David Coleman: Praise in public, punish in private
A US father made headlines worldwide when he shot his daughter's laptop in anger at her Facebook post. But how should parents handle a child's criticism?
I was sent a link to YouTube recently, entitled 'Facebook Parenting: For the Troubled Teen'. Since it was posted earlier this month, it's received over 28 million visits, making it a truly viral internet hit (to view it go to www.youtube.com and search for Tommy Jordan).
The clip is of a dad, somewhere in the US, sitting in a garden chair responding to a Facebook status update that his 15-year-old daughter had posted.
Her Facebook posting, which she thought was blocked from her parents' view, was about her frustration at what she perceived as being a slave in their house, with multiple chores on top of her schoolwork.
Her dad sounded hurt and angry at his daughter's rant. He expressed his frustration that she was so unappreciative of what she had and denied the level of chores she claimed she was expected to do.
He also felt let down by the fact that she had gone public and ranted on her Facebook page.
The clip culminated with the dad punishing his daughter for her public disrespect by shooting her laptop with a handgun, destroying it.
One of my first reactions to the clip was "fair play that the parents expected their daughter to do chores". She is much less likely to grow up with a selfish sense of entitlement if she knows that while her parents provide a lot they also have expectations that she will contribute to the family too.
Chores are a good idea because they teach children valuable lessons about sharing responsibility, about contributing to joint family undertakings, about fairness and equity, about the value of work and the effectiveness of communal effort in achieving tasks.
It can also allow children to feel like they are capable and valuable members of a family who really contribute.
We need to really listen, though, to how children and teenagers respond to things like the chores that they have.
If they feel put upon, or feel like they carry an unfair share, then we need to know so as to address it. We need to encourage them to complain, even if we know that their complaint is not warranted.
Teenagers have always needed, and taken, a private space away from their parents. They need the space in order to grow and develop their own identities. While hidden from their parents' view, they will experiment with many things, including voicing their opinions and their feelings.
I'm sure every one of us moaned or complained about our parents during our teenage years to our friends. Those complaints ranged, probably, from railing against their strictness, or their injustice (if siblings seemed better treated), or stinginess, or our embarrassment at their behaviour and everything in between. This, to me, is to be expected.
For most of our parents, though, what they didn't know didn't hurt them. We probably kept our complaints to ourselves, or to our siblings, or to our friends.
Having the space to just vent often made it bearable to be back in the situation that we may have perceived to be unfair.
Facebook, and social networking generally, has changed the nature of that social space in which teenagers now share these kinds of thoughts and feelings. Troublingly, Facebook is not a private environment for teenagers and yet it gets used as such.
The daughter referred to in the clip thought she had kept her complaining private from her parents, but irrespective she was sharing it in a massively public space.
I don't think a teenager can be pilloried for criticising their parents -- being critical of, or at least questioning, the values, beliefs and behaviours of parents is part of the separation and individuation that has to occur in adolescence to allow a child become independent.
But when they make that criticism so indirect and so public then they have to take responsibility for the hurt that it can cause.
The dad in the clip seemed hurt. He sounded really offended by the disrespect he saw in his daughter's comments.
He also sounded like he was working hard to contain an anger at what he perceived to be the unfairness of her complaints. How ironic that both the dad and the daughter apparently shared a sense of injustice about the behaviour of the other yet neither of them were able to say this directly to each other.
I would love to know how his daughter felt since he publicly punished her. There is an old saying "praise in public . . . punish in private" which advises us to avoid the public humiliation that a child, or teenager, can feel when their mistakes and punishment are open to scrutiny.
Publicly criticising and being disrespectful of her parents was undoubtedly a mistake. I would guess that her dad wanted his daughter not to be disrespectful or unappreciative in the future and that is why he punished her by destroying her laptop.
I wonder, though, if the lesson that she will learn is to ensure that your parents never find out that you complain about them. I wonder if she will feel hurt, exposed and even more resentful of her father.
