My wife and I have read this amazing book called Nurture Shock over and over again since we found out she was pregnant — if you’re going to be a parent at any point (other Mike), you should read it, too. It reveals, through analysis and exposition of a lot of scientific studies, a goodly number of unusual truths about the child brain.
For example, did you know that teenagers have to stop and think about what something would feel like before they experience a reaction to the thought of doing that thing? So if you say to a teenager, “how would you like to stab yourself in the hand?” they don’t just instinctively flinch. They have to consider it. Which sounds batshit crazy to the rest of us, but goes a long way toward explaining their propensity for doing stupid things — they just didn’t stop to consider what the worst-case scenario might feel like.
Along those lines, my wife read to me today a section that directly applies to my parenting style: the sin of micromanagement. Actually, what she read about was lying, but the lesson was pretty self-evident. It turns out that to a young person, lying is the opposite of arguing. If they don’t want to get in a fight, they lie to you and walk away having ‘kept the peace.’ If they think something is worth arguing for, they give you their honest opinion.
That wasn’t the relevant part, as interesting as it may be. The interesting part is the way the kids react to the argument. If the parent stonewalls — is utterly strict and doesn’t budge at all — the kid sees that as “my parent doesn’t love me because they don’t value my opinion.” If the parent is overly lax and doesn’t put up a fight, the kid sees that as “my parent doesn’t love me because they don’t care about me.”
Keep in mind, this is empirical evidence from actual studies, not just some dude’s hackneyed opinion. The best reaction is to actually assess the kid’s argument and consider what the actual ramifications would be if you gave a little — and if they’re acceptable, actually give a little. This also requires you to have a reasonable number of fairly firm (but negotiable with special circumstances) rules. Too many rules, and the kid feels trapped; not enough and they feel uncared for.
I, as it turns out, am guilty of all of these things. When I’m not paying attention to my kid (because I’m engaged in work or a game or whatever), I tend to be highly laissez-faire — when I am paying attention (because we’re getting ready for school or playing a game), I tend to micromanage pretty severely.
So apparently I don’t love my kid for two reasons at once — or at least that’s what he’ll think if I don’t get my shit together.
Now, this isn’t a relationship-killer right now, because my son isn’t old enough to get into sophisticated rule-defining arguments just yet — but it’s a God-awful habit to get into, and I need to focus my effort on getting over that before it becomes a severe problem.
We learned an acronym a few years ago in a class designed to help us teach our kid how to communicate. It was OWL: Observe, Wait, Listen. I, feeling clever, added an H to it: HALT, Observe, Wait, Listen. Because you can’t observe/wait/listen without first putting down whatever you’re doing. As it turns out, my cleverness was moot because I’m not good at halting OR any of that other stuff. And I didn’t really think of it as a life-defining obstacle, but as my wife has gently pointed out to me through pointed reading of this book, it genuinely is.
I need to learn, funnily enough, to pay more attention and yet be less concerned about the details of what I’m paying attention to. Which sounds difficult — but I’ve overcome a lot since I started this blog, all in the name of becoming a father, and I’m going to master this one, too.