Q: While exploring your website, I ran across a column you wrote a while back about a 13-year-old who wanted a Mohawk haircut. You told the parents not to allow it, pointing out that if you give most teenagers an inch, they’re eventually going to push for a mile. I think it’s generally wise for parents to say yes to small things so that it really means something when they say no. Doesn’t choosing one’s battles carefully reduce the likelihood of rebellion?
A: You’ve made a good point, which is that parental micromanagement can lead to rebellion (but the operative word is can, as opposed to will). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used this column to rail against that now-ubiquitous parenting style. But micromanagement is not simply saying no three times, say, more than yes; it is an ongoing pattern of (a) protecting a child from experiencing the consequences of his own decisions or potential decisions, (b) preventing a child from making non-life-or-health-threatening mistakes, and (c) making discretionary (e.g. recreational) decisions for a child. Micromanagement is not insisting that a child properly reflect his parents’ values in his behavior, appearance, and social choices. That is part and parcel of the proper discipline of a child.
A Mohawk may, in certain family circumstances, reflect parental values. So be it. However, concerning the question to which you refer, it clearly did not. It would have reflected a contrary, even rebellious, attitude toward those values. That is precisely why the parents were seeking my advice.
Parents should not say yes to rebellious things, even if the child in question is not and never has been rebellious. I have heard too many parents say, with great regret, that shortly after giving a non-rebellious child permission to acquire some rebellious symbol (t-shirt emblazoned with a disrespectful message, sexually provocative clothing, peculiar haircut, abnormal hair coloring, punk or goth clothing, tattoo, body piercing, earlobe thingamajig) things began going rapidly downhill. Right. The rebellious symbol attracts the attention of rebellious kids who encourage other rebellious behavior on the part of the previously non-rebellious kid who begins to want the approval of the rebellious kids which he can only obtain by beginning to act in increasingly rebellious ways and pretty soon everyone is shaking their heads and asking what in the world happened.
Today’s parents often cite two nouveau adages—“choose your battles carefully” and “don’t sweat the small stuff”—as rationale for not saying no to certain requests. What they do not seem to realize is that almost all of the big stuff begins as small stuff. A relatively small act of defiance, overlooked, blossoms into full-blown rebellion within three months, for example.
That is precisely why I tell parents that when it comes to teenagers, the three most applicable adages are “give ‘em an inch and they will take a mile,” “nip it in the bud,” and “better safe than sorry.”
Those are very old-fashioned, which prompts a fourth adage: There is nothing new under the sun.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.