The nature of his video response, that he always intended to post on her Facebook page for her and her friends to see, smacks to me more of revenge than of trying to change her behaviour.
It seems to me that his tit-for-tat response has probably inflamed an already difficult situation rather than resolving it.
It seems like an angry, impulsive response that effectively mirrors his daughter's behaviour. I can't imagine that he foresaw the enormous reaction that his video response would receive. I wonder how much he even thought about the potential consequences of his actions.
We always have to be careful how, and what, we role-model for our children and teenagers. Especially when it comes to our values, talk can be cheap.
We can all expound on the value of respect and talk about how we expect to be treated with respect, but if we then go and act disrespectfully towards others it is our actions that will be mimicked by our children, not our verbal entreaties.
Calling our children names, destroying their property, humiliating them in public can all be construed as disrespectful.
What value are we really expressing in this kind of action? How does acting disrespectfully to our children encourage them to be respectful in the future?
As adults we need to be responsible for our actions. A willingness to accept liability for the outcomes of what we do is in fact a hallmark of adulthood.
Teenagers and children are learning to be responsible but by dint of their immaturity they will get it wrong and be irresponsible.
I don't think that punishment is, necessarily, the best response to irresponsibility. Punishment doesn't teach a child not to be irresponsible, it just teaches them not to get caught being irresponsible.
Teaching them about the true impact of their behaviour on other people, and helping them to be more thoughtful, considerate and understanding of the needs of other people, will help them be more responsible the next time.
At the heart of any attempt by parents to influence their children and teach them good values and behaviour has to be effective communication. We need to know how to talk to children and teenagers in a way that allows them to hear us and we need to listen to them so that we can understand the world from their point of view.
In the daughter's rant she maximises the list of chores she believes she is expected to do. Her dad, in his response, minimises the list of chores.
How commonly do people's differing perceptions of the same events or experiences lead to conflict? Too commonly is an answer.
Most conflict resolution models emphasise an ability and a willingness to see the situation from the other person's point of view. Feelings of hurt, injustice and a belief that the other person will not be able to hear your point of view are common blocks to this kind of understanding. As long as we feel bound to cling to our own parochial perceptions we will struggle to bridge the gap that may exist between our views and the views of others.
To successfully resolve conflict we need to learn the skill of empathy. Empathy is that ability to be able to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and to try to understand their feelings and views, even if we don't share those feelings and views.
In terms of communication, empathy builds understanding and allows difficult feelings to be expressed without judgment. In the example of the 'Facebook Parenting' clip an empathetic response from the dad might have been: "You sound really upset and annoyed about the amount of work that you are expected to do around the house. In fact, you seem overwhelmed by having to do chores and schoolwork every day.
"I'm not sure I agree with how much you say you do, nor am I happy that you call me names and use swear words to make your point. I feel really hurt that you went behind my back to complain rather than giving me a chance to respond to you directly.
"I'd much rather that we talk about chores, meaningfully, than you complaining about me and your chores to other people."
This kind of a response is much more likely to open up a real dialogue. It also avoids blame and recrimination but does allow the dad to create a space to express his own feelings directly to his daughter.
If a dad can show that he is able to listen in this way he is much more likely to get a fair hearing in return when he needs to explain his point of view.
Having watched the YouTube clip I wondered -- how are this daughter and her father doing now?
I am guessing they struggled to communicate about the important things before their issues reached a massive worldwide audience. Now that their spat is so broadly in the public domain, is their communication better?
Maybe they now sit at their dinner table and laugh about the enormous public reaction in response to the video. Maybe they have both vented some of their frustrations by publicly naming what they perceive to be the faults in the other and now an easy truce has formed.
Maybe, however, the public humiliation that they each are likely to have felt has further alienated them and added to any conflict.
What seems most unfortunate is that neither seemed able to talk directly to each other about the hurts that they each seem to feel. I wonder how their apparent rift will be healed?
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