Managing Parents

IMG_20130907_152953Republishing an old talk from Ripple – Spring of 2010

When I was a teenager in high school I was responsible enough to get myself out of bed every morning for school. My alarm would go off I’d hit it once or twice but in the end I’d drag myself up stairs for a shower and eventually wake up enough to begin my day. That was Monday through Friday. On Sunday mornings my alarm was not set, but like clockwork my mother would call down the stairs into my basement bedroom to get me to wake up to go to church. There were many Sundays when I wished that I could hit her in order to get 9 more minutes of snooze. This particular practice drove me crazy. Worse, after I moved out, she would occasionally still call me, now by phone, in order to ensure that I made it to church on time. She especially did this on Sundays when the clocks would change. Mind you, by this time I was WORKING AT A CHURCH. I think her biseasonal phone calls ended a few years ago. I almost called her before church a few weeks back at daylight savings just to reciprocate. Parents can be extremely frustrating.

My eight year old daughter, Anya, and I have a funny relationship. We are very similar in personality in many ways. Strangely, this causes quite a bit of conflict. It probably has to do with the part of our personalities that like to be in control. We’re a little bit stubborn, Anya and I. Recently, my precocious little eight year old seems to have come down with early preadolescence. She has taken to arguing (with some degree of logic) that her room is her own space and I can’t make her clean it, that bedtime is optional, and that I ruin everything. I assume that she wants to hit me from time to time. Last week she told me that when she grows up she’ll never ruin her children’s plans “even if that makes me a bad mother.” I can’t wait to see how that turns out. What really irks me is just how much my mother is enjoying watching this whole thing unfold. Parents can be extremely frustrating.

Managing parents is a technique that requires some observation and analysis as well as some self actualization and a few useful skills. Parents like to joke about how no two children are alike and that none of them came with instruction manuals. This is true. Every person ever born had their own personality quirks and environmental shaping so as to become a unique person. What works for one child, says every tired parent with more than one kid, never seems to work for another. Well, surprise surprise, every parent is different, too, and they don’t come with instruction manuals either. You may have the most laid back, affectionate, and together parent or you may have the most dysfunctional, aggressive, or flighty parent. Chances are that some days or some weeks your parent’s are both, neither, or in between.

Before I go any further I want to make one small clarification. When I’m talking about “parents” you may need to translate that in your head to whatever parent type you are currently living with. By parents I am referring to the adults whom you live with on a day to day basis. It doesn’t matter if they are your biological folks, step parents, grandparents, adopted, foster, surrogate, or some other combination there-in. And for that matter it could mean a single parent or a blended family or two families with step parents or two parents with live in grandparents etc.[1] Whatever, for simplicity, we’ll just call them parents. Now, how to manage them.

I have read a few books on the topic that I would recommend (here’s two: Bringing Up Parents by Alex J. Packer and Yes, Your Parent’s Are Crazy by Michale J. Bradley), but mostly I have my own experience of managing my own parents, watching a large number of youth deal with their parents (and vise versa), and now being a parent myself. Tonight I want to offer some insight into managing parents as well as a couple tools for the journey.

Figuring out how to manage parents has many benefits. First of all, done well, you will find that it is easier to get the things that you want and need on a day to day basis. It will also help to create a more peaceful environment at home. As they say, when mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. But learning how to manage your parents will also be the training grounds to helping you to manage other relationships with other adults and authorities in your life. A. If you learn how to calmly and contritely respond to mom or dad when you get in trouble at home you will someday know how to calmly and contritely say, “I’m sorry officer, is there a problem?” when you almost inevitably get pulled over sometime in your early driving years. B. Learning how to see the problem at hand through your parent’s fears (this is called empathy) and respond appropriately instead of getting defensive may someday help you to save your job when you let your boss down at work over something that might not even have been entirely your fault. C. Learning how to communicate your needs and desires with your parents will also set the stage for how you do so when you meet your lifemate. Siblings may be a training ground for future peer relationships, parents are the training grounds for future adult relationships especially with adults who have authority in your life.

Let’s start with trust. Everyone should have a pen and a blank piece of paper. In the middle of your paper I want you to draw a bank and write “trust bank” on it. Now everyone here has a trust bank whether or not you are aware of it or using it to your advantage. Just like any other bank, you can make deposits and withdrawals and you can even bounce “trust checks.” You hold many accounts in your trust bank. You hold one for every relationship you have and even one for the general world around you. If you are a trustworthy individual all of your accounts will be naturally filled even to overflowing. If you set yourself up as someone not to be trusted, well, you may find that all of your accounts run pretty low, some may even be in the red or in desperate need of replenishing. Just like in a real bank with multiple accounts, you can make transfers in your trust bank. You can take some of the trust out of your account with your parents and transfer them to your account with a friendship. (i.e. by doing something that keeps your friend’s confidence but loses your parent’s trust) On the other hand there are some things that you can do that can increase the value of all of your accounts. Let’s talk about building up your trust account, particularly the one with your parent’s because I contend that right now in your life this is probably the most important account you have and it is crucial to your mission of managing them. Is everyone following our metaphor of the trust bank? What are some things that you can do that will add to your trust funds? (doing chores/homework w/out being asked; being polite; making good choices; etc.)… Write down some of these along the sides of your paper. …

Now turn your paper over. What are some things that automatically withdrawal funds from your account with your parents? (staying out after curfew; lying; etc.) …Write these down on this side of your paper.

