What Do You Want?

Warning: some content may not be appropriate for younger readers.

At two o'clock in the morning at a fraternity party, a senior tells a first year student that he has been attracted to her for the entire semester but has never spoken to her until now. He alternates encouraging her to sip vodka with insisting that she drink beer. When the young woman is barely able to stand, he takes her to his room where he removes her clothes.

Subsequently, the young man never speaks to the young woman again, avoiding her in class and on campus. Even after she has involved the authorities, the trauma haunts her throughout her life, influencing her every relationship.

Across the quad, a young man and a young woman finish a long walk and a small bottle of wine. They talk about their long-standing mutual attraction and determine to take their relationship to the next level by becoming physically intimate. After chatting about sexually transmitted diseases, reproductive biology, and expectations, they begin a mutually satisfactory series of sleepovers. Years later, they still reflect glowingly on how great their senior year connection was. Subsequent relationships are measured against the standard of the agreeable interaction of senior year.

The purpose of this column is not to argue which scenario is more common. Only to suggest that the behavior of the two couples is predicated on what they want-long term and short. Although both narratives intersect with sex, what happened before and after is the difference between felony and romance.

Just as where you sit determines where you stand, your goals as parents define how you handle each interaction with your children. Threats and coercion can enforce short-term compliance, but are unlikely to lead to a long-standing positive relationship.

Consider a four-year-old who would rather play with his Legos than put on his shoes and accompany his dad to the market. A father who aggressively says, "You know how to put on your shoes! I'm going to give your toys away unless you do as you're told" will get a different response than a parent who says, "I know how much you love to play with those Legos. Let me help you with your shoes."

Which interaction will encourage the child to be more likely to put on his shoes by himself next time? Which conversation will allow the child to reciprocate unconditional positive regard for his father? Which will pave the way for a father whose opinions about important topics are respected and valued?

People respond to how we feel about them rather than to how we act with them. (For a more thorough and better explanation of this point, see The Anatomy of Peace.) The angry father may be feeling stressed and hurried. He may be worried that his child is being coddled by his mother-in-law who puts the child's shoes on for him and with whom he disagrees about child rearing. He may be concerned that his child is somehow behind in some imagined race for independence or compliance.

The attuned, sensitive father conveys that his kid is okay and that his son won't walk down the aisle barefoot. Indeed, all developmental milestones will be achieved earlier and more gracefully by children who are grounded, secure, and nurtured rather than those who are coerced, bullied, and threatened. Sure, compulsion works. But are force and deception what you want your relationship with your children to be based on?

If you have trouble answering that question, reread the account of the sexual experience of the girl described in the first paragraph above.


4 thoughts on “What Do You Want?

  1. Martin

    Nicely put!
    Your father put on your shoes and helped you put away the toys.
    We learn by example (I think I’m trying to say, You didn’t get this out of a
    book on developmental / interpersonal psychology, although I hope that
    the books also cite the empirical studies of “modes of parent-child interaction
    in dressing children and consequences for long-term maturation sequences”).

  2. sandra kessler

    I look forward to each of you postings and forward them to my three sons who are fathers of teens. They include the kind of ” advice” I want to give them but it is so much better coming from you, David.
    Thanks as always for sending me your columns.
    Sandi from Families Anonymous


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *