A buddy of mine describes two situations with his adolescent daughters.
I walk in to social events with my girls. I don’t leave until I make sure that the get-togethers are properly supervised. If the parents aren’t home, my girls and I get back in the car. My daughters are embarrassed. They would prefer that I not walk in to parties with them. As it happens, I am not running for junior class president. There is no popularity contest in my home. I am not at all invested in whether or not my daughters approve of my accompanying them to parties. I meet their friends, especially the boys. I make it a point to shake hands with each young man. I stare them down. I shake their hands. I make it a point to do my best to intimidate them. Before I leave, I make it clear to every person in the room that if they offer my 15-year-old daughter drugs or alcohol, then they will have to come through me, that I will make it my first priority to make they lives an unending stream of misery. Do not offer my girls drugs or alcohol. These young men know for certain that I will call their parents, inform their schools, prosecute them to the fullest extent of the statutes. And if telling their parents or contacting law-enforcement doesn’t dissuade them from offering drugs to my daughters, I will use other means to make my point. "Do not offer drugs to my girls," I communicate unequivocally. “I have a shotgun, a big backyard, and I don’t think anyone would miss you.”*
I am tough on my daughter’s peers, and I am tough on my daughters. I don’t care that they are 15 and 17. I tuck them into bed every night. Whether they like it or not. My house, my rules. I insist that they put their phones away while we have family dinner. We continue chatting after dinner then we do the dishes together. When my girls come home at night, I meet them at the door. When I hug them, I am also smelling their breath to make sure that they have not had alcohol. I am constantly and consistently reiterating the rules: no drugs, no alcohol. You can choose what books to read; you can choose what clothes to wear; you can choose what sports to play. You cannot choose to take drugs or drink alcohol. Do my girls think I’m too tough on them? Ask me if I give a shit.
My buddy goes on to conclude: my girls have made good choices so far. I am going to ensure that they continue to do so. They will lead positive, productive, happy lives because I have been such an unrelenting hard-ass while they were growing up. I don't care what my girls think of me. I would rather have their good health than their affection. I hope we will be friends when they are adults. For now, it is my job to see to it that they survive to adulthood.
Except that, in my judgment, he is completely wrong. Yes, his girls will grow up to be content and fulfilled. But in spite of not because of his strict attitude. His girls are getting a totally different message than the one he thinks he's conveying. My buddy's actions are viewed not from the standpoint of strictness but through the lens of compassion and understanding. My buddy thinks he is communicating the law when he tucks his girls in at night. Nah. Severity is not what is getting through at all. He says, “I love you. That’s why I refuse to let you take drugs and alcohol. Under no circumstances will you stay out late or behave irresponsibly.” He thinks his girls are hearing all the bluster about rules. In reality, they have stopped listening and are already half asleep. All they hear is “I love you.”
They heard, “I love you enough to walk in to a roomful of adolescents.” They heard, “I love you enough to be the only parent in the room.” They heard, “I love you enough to confront your peers.” They heard, “I love you enough to forgo an evening out with my friends.” They heard, “I love you enough to stay awake and tuck you in.” They heard, “I love you enough to be concerned about you and your future happiness.” They heard, "I love you enough to minimize my own alcohol consumption to be a good role model for you."
Conversely, parents say, “I trust you enough to let you live unsupervised on a 37-foot boat with no curfew” but kids hear “I’ll buy you stuff rather than be with you.” Parents say, “I want my kid to like me so I’ll smoke pot with them.” Kids hear, “I am more invested in being a slave to my own addictions than to helping my kids avoid theirs.” Parents say, “I won’t embarrass my kid by walking her into a party.” Kids hear, “Dad won’t stand up and do the hard work.”
Our adolescent children are processing our communication at many levels. What parents think they are saying may not be what their kids are hearing. If you think your words are communicating strictness and boundaries, be aware that your children are listening for and extracting unconditional love from those messages. Conversely, if you think you are communicating “I trust you," they may be hearing, "I don’t care about you.”
After all, no poet ever sang, “All you need is a shotgun, a shovel, and a big backyard.”
* I took this phrase from the movie, "Clueless."