Now let’s go back to the front side. Along the top of your paper, write down some things that you like or would like to ask your parent’s for… things like going to a concert or staying out late or going to a certain friend’s house or getting a new ipod or something… How can managing your trust fund carefully help you to cash in when you want or need something? Do you still need to communicate your wants and needs carefully even when you have a pretty full account? You bet. Presented poorly and you can not only go without the thing you want, but you can lose trust funds in the meantime.

Which brings me to communication. How we communicate with people, especially our parents, will add or subtract immediately from our trust banks. It may seem to your advantage to get something quickly by whining or complaining, but actually in the long term it hurts your account and may take away from your opportunity to get something bigger that you really want or need. If you want to remind your parents that you are still just a little kid and not old enough or responsible enough to get what your asking for in the first place then go ahead and whine, but don’t then complain about being treated like a child. If you want respect, demand it by simply being respectful to yourself and acting the way you wish to be treated.

In the same way, addressing your feelings in a constructive way can really affect your account for better and for worse and done well can gain you what you really need in the moment.

So, let me introduce you to “I Statements.” Some of the Peer Ministers have already learned about I statements (and while I’m on the topic, if you wish to be a peer minister next year please take an application form tonight and get it back to me after the spring break!) I statements help the person that you are having a conflict with empathize with you and refrain from being defensive. It also gives you a way to be heard fully. Here are some cards with the I statement format on them. I suggest practicing as often as possible because in the midst of a conflict it is not convenient to have to run and find this card before engaging. Trust me – this is a highly valuable exercise when it comes to managing parents!

“I feel____” (taking responsibility for one’s own feelings)

“when you_____” (stating the behavior that is a problem)

“because____” (what it is about the behavior or its consequences that one objects to)

“I’d appreciate it if you would_____” (offering a preferred alternative to the behavior)

This can be a great format but presentation matters. If you say “I feel totally invaded when you pry because its none of your business and I’d appreciate if you would bug off.” you’re neither going to get any needs met nor win any trust funds. However, if you tried “I feel frustrated when you ask me lots of questions about my day right after I get home from school because I’m really tired at that time and I need time to relax before I start thinking again. I’d really appreciate it if you would save the questions for after dinner.” This might actually get you somewhere.

So let’s do a quick practice together. Get into groups of threes. The first person in your group should give an example of something that really bothers them about their interaction with a parent (please keep it fairly light, right now is not the time to work on the thing that is hardest, start with something kinda simple). The second person should put together an “I statement” as best they can that addresses the problem. The third person should be the judge as to how helpful they think that “I statement” might be with this conflict. Then rotate until all three of you have played each part.

So how did that go? Reflections?

I want to leave you with one last thought today. Here’s one more reason why having healthy relationships with our parents helps us beyond that relationship. Throughout the gospels, Jesus talks about God as a loving parent. When he teaches us to pray he uses the term “Abba” which doesn’t mean “Father” but rather “daddy or papa.” In Jesus’ context “mamma” wouldn’t have made sense because women were still property and the metaphor wouldn’t have worked for the culture he was in. Today, however, praying to God as loving mamma can translate. It is still a metaphor, an incomplete imagining of who God is, but if we think of it in terms of how an infant experiences the love from her parents we might get closer to understanding. Peter Rollins, in his book How (Not) To Speak Of God writes:

“[Revelation shouldn’t be about what makes God knowable or unknowable] rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown. This is not dissimilar to a baby being held by her mother – the baby does not understand the mother but rather experiences being known by the mother… We are like an infant in the arms of God, unable to grasp but being transformed by the grasp.” 

Our relationship with our parents also helps to set the stage for our relationship with God. For better and for worse, our parents imperfectly model some of that unconditional love that we are forever offered by the God who calls us His Children.

Managing parents is not the easiest thing to do. I have heard many youth tell me over the years that managing this relationship shouldn’t be their responsibility. “Isn’t this my mom or dad’s job?” And heaven knows that not all parents have managed their own trust bank accounts very well. But if you want to have more control over your own life (and as teenagers this is usually what we are fighting about) then it is time to have some skills that you can run with. Give these a shot and tell me how it goes. Empathize, communicate calmly and directly, build up your trust bank accounts, and you will find that peace at home can directly enhance your life both in and beyond home. If you want to see peace in the world, practice by making peace at home.

Rachel Fraumann

My personal mission is to translate the life and teachings of Jesus to the next generation of peace and justice seekers in and around Burlington Vermont. I’m always up for a friendly argument, a free hug, or to be available as a compassionate ear or shoulder to cry upon. I have an insatiable curiosity for ideas and love to talk about theology, religion, politics, science, or whatever is on your mind. My current passion is about peeling back the centuries of church tradition in order to find the root of our faith in the teachings and ministries of Jesus so that it can be put into practice. After fifteen years of professional ministry with young people I still love watching a newly empowered Child of God set out to change the world!