Dr. Anthony Wolf - Books on Parenting Dr. Anthony Wolf - Books on Parenting Dr. Anthony Wolf - Books on Parenting
Dr. Anthony Wolf - Books on Parenting

Get out of My Life,
But first Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall

Correcting Character Flaws

Probably the most common and most insidious trap is one that makes parents feel that they cannot let a matter drop because their child's very character is at stake.

It was a Sunday and it snowed. Jerry shoveled the walk and the driveway. Later that day it snowed a little more, stopping around mid-evening. Jerry was in his room lying on his bed listening to music. His father asked him to clear off the walk and the driveway again. The job would probably take about twenty minutes, no more.

"Dad, I already did it. The new snow is nothing. It doesn't need to be shoveled"
"Jerry, it needs to be done. If it's not shoveled you know how it turns to ice."
"Dad, it doesn't need to be done."
"Jerry, go outside and clear off the snow now."
"No, it doesn't need it. If you want it done so much, I don't see why you can't do it yourself."

No matter how you could look at it, no explanations other than bad ones exist for Jerry's behavior. He was lazy and obnoxious.

But that is not an unusual situation. Teenagers often act in ways that are uncompromisingly grotesque. In these situations parents frequently make what is probably the major and most common error in dealing with their teenage children, an error based on faulty assumptions that go to the heart of being the parent of a teenager.

"He's so lazy. If I can't make him change now, when is he ever going to change? I can't let him get away with this behavior. I only have a few years left before he's going to be gone. It's my responsibility to shape him up before it's too late."

"Jerry, you lazy jerk. What the hell do you think you're doing? You just lie on you bed all day and listen to music. You can't even do a simple job when I ask you."
"That's not fair, Dad. I do do stuff. I'd do more if you didn't yell at me so much."
"I yell at you because you don't do anything. I can't believe you're so lazy. What are you going to do when you're older? Do you think you're always going to find somebody to wait on you? I pity your wife. So help me god, you better learn to straighten yourself out."
"Jerry rises from his bed and leaves the room. "I'm getting the fuck out of here. You clean up your own fucking driveway."
Don't you swear at me. You come back here."

What was Jerry's father's error? He believed that since his child demonstrated major character flaws (rudeness, laziness), he himself had to act to correct those flaws, especially since there was so little time left before Jerry would be on his own and no longer under parental influence. The faulty assumptions were, first, that his intervention would even have any effect and, second, that the character flaws so clearly revealed in the snow-shoveling episode were destined to be part of his child's character as an adult.

The fact is, if a teenager is destined to grow up to be a jerk, parental interventions are not going to do much to change that. Parents who try very hard to prevent warped character development in an obnoxious teenager are usually wasting their time. They are fighting a battle that they have already won or lost. The just don't realize it.

However, Jerry's father compounded his first error with another error. In his attempt to change a character flaw in his son he was compelled to lecture Jerry on the consequences of his laziness rather than sticking to the issue of the conflict - was Jerry going to shovel the driveway? Teenagers will often use a lecture as an excuse for not doing something. In this case, the lecture achieved the opposite of what was intended. It allowed Jerry to avoid confronting his laziness.

Lectures do very little. They can play into the hands of the adolescent who doesn't want to separate from the parents. A lecture allows Jerry to stay attached by fussing, rather than having to deal with he question of whether he should shovel the snow again.

Parents can rave at their children. They can pull out all the stops in order to change pernicious characteristics. But their energy will be wasted and they will succeed only in producing longer, nastier scenes. Any overall effect will be to slow down the process of maturing.

Only one good reason exists to rave at one's child: it makes us feel better. We should not delude ourselves as to who it is that benefits from our lectures.

"Well, I certainly gave it to him that time."

"Dad is such a jerk. I hate it when he talks like this. Why can't he just leave me alone? I really would do a whole lot better if he didn't bitch at me so much. I'm not lazy. I would do it if he'd just back off and not treat me like a little kid. He thinks that because I'm his son he has the right to yell at me. I'm not going to do stuff for him when he comes on like such a prick."

Jerry's father would have been better off insisting on his original request and not getting sidetracked with son-improvement lectures.

"Jerry, shovel the driveway."
"No, it doesn't need it. Get off my back."
"Jerry. Shovel the driveway. I don't want to have to shovel it. I want you to shovel it. Now."
"No. It doesn't need it."
"Jerry, I want you to shovel the driveway."

And if the scene is played this way, with Jerry's father avoiding lectures but staying with his demand, Jerry usually will go out and sullenly shovel the walk. Usually, simply staying with a specific demand will achieve its aim.