Today’s post is the fourth in a multi-part series on Wise Parenting. Each post focuses on one of six principles for parenting wisely: 1) Stay cool, calm and reflective, 2) Frame the problem appropriately, 3) Aim for the right purpose, 4) Expand the perspective, 5) Apply the best knowledge, and 6) Find the right balance.
There is an old folk tale about a group of blind men who encounter an elephant. The first man touches the elephant’s side and says to his friends, “This animal is like a wall, solid and flat.” “No,” says the second man as he feels the elephant’s tusk. “It’s like a spear, sharp and smooth.” The third man puts his hand around the elephant’s trunk and shouts, “It’s like a snake, long and wiggly.” Finally, the last man who has his arms wrapped around the elephant’s massive leg says, “You are all wrong, this animal is like a great tree.”
Like the blind men in the tale, we tend to see problems or issues from our own partial, unique perspective. There is usually truth to our point of view, but there are often limitations. And when we only have a partial understanding of a problem, our ability to wisely address it is limited.
Most parenting challenges can be viewed from multiple perspectives. One of the most significant points of view belongs, of course, to our child. Whether or not we agree, it’s critical that we try to understand where our kids are coming from. By putting ourselves in their shoes, we can gain insight into the reasons for their behavior and the feelings that motivate it.
The decisions we make regarding our children (and ourselves) are not made in a vacuum. Consequently, expanding our perspective also involves considering how others might be affected. My wife vividly remembers when she was 17 and her father had a great job offer from a company across the country. Because he wisely understood that the move had wider implications for his family – especially his daughter who was about to go into her senior year of high school – he took her point of view into account before making the final decision. His consideration and respect for perspective made the transition a more positive experience for both of them. This same principle also applies to adults in the family. Although it can be difficult to consider our partner or ex-partner’s perspective when we disagree, it’s important to work together to find a compromise that is in the child’s best interest, not necessarily our own.
Expanding our perspective can be challenging when our teen’s perspective doesn’t always make sense or feel right to us. However, considering our teen’s point of view also involves thinking about a teen’s behavior and motives in the context of their age and the many changes they are experiencing. While it might feel like your 14 year old is constantly arguing with you to challenge your authority or make you feel bad, in fact, the reasons for this behavior are often not personal but have to do with a teen’s need to try out their new reasoning abilities and emerging independence within the safety of the family. Similarly, we shouldn’t fault our 12 year old if they’re sometimes irresponsible or have difficulty considering the long-term implications of their choices — although we have a right to feel quite differently if they’re still acting impulsively or failing to consider the future when they’re 25, jobless and living in our basement.
Understanding the perspective of others can be particularly difficult when we are emotionally involved or upset. Our strong feelings narrow our field of vision and can make it difficult to see beyond our own point of view. Our emotional blinders also can lead us to blow things out of proportion. For example, when our child leaves their dirty shoes in the middle of the floor, we might perceive their behavior as disrespectful of all the time we spent cleaning the house. But it may only reflect that they had a hard day and simply forgot about their responsibilities.
When we understand our child’s perspective, abilities and limitations, it is easier to find common ground and develop solutions that both parents and teens can get behind — solutions that will lead to long-term learning and positive change. Taking into account their point of view also demonstrates to our children that we really do love and care about them, which usually results in their being less defensive and more receptive to what we have to say.
Below are some suggestions that can help to expand our perspective and see the bigger picture:
- Listen to your teen with patience and compassion. Strive to understand their perspective and why they see things as they do. You don’t need to agree with them, but by understanding where they’re coming from you put yourself in a better position to find common ground and help them reflect on and expand their own point of view. As my grandmother used to say, the reason we were given two ears and only one mouth is that we should listen twice as much as we speak.
- Seek out the impartial views of others. This can be especially helpful when you are having trouble seeing other points of view. A wise parent is aware of how their emotional involvement can sometimes make it hard to be objective and they are not embarrassed to seek out the counsel and clarity of others.
- Don’t take things so personally. Take the high road and assume that annoying or obnoxious teen behavior is not personally directed at you, even if it feels that way. Learn about adolescent development so you’ll have a better understanding of the reasons behind teen behavior.
- Put things in perspective and don’t sweat the small stuff. Remember, even the most troublesome and annoying teen behavior is usually short-lived. Most teens eventually grow out of it and become responsible and pleasant adults.
What do you do to put yourself “in your teen’s shoes”?
By Steve Small
Steve Small has been a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension for 30 years. He and his wife have 3 adult children, two son-in-laws, and a new granddaughter. Steve had a somewhat turbulent adolescence and his parents couldn’t wait until he grew out of it and left home. In his spare time he likes to bike, hike, build stuff, travel and play softball.