Please visit
for new posts


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Consider the Source

I recently wrote a letter to a 19 year old girl I know who has gotten herself into a quite a bit of trouble.  She has made a lot of mistakes and has suffered some significant consequences as a result of her actions.  I didn't say much in my letter.  I shared with her what I was doing and some of the writing I had done.  When she was younger before her teenage years, she had shown an interest in writing and I had given her a book on keeping a writer's notebook.  She also used to write very imaginative stories that I enjoyed.  Needless to say, writing has not been a recent activity of hers and school in general was not a positive experience especially in her last few years in high school. 

The other day I received some feedback on my letter.  I didn't speak to her but her mother commented that her daughter had referred to my letter as fabulous.  I didn't really understand how she could describe a rather simple relatively short letter as "fabulous" until she added that her daughter had said that it was the first letter she had received that "didn't tell her what to do."  Ironically, there was a lot I wanted to tell her to do and not do, but figured she had heard it all before.  Instead I tried to ignore her troubled situation and simply shared what I was doing and connected it to something she used to do.  I wanted her to start to see herself differently and figured that at some point she could turn her current circumstances into a lot of good material to write about.  I felt she needed to see beyond her current situation and see herself not someone who messed up but as someone who still had great things to do.  I was appealing to her Superman not her Clark Kent.  By doing that I was trying to open up some lifelines into her world and to do I had to be someone who wasn't judging her, criticizing her and most of all not someone trying to control her.  (I might add that I am not criticizing those who did tell her what to do.  If she were my daughter I doubt I could restrain myself from doing the same. In my case I could maintain some emotional perspective and translate my concern a different way.  It is not easy to do and harder the closer you are to the person.)

This the great paradox we face especially with adolescents: the more we try to help or steer them on the right path, the less influence or credibility we have with them.  The need to be independent and define oneself apart from adult authority can drive some kids into doing the exact opposite what most adults would consider good sense.  Deci in Why We Do What We Do said that whenever we try to control or manipulate anyone (instead of influence) two things happen they either conform or defy, but that even the immediate conformity only plants the seeds of later defiance.  What is the dividing line of control and influence-it can be a fine line, but still a line: the motive for the person in the one-up person.  Does that person want the other person to be their authentic self and support them in the process of discovering who they are or do they want that person to do want they want them to do?  If adults don't stop and ask themselves that question and then adjust how they interact, it is doubtful that kids will see a distinction.

All our efforts to help will be seen as efforts to control or worse as efforts to define the person we have authority over.  Deci has done empirical research demonstrating how sensitive a person is to this basic perception and how it colors the content of the help being offered.  If the help offered is seen as a a disguised attempt to control and manipulate another it is likely to be rejected or accepted as a way to gain approval or advantage with the person in authority.  If the help is offered in a non controlling, non manipulating way, meaning freely and genuinely offered,  respecting the recepient, than it is more likely to be considered on its merits.  Kids truly consider the source and the motivation behind the help.  They are in many ways very dependent upon us to carefully consider the most effective way to open up a life line with them- a line of communication where they can listen to what we have to offer.  If there are strings attached to our message no matter how great it might be, it will be rejected because of where it is coming from-its source.  If our kids are so sensitive is considering the source of whatever message they hear, we need to stop and look inwardly to consider what our source really is and what our motives are when we send out our messages.  This is not easy thing to do but that doesn't mean it isn't essential for getting through to some kids who need life lines from us.  Sometimes we can do something "fabulous" by just sharing rather than telling.

No comments: