Parents’ role as family leader emerges naturally from their success at adopting a posture of acceptance combined with a narrow but effectively disciplinary focus. Accepting and containing are two basic and very different options when deciding how to respond to your children’s behavior.
But are accepting and containing your only options in every situation?
Acceptance is a message of belonging and tolerance. Sometimes it’s even a message of affirmation, admiration, or approval; your kids not only have the green light, they also see you there cheering them on through the green light. You see your 8-year-old daughter taking peanut butter from her sandwich and using it as “lipstick”, much to the amusement of her younger sister. You feel compelled to intervene but you decide to wait and see if she eventually eats her sandwich. You choose acceptance.
Behavioral containment is a message of restraint and intolerance. Your kids see you stepping in and standing firm on certain issues, even if means conflict and bad feelings. You see your 11-year old son grab his little brother and rip the TV remote from his hands, changing the channel even though little brother had been watching his favorite cartoon show. You see this as an act of physical aggression, so you step in with a sanction for the older brother. You choose containment.
Now consider this situation: You’re alone with your 10-year-old son. Lately he’s been teasing his little sister about an embarrassing incident that involved her and her friends. She was drinking her milk in the school cafeteria when someone told a joke and milk spewed through her mouth and nose. It was funny and everyone laughed, including the little sister who spewed the milk. But now her brother’s comments about the incident at school and at home hurt his sister’s feelings and threaten her friendship with other girls.
You have a chance to say something to him. What do you say?
It certainly isn’t “Great job with the teasing. Keep up the good work!” But if you say nothing, will your silence be read as a message that you endorse his teasing?
Do you issue a warning (“Hey, stop teasing your sister. If you do it again, you’ll be punished”) or impose a sanction (“You’ve been mean to your sister, so I’ve decided there’s no TV for you tonight”)? Both options are a bit much under the circumstances.
A better option is what I call the 3rd Option. I call it that because it’s neither accepting nor containing. This is how it works:
First, tell your son what you’ve seen, then tell him what you believe. It should sound like this: “I know your sister’s milk incident was pretty funny, but I think your comments are starting to hurt her feelings.”
There are three important parts to this comment. The first is your observation, an observation about your son’s behavior that is neither accusatory nor critical. You’re like a reporter trying to be objective as you describe what you’ve seen. The second part is a reminder that your family has certain core beliefs and values and one is that you care about one another and don’t hurt each other. When those two things—your observations and your values—are placed side-by-side in the same comment, it creates a kind of gentle feedback. It’s a helpful, supportive way to say, “Here’s what we believe and here’s what you’re doing. You do the math.”
The last and perhaps most important part of this comment is the period, the little dot at the end that says, “That’s all.” It also says, “I’m not saying you’re in trouble for what you’ve been doing but I’m also not saying I approve of what you’re doing. I’ll leave it to you to decide what happens next, but I thought you should have the feedback.”
Putting in that period and stopping, saying nothing else, is the hardest part of using the 3rd option. Parents who do great with the first two parts will have to fight the urge to keep going. Many keep preaching or teaching, wanting to be sure their children “fully understand” or “really get the message.” When parents go past the period, they’re usually trying to manage their own uncertainty. It’s uncomfortable letting the situation play out on its own. Most parents would rather seal the deal and make sure your son does the right thing. Stopping at the period means you have to live with a fair degree of ambiguity. Welcome to parenting and welcome to the 3rd option.
Let’s consider another example, one that involves your 16-year-old daughter and her boyfriend, Derrick. This is her first serious dating relationship and you think it’s safe and healthy but you have a few doubts. You insisted on meeting Derrick before she could date him, but you still don’t know him very well. When he comes over he hardly speaks and he doesn’t look you in the eye. Derrick’s got an older brother that got busted for selling drugs, and Derrick has the look and dress and attitude of someone who might be involved with drugs. Of course, you don’t actually know if he’s using drugs; you only have your suspicions, your biases, and your worries. Well, you do have something else. You have the knowledge that Derrick is only 17 but he smokes cigarettes regularly. What do you do with that observation? What if his behavior doesn’t fit with your family’s values and beliefs: How might the 3rd option look in this situation? Let’s take a look:
You: “Hi, honey. Hey, I need to talk to you about Derrick. Got a minute?”
