As I dug around in my purse, looking for my keys, I yelled, “Let’s go! We are going to be late!” at the kitchen ceiling. Trying to herd two teenagers out the door to a doctor’s appointment on a day off from school is no easy task. I waited for the familiar sound of stomping feet on our staircase but it was silent.
“Guys, let’s GOOOOO!” I bellowed from the bottom of the stairs.
And then I heard the shower being turned on in the bathroom my two kids share.
My son had decided that our agreed upon departure time was the best time to take a shower.
And my blood boiled.
His inconsideration of my tight time schedule combined with his lazy morning routine on a day off from school collided with my irritation.
I marched upstairs and banged on the bathroom door.
“What do you think you are doing?” I yelled at the door.
“Cool, Mah, I’ll be out in ten minutes. Relax.”
Oh, right. I should just “cool it” when my teen is going to make me late for yet another appointment, said no mother ever.
As I stood in the hallway and impatiently waited to confront him about his inconsideration, the door opened and there stood my teen, towel clad, moppy hair wet from the world’s fastest shower.
What ensued was an argument of wills. Me, yelling about being rude and time management, and him, rolling his eyes, mouthing off and oozing with petulance.
The standoff escalated and I did something I have never resorted to with either of my teens: I took away his cell phone privileges. And in a big way, too: for every retort he threw back at me, I added a day to his sentence. He made it to twelve days before he finally wised up and backed down.
“Amateur,” I thought.
As I angrily drove my now sullen teen and his more than surprised sister to the doctor’s office, I chastised myself for losing my cool. And for imposing a punishment that was nearly unenforceable. And just plain stupid. Twelve days without a cell phone was not going to teach him how to manage his time or to be more considerate of his parents. Twelve days also meant I’d have no way to communicate with him about rides home from school, schedule changes and emergencies.
I realized in that moment that’d I’d handled the situation the way my father would have when I was a teen.
And my heart sank.
My father was a strict authoritarian and he ruled our house with his acerbic tongue. His discipline style was that of restriction and withholding affection until the offending child “flew right” in his eyes. He took away car keys so fast our heads spun and when he was angry and handing out punishments, you didn’t cross him.
I can remember thinking as a teen that I didn’t want to parent the same way. I wanted to have an open dialogue with my teens when conflict arose and I certainly didn’t want to be the parent who confiscated car keys for bad behavior.
And yet, here I was, confiscating a cell phone for poor behavior.
In an article for the New York Times, Lisa Belkin states, “So much of how you parent shapes how you parent.” Belkin cites research done by Ohio State Universitythat indicates parents of today are redefining how we approach conflict with our kids and changing parenting from one generation to another. The study also revealed significant generational changes in parenting practices, with great increases in the amount of reading and affection shown to children today.
The takeaway here is that you are not doomed to repeat a parenting cycle and it’s okay to “go soft” on your teens when it comes to discipline. Sure, there are situations in which your teen’s safety calls for a swift judgement of parenting or a strict punishment but, in situations where your teen is mouthing off, digging in to prove a point may not be the best route.
And, recognizing that the way you were parented colors the way you react to your teens goes a long way in helping you to face the minefields of teen angst with more objectivity.
When I had cooled off and was able to see how my childhood experiences played into how I’d disciplined my son, I asked him if we could talk things through.
I was honest with him: I don’t have all the best tools to parent my kids but I’m learning. I told him I felt badly about how I’d handled the situation and I reminded him that, just because I’d screwed up and lost my cool, it wasn’t a free pass for him to get away with disrespectful behavior. I told him how I felt as a teen, when my father handed out arbitrary punishments. And, to my son’s amusement, I admitted I rolled my eyes more often than not at my dad.
He was able to clarify his feelings, too. He told me mouthing off and retorting is his way of standing his ground. He told me that he knows it’s wrong in the moment but that he, too, doesn’t have the tools to effectively tell me when he’s pissed off. “Mouthing off is my way of telling you I’ve had enough of arguing,” he said sheepishly.
His revelation and honesty made me realize that we are both learning and we agreed to work on our communication together.
And, as I handed him his cell phone, he smirked and said, “Don’t worry, Mah, I’ve learned my lesson. Next time, I’ll stop mouthing off at four days.”