So what can parents do? Unfortunately, it’s really hard to motivate parents to shift from cheerleading to coaching mode this late in the game. It’s no fun, and it is not rewarding for parent nor child. It is also counterintuitive, particularly for parents who have spent more than a decade helping their child be as happy as possible and avoid pain. It requires parents to be witnesses to minor and possibly major train wrecks: getting F’s for missed homework, being sucked into the black hole of online games, discovering marijuana—things that make pet tricks look like harmless fun by comparison. The phase requires parents to tolerate anxiety, self-doubt, and failure, not just in their child but—even harder in some ways—in themselves as parents.
But it’s absolutely critical because parents and their kids construct a reality together that at this stage only the parents can undo. As parents, we can get caught in the day-to-day unfolding “story”—the simplest sequence of events in our lives. We find places for our child to have fun and succeed. He is happy. We are good parents. We are happy. End of story.
What I try to do is get parents to appreciate some grander “narrative” —a system of stories, related to each other, that extends the single “story,” say, a failure to prepare for a test, into a larger evolving narrative. Along with David Black, a clinician and research neuropsychologist at the National Institutes of Health, I am developing a program called “Transitions X: Working With Families to Build Autonomy” that includes many such experiments in teaching middle- and high-school parents and their at-risk kids independence. What’s hard is getting the parent commandos to commit to an exit strategy of gradual, real troop withdrawal because it feels to them like neglect or even abuse. We want them to evolve from what has been referred to as “Helicopter Parents” to “U-2 Parents”: observers instead of combatants—present, attentive, but largely undetected from such a distance.
So let’s say Ian spends the night before an exam doing pet tricks instead of studying, but this time, his parents, Michael and Debbie, refrain from the usual exhortations. (This is a true story, names changed) Ian fails the test, and he is demoralized. The next week he does the same thing again and still they don’t intervene. This time he’s also angry. “This really sucks, and it is your fault!” he yells at his parents. He is called into the dean’s office and asked to account for his drop in grades. The dean tells him he has to improve his performance or he’ll get placed in a lower math level.
Ian is still angry at his parents for “not caring” about him, but he really doesn’t want to get a math demotion. This is the first time it’s occurred to him that he might not get into a great college, which is what his parents have been signaling to him is his inevitable fate. It takes a lot of work to get his parents to stick with the program at this point. Michael and Debbie were really worried he would become overwhelmed or even break down. I convinced them that if they intervened now, they would only be delaying a train wreck until the first year of college. Sooner or later, he had to learn what to do when he failed.
Used to being bailed out by his parents, Ian was confused. Eventually he came up with the idea of asking his teacher for help. The teacher was willing to help but only if Ian made the appointments himself and showed up consistently. In these private meetings, Ian learned that his revered double honors math teacher had failed calculus the first time. The teacher was blunt in telling Ian that if he did not take responsibility for his own learning, he should give up on the idea of being a math or science major in college. Ian had been counting on this teacher for a strong recommendation. Once again, his sense of inevitable success was shaken, so he was scared into being responsible. Ian is still showing up for the appointments.
Motivating kids who have reached their teenage years without accruing much intrinsic motivation is a complicated affair. Some adolescents have been shown to dramatically increase their test scores with something as simple as the promise of M&M’s. For some kids—the confident ones—cheerleading by laying the compliments on thick spurs them to take on challenges. For the less confident kids, overpraising is disastrous.
The hardest part of the parents’ task is often the quid pro quo, insisting on getting some things from their kid up front, in return for the privilege—not the inevitability but the earned privilege—of going to college. Parents have to accept that the narratives are open-ended. One never knows which “failure” will be the tipping point for an adolescent toward more effort, self-reflection, assuming responsibility, in a word, discovering inner motivation.
The reason we need to make this shift is obvious if we think about our own lives. We can very often trace significant, unexpected growth in our adult lives as emerging out of disappointments and setbacks. Perhaps as a direct result of a failure, we encounter someone who becomes a pivotal mentor, who sees a spark in us we miss. We are denied admittance to what seems like the ticket to our early dream, only to discover our calling, more subtle but more configured to our values and strengths. If you need convincing, here is a blog that chronicles the unlikely ways that musicians, artists, and other creative types got their start. All of these experiences are painful in the short term, but ultimately, hopefully, lead to a shot at happiness.