Child: “What’s wrong? You think he’s a stoner, don’t you—just because of how he looks. I knew you were going to do this.”
You: “Whoa! Hang on. You knew I was going to do what?”
Child: “Make me stop seeing him.”
You: “Because I think he uses drugs?”
You: “Well, I don’t know that he uses drugs. Does he use drugs?”
Child: “No, but you think he does.”
You: “Well, honey he does look and act like a kid who uses drugs, but you’re right. I don’t know that he uses drugs.”
Child: “So what’s the problem?”
You: “Well, that’s a good question. I’m trying to decide if there is a problem. I know that Derrick smokes cigarettes, which at his age is against the law. It’s also not something I’d ever want you do. None of us smoke because it’s so harmful.”
Child: “Well that’s not me. I don’t smoke and I don’t think his smoking is anybody else’s business?”
You: “You’re right. It is his choice. And if he wasn’t dating my daughter, I’d butt out (no pun intended). But he is dating my daughter and she’s around him, a lot. And she really likes him. I see that smile on your face when he calls or comes by. But please know that his choice to smoke, to break the law and to do something that is so unhealthy, is not a choice that I like or that I agree with.”
Child: “So what are you saying?”
You: “That I don’t like that he smokes.”
Child: “That’s it?”
You: “That’s it.”
This exchange is a nice illustration of how the 3rd option is neither accepting nor containing but a strategy that falls somewhere in the middle. There is no attempt to limit the daughter’s behavior, but there’s also no doubt that her parent has concerns about the boyfriend’s smoking.
Critical to using the 3rd option is having confidence in what you know and having the courage to say what you know. The two most important things to know are what you’ve seen and what your family believes or values. Think of the 3rd option as using this formula: “I see you doing X; we believe Y.”
Notice that the parent in the example readily conceded that which wasn’t known, such as whether Derrick was actually using drugs, but was steadfast in stating that which was known, such as the fact that Derrick smokes cigarettes. The parent also conceded that Derrick “looks like a kid who uses drugs”. This is the sort of comment that is sure to be unpopular with defiant teens, especially those whose friends flirt with or actively use drugs. But saying something unpopular doesn’t mean it’s not true. There’s also a fair amount of irony in the fact that teenagers get indignant when parents make comments about how kids look. For most teenagers, how they “look” is rarely a haphazard event; it’s a purposeful statement about their current identity.
Of course, confidence in what you know is not the same thing as being “right” about what you know. The goal of the 3rd option isn’t to show that you’re opinions are correct and that your children’s opinions are wrong. It’s a message of leading, one that says, “Based on what I see and what I know and what I believe in my heart, this looks like a good (or not so good) direction to head, but you have to make the decision on your own.
The quality of your message will depend on your willingness to speak to what you know, to admit to what you don’t know, and to stop at the period. The power of your message, whether it actually benefits your children, will depend on the quality of your relationship. Your honest and caring observations, coupled with simple reminders of shared family beliefs and values, can be pretty compelling when children enjoy a strong sense of acceptance and are reliably but narrowly contained.
There are times when you should be cautious about using the 3rd option. If the parent-child relationship has been feeling the weight of harsh words, hurt feelings, and little or no communication for several weeks or months, the 3rd can be a tough sell. There’s a good chance it’ll be heard as a lame lecture from someone who doesn’t have a clue about your children’s lives. The problem isn’t the quality of your message; it’s the quality of your relationship. You could be absolutely “right” about what you say, but that and a buck-fifty might get you a cup of coffee and little else. So recognize that you can’t expect much from the 3rd option in the absence of accepting and containing.
A common scenario for using the 3rd option with older kids is when they start to encounter things that are different or new: hair, clothes, music, food, drink, piercing, body art, religious beliefs, political beliefs, knowledge about and attitudes toward sex.
