Advice I dare not utter

I will be as discreet and obscure as possible in this post. It is possible but extremely unlikely that its subjects will read this post. I am willing to take that risk because I feel better saying my peace at last somewhere. If I cannot utter it aloud, then I can at least write it somewhere. A blog is probably the appropriate place. Moreover, by publishing it here perhaps some will see themselves and do a midcourse correction.

I acknowledge that I, like most people, have huge blind spots. Particularly when it comes to parenting, my experience has been mixed, as has been documented in blog posts like this one. Every child is unique and no one style of parenting will fit all children. I like to think I have been a good father but I can hardly be objective. There is no real measure of successful parenting, but our daughter, age 18, seems reasonably well adjusted. As best I can tell, she harbors no particular grudges toward either my wife or I. We get along well and still do things as a family. We talk freely and exchange regular hugs. Our daughter does not smoke, do drugs or hang around with bikers named Thor. While it is too early to say for sure, I suspect we are doing better than most parents are. Our daughter is unlikely to be an Ivy League scholar, but I see nothing that would lead me to believe she will not eventually find her way into a successful, meaningful and independent life. I am sure she will have challenges and slip-ups on her own path. After all, as I once noted, failure is extremely useful, providing you learn from the experience.

Having given all the requisite disclaimers, both my wife and I knew this girl was going to have issues from the start. It was not because she was a particularly unusual child; it was because her parents had adopted parenting styles that left us both alarmed. A few years after their daughter was born they paid us a visit. We prepared a nice meal for their family only to find out that, well, C would not eat it. You see, C only likes X and Y, and not just any X and Y but X made with brand Q and Y made with brand R, which meant that Mom had to run to the local Giant and stock up on C’s special food. Moreover, it had to be prepared by Mom is a certain way and cut just so. Then she would eat it. She might even finish it.

She was not beyond getting the occasional timeout, but she was allowed unusual freedom for a young girl. For example, it was okay for her to use crayons on the walls, provided they were washable crayons. Her Mom would simply come by with a sponge every once in a while and remove her markings.

As for affection, the good news is that her parents loved her. The bad news is that her parents loved her. Gosh, how they loved her, devoting their complete attention to her whenever she made the smallest request, always in a cheerful voice, always in a tone that sounded like half baby talk and always with lots of hugs and kisses. As for praising her, they excelled in that. She was nurtured with the finest children’s toys that they could find. She had every childhood opportunity to explore her creative side. Hand me downs were not for her. God forbid she should wear clothes from a Wal-Mart. They shopped in stores like Baby Gap instead. She was trained by her mother to be a clotheshorse.

She is a naturally brilliant person, perhaps helped by her parents’ genetics. Her father has a PhD. Throughout school she excelled and routinely brought home all A’s. Mom and Dad were thrilled. She was lavished with praise and privileges.

Eventually she reached her teenage years and expressed the usual interest in the opposite sex. Suddenly, Mom and Dad who had been so encouraging were watching her like a hawk instead. She was kept out of the dating pool until she reached what she felt was an advanced age. They made sure she was closely chaperoned and were very strict with her curfews. She did not seem to mind too much. She filled her bedroom to overflowing with stuffed animals and furry cats and lived in what seemed like an extended childhood, if not infancy. Thanks to her excellent scholastics, she earned a full scholarship to a state university. Her parents bought her a brand new car so she could commute to class.

C is now twenty. She lives in her own apartment that she shares with a longhaired boy about her age. This longhaired boy though is a step up from the last one, a true bad boy James Dean type. Perhaps that is some small sign of progress. She still has her scholarship but since her parents did not approve of her lifestyle choices, they repossessed her car and ended all financial assistance. She gets by on her scholarship and a part time job. She works as a waitress in a restaurant that features nearly naked women who poll dance. Her mother and father spend much of their waking hours distressed over their daughter’s choices and hoping she will see the light. She showed up briefly in their house for Thanksgiving and Christmas but her estrangement is obvious.

They have not asked for my advice so I have given them none except for one small suggestion: if her daughter would consent to it, they might want to try family therapy. I have no idea if this will happen or not. Other than that, I simply offered them a shoulder to cry on should they need it and bite my tongue.

Here is what I would tell them if it were my place. There is a reason that your daughter is hanging out with men you do not approve of. There is a reason she is working as a waitress in a topless joint instead of at a Burger King. There is a reason she seems to go for bad men. It is because the two of you modeled the plastic parenting of Ward and June Cleaver combined with the 1960s “freedom to be the person you want to be”. The result was toxic. Mostly you smothered and micromanaged her. You wanted her to grow up to be like you and emulate your values. You were directing strong parental rays at her that said, “You must grow up to be a syrupy and surreal adults just like us.” Only, she could not utter her horror at the idea aloud. She did not know how and you were so nice all the time that she would feel like a heel if she did.

She is a young adult now. She can do what she wants and what she really wants to do is make you feel the pain she repressed because she was smothered, overly praised and micromanaged through her childhood and adolescence. Moreover, her actions, no matter how much they appall you, are necessary for her to find out who she is. She is finding herself by trying on a lifestyle that bears little resemblance to the one she knew. That is why she is attracted to bad boys.

How long will this go on? It will go on probably until you treat her as a human being who has dignity and not just the right, but your permission to make her own choices. It is obvious you do not agree with her choices. She is feeding off your energy and anxiety. Her life will probably look a lot like it currently is until you come to grips with a few things. You cannot change the way you raised her. However, you can love her.

You can love her by neither condemning nor approving of her behavior. You can love her by loving her in a way that will be meaningful to her: expressing unqualified and compassionate love for her and by acknowledging that despite the best intentions, you probably made some major mistakes raising her. Right now, your love has all sorts of strings, implicit and explicit, attached to it. She is discovering what it is like to not be like you, but she still does not know who she really is. To find her real self, you can help by lowering the voltage. You do this by both letting her make her own choices and turning off the parental guilt rays. If asked, express confidence that while her adult life may not be as you modeled it for her, she will always be okay and loved in your eyes.

My belief is that after a couple years of this she will likely lose her attraction to bad boys. She will move from rebellion into true personhood. You need to give up the role of being her parent. If you are lucky though and can win back her respect then there may come a time when you can be her coach. A coach does not make choices for someone, but helps them think through various alternatives and encourages them to be their best. This is the proper role for a parent of a 20-year-old young woman. When you decide you care more about your daughter as a person than that she model your values, that is when your relationship will truly begin to heal.

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