realize that sometimes our stress around their choices gets in the way of them actually considering what it is that they want.
When we get into a back and forth around “I, the parent, know more than you. I have a plan for you,” we put that on our kids and end up in a power struggle. Sometimes we say those words literally, and that hurts our kids. It’s painful to receive those messages and they get wrapped up in, “My parents don’t know me. They don’t get me. Screw them. I’m doing what I want.” They feel disconnected from us and miss the tension of life because they are in tension with us, instead.
I have a lot of conversations with parents that go like this:
“If I’m not staying on their case, then they just won’t get their homework done.”
“So what would happen if they don’t get their homework done?”
“They’ll fail their class.”
“Then what would happen?
“Maybe they won’t graduate.”
“Is it important to them to graduate? Is that something they want?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, this might be a good time to let go of what’s important to you and get curious about what’s important to your kids.”
That’s where it gets juicy!
“Is it important to you to graduate with your friends?”
“Well, is it important to you to graduate?
“Okay, when you think about moving out and living on your own, what’s your vision?”
“Maybe I can work at Target.”
“Okay. Do you know what the requirements are to get a job at Target?”
“Well, maybe I need to get my GED first.”
“Okay. Have you looked into that?”
It’s hard to be neutral when you feel afraid, but you have to get curious about what your kids want. You can’t lead them, but you can help them broaden their perspective and align what will be available to them if they make those choices and if that will get them what they want most. Help them come to a place where they can figure things out.
“This is what it costs to live on my own. This is what I can make working in fast food.” “Do those match? If not, what then? What can you trade?”
Take yourself and your opinion out of the conversation (yes, this is hard to do)! Hold space for the conversation to be about what they want. Instead of reacting to us, we want them to consider their priorities – maybe it’s graduating on time or not wanting to do summer school. Then continuously hand that back to them – “This is what you want. What do you have to do to make it happen?”
We are not abandoning them! You can ask them:
“Can I offer something?”
“Do you want help figuring this out?”
“Do you want to sit down together and figure out what your cost of living will be?”
Parents love unconditionally, and that means we support them in their decision-making, even when they’re opting out of school or choosing not to go to college. What if our kids don’t go to college? What if they do decide to work in fast food? Will they decide they don’t love that and want more opportunities? Maybe, and then you’ll continue to love them, support them emotionally, and you’ll ask, “What do you need to do to get there?”
Kids who have opportunities to make decisions for themselves are the kids who thrive.
I was one of those kids who followed the path of going to high school, then college – that’s just what you did. So I went off to college and graduated with a 2.1 GPA, then I traveled and worked as a bartender. I didn’t love it, and I looked into how to become a teacher. Lo and behold, my grades from college weren’t good enough to get into the program I wanted to do, so I went to community college for an entire year and I killed it there. I sat in the front, I listened, and then I did manage to get into that teaching program. It was the tension of life that propelled me into wanting to do something besides bartending.
There’s something to that. We encourage our kids to consider all the options and to take pride in their work, but it gets mixed up in the messaging. When we start to become afraid while they’re becoming disillusioned and discouraged, then it turns into a battle between us instead of them looking into their future. It feels radical to be talking about this, but I just think that we can be doing a better job of getting out of the way so our teens can really feel out what they want. They don’t know what they want in a lot of cases because we are so busy telling them what they should want and where we think they need to go. They don’t have space to consider what and where they want to go. We want kids to have agency.
I did have a child who opted out of school completely, and it was terrifying. It required a depth of trust, patience, and faith I hadn’t tapped into before. She did get her GED, she’s working through an esthetician program, and she wants to move onto becoming a master esthetician. She has a vision for herself, and we’ll see how it all pans out, but the beauty of it is that she has her own vision. She knows that she can make her choices. She’s the designer of her life, and that is so exciting to me. That’s what I want most for her.
What do you think? I want to hear push-back. I want to hear your “yeah, but…” and I want to hear from those of you who are reading this and thinking I’m onto something here.