What to Give Your Kids Before Graduation: Respect

A few weeks ago, I went to the grocery store on a weekday morning. I think I’d been listening to the Swine Flu story at great length, and was advised by some authority or another to have groceries on hand in the event of . . . well, it wasn’t clear if the point was an illness in my house or an epidemic so pervasive that we wouldn’t want to shop. Living in hurricane preparedness country, I know the drill, however.

Weekday morning traffic was light in the aisles of my local Publix, the better to overhear the cell phone conversations of my fellow shoppers, as it turned out. You know how we all start in the bakery, go through the deli and the produce, and then finish up in ice cream? In other words, you can’t get away from the people you entered with? In my case, I was doomed to shop alongside a woman who was, shall we say, highly critical of her teen-aged daughter.

I didn’t want to listen. I had no choice. She was angry, she was loud, she was blameful, she was articulate, she was disloyal; she was, I think, either entertaining or soothing herself—at the expense of her child.

I wasn’t alone in the store; we live in a small enough town. The Talker Mom was no doubt recognizable to many people, though I don’t know her (yet). No matter; from the sound of this rant, she will tell her stories time and again to many, many “friends.”

Of course it gets worse. In her shopping cart, attentively listening to the sound of her mother’s voice and words, was a two and a half year old toddler, presumably the errant teen’s younger sister. Who was learning about her world, and not getting her mothers undivided attention and gentle guidance.

Here’s what I think I heard, while trying to organize flu food. The teenager is at or near puberty, may have a mild learning disability, is frustrated and is frustrating to parents and teachers, is given to tantrums and willfulness, misbehaves, talks back, refuses to do chores and homework, skips classes, and is comprehensively unpleasant to have in the family home. And it’s her teachers’ fault. Mom’s diagnosis: bored with school, learns bad habits there, friends are unsuitable, and she got them at school, too. Oh, and may be depressed.

I know you are as appalled as I am. This is wrong on so many levels that it hurts to write about it; it was hard to listen to. But all I can think about is that Talker Mom is systematically destroying her daughter’s prospects for a future. Never mind that she built the adult-to-be with whom she is so angry—blame is not the subject. The cold hard fact is that if your parents can’t recommend you to anyone, no one is going to want to hire you. This angry parent is telling the world to stay away from trouble: her daughter. It’s a sure bet that when Mom’s anger subsides, and the hormones get back in line, and the family vacation turns out okay for a change, Mom will be happier, but the neighbors will remember that this is one babysitter not to call.

Don’t be this parent. I’m not a therapist or a parent of a teenager, but we all know how difficult parenting can be and that mother-daughter relationships have special problems, and blah, blah, blah. As a practical matter, your children learn about work from you. The world learns about your children from you. You are the source. You are essentially writing their resumes. Think about what you really want for your kids in the long run.

And consider what you really want the next time you take your children out of school for a long weekend vacation, when you complain in front of them about your miserable day and your lousy supervisor, when you violate your daughter’s trust and privacy by sharing her intimate problems with your book club, when you have one too many drinks and drive the carpool anyway, when you fail to discipline yourself and encumber the kids as a result. Or when you teach more spontaneity than planning, when you fail to budget time and money, when you talk about friends behind their back, treat others with disdain, and compete for anyone’s attention on any available platform. Your family is the first organization your child experiences. Are you the leader? If so, what are you teaching, explicitly or by example?

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