I recently met with a twenty-three year old who told me he’s seeing a counselor. That, in itself, wasn’t shocking. Millions of young Millennials are in therapy for various levels of anxiety, depression or addictions. What stopped me in my tracks was his reason for seeking psychological help:
“I think I got the wrong parents.”
Yes, he actually said that. While those were his own words, not his therapist’s description, it was his conclusion after eight counseling sessions. Somehow, even though he wasn’t adopted, he felt his personal temperament—his hardwiring—just didn’t match those of his mom and dad. Their personalities didn’t mesh with his. Now, he was attempting to overcome it.
For many of us, this just seems wrong. It appears even sacrilegious. Is this even possible? Some young people would say so. While similar DNA exists inside parents and children, we live in an imperfect world of disease, insecurities, deformities and brokenness—and sometimes, the personalities of mom or dad and their daughter or son just clash. Parents can give birth to a child with a temperament that doesn’t fit their leadership style. It causes mom or dad to feel guilty, to over-compensate or to give up. Sadly, both children and adults become victims. At a loss for what to do, both can assume the guilt for being wrong. Usually, both the parent and offspring feel it, but neither knows how to talk about it.
Case in Point
I write this because I’ve had three conversations recently, where this topic has surfaced. Kylie told me of constant clashes with her father, starting as a pre-teen. She concluded, “It all boiled down to this—my parents didn’t know how to talk to me.”
As a young man, Jarrod, said to me, “I love my dad, but I wish he was more intentional with me. He never pursued me, and never prepared me for manhood. It hurt because I saw him spend time with other guys my age.”
Derin summarized it briefly, saying, “I don’t think my parents even ‘get me’.”
- From a biological perspective, it begs the question: “How could a child with the same genes as her parents seem so foreign in her ways?”
- From a sociological perspective, it begs the question: “How can kids growing up in the same environment turn out so differently?”
As you know, this may describe not only a parent/child relationship, but any leader and follower. This can be a teacher and a student; a supervisor and a team member. In the end, we play favorites because this mismatch of personalities bullies us to avoid contrary people. Sometimes, we can send negative, even hurtful signals to a young person. Our struggle, in essence, is simply this: we don’t know how to impart to them. We feel fake, as if we’re forcing a conversation when we talk. So we avoid them. But this isn’t the answer. What are some principles, then, we can practice in this situation? Let me offer three of our Habitudes® as suggested habits and attitudes to adopt:
- Play Chess Not Checkers
I look back at my own childhood and believe I had the perfect parents for my personality, but my father has wondered if he failed to notice realities in my sisters’ lives as adolescents. He regrets not pursuing them in their teen years—investing in them emotionally and imparting to them relationally. The lesson for all of us? Kids are like chess pieces, not checkers pieces. The game of checkers is simple, because all the pieces look and move alike. In chess, however, to have any hope of winning the game, we must know what each piece can do and how it moves. So it is with leading kids. Growing up in the same home, the children are not all alike, and they must be led differently—based on their personality and strengths. When you’re in a strained relationship with a student, try listening first. Learn to read your kid before you lead your kid.
- Be a Sun, Not a Moon
We all know the sun and moon both give us light, one during the day and one at night. The difference, of course, is this: the moon only reflects the light of the sun. The sun is the source of light. I believe this is our responsibility as adult leaders and parents. We are to act, not react. We must be the source of light and leadership for young people. They will reflect the demeanor and environment you initiate. Far too often, parents have led their children as if they were adults, giving them choices and options when they’re too young to make wise decisions. In addition, we often tend to react or reflect their demeanor, as if we’re a “moon” not a “sun.” We must assume responsibility for the health and development of the relationship, even if it’s hard. Too many parents are children living in grown-up bodies, mimicking adult lives.
We must set the example. We must model the way.
- Be a Gardener, Not a God
We all know what a good gardener does. He or she prioritizes growing the plants in the garden. They water them, fertilize them, pull weeds and expose them to sunshine. That’s a job description for us as parents and leaders. We’re to emotionally nourish our students, remove harmful distractions, and expose them to mentors who are more in tune with them. We’re to simply create a healthy environment. Healthy things naturally grow. We are a gardener—not a god. We can’t control our child’s attitudes or as young adults, their actions. The “control myth” leads only to parental guilt and shame. It’s a dance. Metaphorically speaking, you and your kids are dancing, and in a dance, both people must take steps to stay aligned. For the dance to work, both parties must choose to dance collaboratively. One person, however, must take the lead. This is your role.
Dr. Jennifer Margulis writes, “It’s true that some children are harder for some adults to parent, and even to love. Some children and adults really are mismatched. It’s also true there will be times when you really don’t enjoy being with your child . . . But even though we sometimes may not like them, our job is to always love them. To learn to embrace our differences. To let our children spread their wings their own way and fly to the places they want to go. To be the steady branch they can alight on when they come home.”