This is not the first time I've shared one of Carl Pickhardt's insights on parenting adolescents. Many of his points apply to parenting emerging adults--those just out of their teens but not quite into full-blown adulthood. But his recent newsletter's point applies to all: When it comes to parenting adolescent or adult children, lighten up. "Parenting is too serious to take every frustration seriously," he writes, "because when parents do that they are likely to overreact and make minor matters worse."
Pickhardt makes his point through an anecdote that shows how the parent (a father) was able to lighten up enough to keep from losing his temper over a test that pitted his request for action (a variation on clean up your room) versus the son's persistent postponement of doing anything about it. When our children are adolescents living under our roof, these kinds of issues come up all the time. But even when they are "emancipated," we can come up against a test of wills, an unwillingness to take our "suggestions" seriously or stop behaving in a way we deem inappropriate. At such times, the light touch is even more important: we're no longer the boss.
Here's a link to Pickhardt's newsletter and for those who don't want to go there, a recounting of the anecdote and a quickie synopsis of Pickhardt's analysis of what was going on here.
The anecdote: "My fifteen-year-old just took a shower and there they are where he always leaves them: wet towels all over the bathroom floor. ‘Would you please hang up the towels,’ I ask? ‘Sure,’ he cheerfully replies. And I wait for what I know is coming next: ‘In a minute.’
“I mean it’s not like I haven’t been through this torment before—like about a million times. So I wait an hour to check the bathroom, and everything’s okay. No one has disturbed the towels. They’re resting nicely and probably so is he. So I poke my head into his room and remind him: ‘The towels. You said you’d pick up the towels.’
“He looks at me and shakes his head like he was the long suffering parent and I was the troublesome child. ‘I wish you’d make up your mind,’ he says. ‘I’m doing my homework. You’re always after me to do my homework. Can I do my homework without being interrupted?’
“Don’t ask me how he does it, but now I’m feeling on the defensive. ‘After you finish your homework you’ll pick them up?’ He just shakes his head like I’m some kind of defective and he doesn’t know how he puts up with me. ‘Yes. Yes. Yes. Now can I get back to work?’ I feel like I’m imposing, so I leave.
“Two hours later the towels (remember the towels?) are still where he dropped them and I find him watching TV. Now I have him dead to rights. This is indefensible, so I say: ‘If you have time to watch TV, you have time to pick up the towels.’ This is when he gives me this pained look: ‘Once a week, is that asking too much? Once a week I get to see my favorite program. The only one I care to watch. I’ve done my homework like you wanted. Now, can I watch my program? As soon as it’s over, I’ll get the towels.’ Well, he did get his homework done. ‘Okay,’ I say. ‘But right after it’s over, the towels. No more excuses.’ He nods agreement and impatiently dismisses me with a long suffering wave of his hand.
“An hour and a half later I can’t believe it. The towels haven’t been touched. I storm off to his room. His light is out. ‘The towels!’ I yell into the dark. ‘What? What’s the matter?” a groggy voice asks as though I’d woken him up? But I stand my ground. ‘The towels,’ I repeat. Silence. ‘You woke me up to talk about towels?’ he asks, implying that if there is something wrong, it’s certainly not with him. ‘You’re always after me to get in bed on time. To get enough rest. And now you wake me up for this? For towels? Can’t I get them in the morning?’ I’m tired too. ‘You promise?’ I ask. ‘I promise,’ he says. ‘Now can I get some sleep?’
“Next morning, there he is about to leave for school when I notice the towels from last night have been joined by more towels from today’s shower. That’s when I lose it. I scream as though I’d been betrayed, which is how I feel: ‘Your promise! What about your promise?’
“You should have seen the look of utter disbelief on his face. ‘You want me to miss the bus? You want me to be late for school? For towels? Which is more important: towels or school?’ Fortunately, for once in my life I made the right decision: ‘School? The heck with school! FIRST, YOU PICK UP THOSE TOWELS!’”
So according to the long-suffering father described above, the young man did finally retrieve the towels, except for the sodden one either overlooked or subversively left underneath the bathroom sink, perhaps as a reminder that the Game was still on.
“Five out of six is not a bad average” the dad smilingly concluded. Then, feeling delayed but apparently not defeated, he laughed: “Back to work!” He was resolved to pursue picking up the one remaining towel as the ongoing battle for and against timely compliance continued to run its seemingly eternal course.
The father who told Pickhardt the story was, Pickhardt says, "really [telling] a story on himself—laughing at his predicament and his own reactions, grudgingly admiring his son’s spirit of opposition. Not taking the problem personally, he used humor to create perspective..."
Do the towels apply to our insistence on being called or notified about events in our adult (or emerging adult) children's lives, or their promises to visit or, if they've moved back home, doing the chores we've asked them to do as part of the bargain of living under our roof again? Personally, whenever I feel a nag coming on, I'm going to think "towels!"