When I was a child, my most important possession was my bicycle, followed closely by my radio.
My bike was how I got around. I rode it to school, friend’s houses, pick-up baseball games, shopping centers, and just about anywhere else my heart desired and my parents would allow (and some they wouldn’t have allowed).
My radio — AM-only with a 3-inch speaker — connected me to a world far removed from my suburban-Chicago neighborhood and its surrounds, but it mostly connected me to one of the 1960s greatest rock ‘n’ roll stations: WLS. When I was home, I was usually in my room singing along with the likes of Elvis and Frankie Vallie.
My parents were strict, and I was given to mischief, so I was punished a fair amount — more than any of my friends, for sure. My parents’ default penalty was to ground me to the house for a week, sometimes more. On occasion, they grounded me to my room — I could, of course, come out to do chores, which they seemed to delight in assigning whenever I was grounded — and confiscated my radio. In that event, my social and creative life came to a virtual standstill. Obviously, I survived these traumas.
I’m sharing this personal history because of something odd about many of today’s parents, or at least a good number of those who come to me seeking advice, much of which pertains to narcissistic, sociopathic behavior on the part of their kids. The odd thing in question is a self-defeating form of enabling.
To use a not-uncommon example, a young teen’s parents tell me she is disrespectful and belligerently defiant toward them, refuses to lift a finger around the house, and is just plain nasty toward her younger siblings. No one knows that she has an evil alter-ego because outside the house she is a paragon of civility. When she is home, she is found in her room, door closed, submerged in what is called “social” media — an oxymoron if ever there was one.
The girl is in dire need of an at-home rehab program. I recommend taking everything away from her that is not of absolute necessity, including, of course, her smart phone. For how long? the parents ask. Until she turns herself around, becomes a model family citizen, and sustains her recovery for three months. I point out to them that it may be a year or more before she is reunited with her smart phone.
They look at one another like they’ve just realized they’re in a room with a person who’s not in possession of a completely right mind. They tell me they don’t think they can do that. Why not? I ask.
“Well, John, I mean, um, uh, well, in her peer group everyone communicates by phone,” the father answers. “And, well, uh, I mean that’s her whole social life … it’s, well, it’s her whole world.”
Precisely. That’s the point. I understand that certain possessions can become super-important to a teenager and that one particular possession can become key to the teen’s social life. My bicycle occupied that status until I could drive. And when I was in my room — where, like most teens I preferred to be — my radio was my world. With it on, my room became a stage and I became a rock star. Nonetheless, my parents had no problem parking my bicycle and grounding me to my room — which they would purge of my WLS machine — for weeks at a time. Somehow, my mental health survived these abuses, as did my social life.
There are times when nothing short of a “Godfather offer” — one the child can’t refuse — will bring about what the child does not know is in his or her best interest: civil behavior. And yes, when things get to that point, they are sure to get worse before they get better, but keep in mind that the operative words in that adage are “they get better.”
Family psychologist John Rosemond can be reached at www.johnrosemond.com.
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