Your 13-year-old son announces that he wants to save his money so he can get his hair dyed pink. Your 17-year-old is obsessed with tattoos and is waiting for the day she can get her own. Your 12-year-old says he doesn’t like going to church. How does the 3rd option work in these instances? Once again, stick with what you’ve observed and what you believe or value.
“Pink hair? Wow. I don’t know many kids with pink hair. Are you sure?”
“I know you’re really into body art, but I’d be lying if I said I thought it was a good idea for you to get a tattoo. Let me ask you: Do you worry about regretting it later? I hear that from some people I know who have tattoos.”
“So, you don’t like church these days, huh? It’s such a big part of my life. I wish it were part of yours. Is it that bad?”
Another common timely use of the 3rd option is when you set a limit or impose a sanction and it’s not sitting well with your teenager. Let’s extend the example of Derrick, the boy who is dating your 16-year-old daughter. Only this time you’ve seen fit to ground her and take away her cell phone for the rest of the weekend because she got home late from a Friday night date. As you read this exchange, pay close attention to what this mother is doing and what she is not doing. I’ve used language in this exchange that is “PG-like”. In many families, the language is way too mild; in other families, it’s too harsh and cruder than what they would use.
Child: “Mom! I can’t believe you’re actually grounding me.”
Child: “It’s so stupid. I mean, I got home 10 minutes late and you ground me for the whole freaking weekend. I don’t get that.”
You: “I’m sorry if seems stupid, but that’s what we’re doing.”
Child: “But why?! I mean, do you really think 10 minutes is that big a deal. Seriously, what do you think we were doing in our ‘10 minutes’? I’m sure those 10 minutes made a big difference.”
You: “I’m sorry if seems stupid.”
Child: “Can I at least have my phone?! That’s so unfair. You’re doing that just because you don’t like Derrick; you think he’s this big druggie. It’s so lame!”
You: [Pauses. Takes a deep breath. Looks at her daughter. Says nothing.]
Child: “I mean, it’s not like I can’t talk to him. We can still send messages on my computer. So you’re little plan to keep us apart won’t even work. It’s stupid!”
You: “Honey, it might be stupid, but it’s what I decided. And you’re right; it does seem silly to take your phone if you can still send messages. But that’s the way it is.”
Child: “But why? It won’t even work! What do honestly think you’ll get out of this? Do you really think I’ll quit dating Derrick? Do you really think your little punishment will matter?”
You: “Honey, I don’t know. I’m not the smartest parent in the world, so I don’t know whether it’ll work or not. I just know that you got home after curfew and that we take that seriously in our family.”
Child: “That is such a load of crap! Why don’t you say what you really think: You hate the fact that I’m dating Derrick and you’ve been waiting for a chance to bust me so that you can keep us apart?”
You: “Do you really believe that?”
You: “Well, you’re right that I’m not a huge Derrick fan. I really don’t like the fact that he smokes cigarettes. But am I doing this to keep you two apart? I don’t think so. I hope not. You like Derrick and you enjoy spending time with him. Does that make sense to me? Not really. But I love you and I want you to have room to make your own choices. I’ll step in if I thought you weren’t safe, but that’s not what’s going here. I’m just letting you know that you don’t have a free pass when it comes to the curfew.”
There’s a lot happening in this conversation and a lot that a parent could go after. But this mom stays firm on her sanction and uses the third option when her daughter protests. This mom is being honest about her observations and her values. She admits to what she doesn’t know, she’s clear about what she does know. But look at all the stuff this mom isn’t chasing: cursing, accusations, sarcasm, rhetorical questions, or predictions that the sanction won’t even work. Perhaps the most important thing this mom isn’t chasing is an end to feeling badly. She’s ok with self-doubt and ambiguity (What if I’m making a mistake?), she’s ok with anger and hurt (I didn’t deserve that comment!) and she’s ok with fear (I don’t want to lose my daughter!). Many parents feel the need to defend and justify their sanctions, hoping they can avoid bad feelings, including feeling like the worst parent in the world.