Four months ago, our family bought a puppy. We named her Sadie, short for Mercedes. She is a Morkie, a hybrid of a Maltese and a Yorkshire terrier. At this point, she is the life of our family—very cute, cuddly, confident and full of energy.
And right now, she’s the “alpha dog” of our family.
I know, I know. It’s not supposed to be that way. She’s a puppy for Pete’s sake. But I am traveling quite a bit and my wife has been far more responsive than directive with Sadie. Because we’ve given into her every desire, our puppy thinks she’s in charge. In our busyness, we’ve not taken Sadie to a trainer or exposed her to much training at all from anyone. Outside of her mealtime regiment, Sadie pretty much requests what she wants, and someone gets it for her—be it a toy or a treat. After all, she’s adorable.
I am not trying to throw anyone under the bus. Because I am at the office during the day or gone on a trip, my wife finds herself in survival mode with this cute little critter. Sadie can be a handful. Cleaning up after her can be exhausting. But this also explains, however, why Sadie assumes she’s the alpha dog.
When we give her everything she wants, she begins to believe that she must be in charge. Does this situation sound familiar?
Students or Adults: Who’s Leading Who?
Our experience with Sadie illustrates what I frequently see as I speak on campuses of schools across the country. Over the last three decades, a growing number of schools and families have migrated into a new leadership style. Aware of the psychological needs of adolescents, we want to be responsive to them, meeting their every requirement for self-esteem, safety, security—you name it. And because so many students come from single parent homes or from a lower socio-economic-status (free or reduced lunches), we want to lead with empathy. I believe that’s a good thing. Sadly, however, many of us have not figured out how to be empathetic while still remain directive or demanding. We lower our standards. We let down our guard. We grade on a curve. We upgrade our language to hyperbole, in an effort to praise our kids and help them feel good about themselves. We become reactive, not proactive . . . and it’s had a sinister effect on millions of students.
The result? Much like our puppy, many of these teens feel like they’re in charge. At times it happens subconsciously and unintentionally. And sometimes, the students know it’s happening. I’ve watched them brag on social media about how they’ve manipulated their teacher, how they’ve negotiated a grade, how they’ve persuaded their parent to get them the latest Apple product, and how they’ve threatened to “quit” if their coach or leader doesn’t give in to their requests.
When we show a pattern of giving in, even in the name of compassion or empathy, we actually begin to confuse students. They become fuzzy about what rules will be enforced and which ones will be adjusted. Just like Sadie. Our puppy is confused right now because we’ve not offered clear parameters to her. We say something, but she figures out we really don’t mean it. We cave. We’ve unwittingly conditioned her to keep barking or continue pushing for what she wants, knowing that her will may just be stronger than her owner’s will. At least she’s figured out that it’s worth trying.
Both our students and our cuddly pets need a wise alpha dog. Unless we’re proactive (rather than reactive) in our leadership—we can send the wrong signals.
Six Steps We Can Take
1. Be clear. Lack of clarity breeds insecurity.
Kids often learn that if they argue long enough, they can wear us down and eventually get their way. As our leadership vacillates, our kids feel uncertain about their boundaries. In short, a lot of little uncertainties produce a few big insecurities. Our fuzzy-ness usually results in our kids’ insecurity. The greatest gift leaders can offer students is the gift of clarity. It fosters security and energy in them.
2. Be consistent. Lack of consistency breeds confusion.
Parent psychologists Jayne Rutherford and Kathleen Nickerson, write, “No matter how well you’ve selected your rules, how much you praise your kids, or how effectively you discipline them, you must be consistent, or your efforts will be in vain and your household will still be in crisis. Kids need consistency to get the message because your actions speak louder than your words—it’s part of how they’re wired.”
3. Don’t cave. Lack of strength breeds instability.
When adults give in to the requests and demands of our children, we begin to send mixed signals to them. At first, they like it. After all, they just won the argument. They got what they wanted. In time, however, our constant “caving” begins to foster a constant “craving” in them for strength. With boundaries unclear, they need more direct attention. Unwittingly, we actually breed instability in our young.
4. Stay committed. Lack of commitment reduces growth.
Dr. Kathleen Nickerson says: “Sticking with a new endeavor is what makes it become a habit, and the sooner you start, the easier it will be for both you and your child. What’s going on around children strongly impacts the development of their brain. In order for your child’s brain cells to learn healthier rewards, rules, and consequences, and to behave accordingly in a way that becomes automatic, you must remain consistent while his brain develops.”
5. Determine your compass. Lack of direction breeds anxiety.
As a parent or teacher, if I am fuzzy on what should happen next, I tend to be fuzzy in my direction and in my behavior as well. I may waver back and forth, trying to figure out my dilemma as I go. It’s like building a bridge as you cross it. It’s very difficult. Up front, write down the non-negotiables and make them known to everyone. Be both supportive and demanding. This actually can lower the level of angst a kid feels.
6. Stay accountable. Lack of accountability diminishes grit.
In the end, decisions only have weight if people are held accountable. We’ve all heard the phrase: “You can only expect what you inspect.” If you’ve made a decision, find ways to hold students or children accountable to their part. We can be friendly but firm. Model this yourself. Everyone performs better when they are “watched.” If a student fails to come through, talk about it, don’t ignore it because you’re tired.
In the end, I wonder if we need just as much training as Sadie does.
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