Like a Dog With a Rope

I’ve always been a sucker for dogs. For some reason, I just can’t help myself when a dog comes running up to me with a rope in its mouth. I know what’s going to happen. The dog isn’t going to let go of the rope, and I am going to end up in a tug of war that lasts until my arms fail. While I am not a dog expert, I doubt this is beneficial for the dog or its owner. All it seems to do is encourage power struggles, with the dog learning that there is something to be gained from locking down and refusing to play nice.

Oftentimes, adults working with teenagers encounter the same kind of predicament. The way this typically happens is that a young person will dangle a metaphorical rope in front of an adult by saying or doing something that a mature adult finds absurd, followed by the adult picking up the rope and giving it a good yank. What follows is rarely beneficial, with each side fighting until they are completely exhausted.

Shouldn’t there be a better way? Luckily, there is.

The simplest solution is that adults don’t need to pick up the rope. Yet somehow, we find ourselves too convicted to give up, feeling that it is our responsibility to put an end to whatever nonsense we are witnessing. Of course, some things do need to be addressed immediately, but oftentimes what seems pressing in the moment would be much better handled once all parties have had a chance to process and produce a better response.

Take, for instance, a situation where parents ask their kid to turn off the Xbox and help with dinner, but they receive no response. The TV is blasting while the kid keeps hammering away at the controls, paying no attention to the requests. One parent starts to fume and feels forced to respond. This is a perfect opportunity for a power struggle.

A couple of things could quickly go wrong here. The parent could yell in order to gain the kid’s attention, feeling justified that yelling is necessary to get the required result. Unfortunately, though, humans have a way of mirroring communication styles. You yell, I yell back; you whisper, I whisper; you speak calmly, I respond calmly. It is very likely that once the yelling begins, no matter who started it, more yelling will follow. Back and forth each party will go, with neither finding the desired result, while whatever was planned for dinner goes into the trash.

Another very likely outcome to this scenario is that the parent turns off the TV or Xbox. The kid explodes in a flash of fury, claiming that it would have taken only 30 more seconds to destroy the enemies. The kid feels that the parent’s show of force was completely unnecessary. All the teen needs to do is mumble something hurtful about the parent, and then a war is on. Insults and accusations start flying, with neither party paying any attention to what the other has to say.

To achieve a better outcome, the parents need to realize that there is a better way of communicating their expectations, and there is no need for a power struggle. They can calmly sit down nearby, acknowledge that their kid is in the middle of something that he or she feels is important, and then establish that prompt help is both needed and expected.

While communicating a clear expectation, parents also need to state a consequence for not meeting that expectation. For example, the parents could give their kid up to three minutes to stop the game and come to the kitchen. If not helping in the kitchen by the end of that time, then the kid will lose access to the Xbox for the following two days. This can all be communicated calmly, and any consequence can be given without the need for escalation.

I am sure some parents will argue that it is not that easy. Really, it is. The kid can choose to keep playing, but when he or she stops, the parent will unplug the Xbox and put it away for two days. If the kid throws a fit or makes any comments about it being unfair, parents do not need to “up the ante.” A young person getting upset about not getting what he or she wants is no more than a dog dangling a rope. Adults don’t need to pick up the rope and fight it out, nor are they bound to create an additional consequence just because the kid gets upset and says something inappropriate. That is normal, and we aren’t going to fix normal.            

Matt Raper is the middle school principal at Ivy Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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