Heidi was a 15 year old girl who came for therapy at the behest of her parents. “She’s been furious with us ever since we had her transfer to a charter school,” her mother told me over the phone when setting up her first appointment. “Her father and I were convinced she’d do better there, and we still are. But every day we hear the same complaints from her, and see the same long face. We’re hoping you can get her to see how unreasonable she’s being. I don’t think she’s even given this new school a chance.”
When I met with Heidi, she told a different story. Yeah her parents had made her transfer, she said, but that part didn’t bother her so much; she knew she needed a different academic environment. And yeah she did complain about the school a lot, but not because she didn’t like it. Heidi’s problem was that she did like it, and wanted to stay there.
I asked Heidi how that was a problem. “The problem, “ she pointed out, “is that I made such a big deal about how I wasn’t going to like it and wasn’t staying after the first semester. If I tell my parents now that I actually like the school and want to stay, they’ll think they won.”
“Won what?” I asked.
“They’ll think they won the whole ‘who was right’ and ‘who was wrong’ thing” Heidi replied. “And I know exactly what would happen next. They’ll look at each other with this stupid smile on their faces thinking, ‘Oh, we knew she’d come around.’ And then they’ll use it as proof that…” —and here she mocked her mother’s voice—“‘We know you better than you know yourself!’ Ugh, I almost want to go back to my old school just so they won’t get that satisfaction.”
Lucky for Heidi that she had the inner resolve to stay committed to the school of her choice even though it probably meant having to watch her parents do their touchdown dance and tell her they knew all along she’d see it their way. I’m not sure what parents think they are accomplishing when they make a point to say “I told you so!” All it does is offend the child, and reveal a lack of sensitivity regarding how often kids, and especially teenagers, are asked (or made) to subjugate their burgeoning independence to the directives of parents, teachers, relatives, and other adults involved in their lives. By choosing not to claim their daughter’s decision to stay at the charter school as their victory, and by emphasizing their excitement for her rather than taking credit for her “enlightenment,” Heidi’s parents would be allowing Heidi to save face instead of feeling as if she had lost or given in. In doing so, they would be demonstrating a tremendous amount of respect for their daughter’s courage to acknowledge wanting something that her parents also wanted for her, and would receive in return her appreciation and her confidence in them to not exploit opportunities to show who’s boss.
The need to save face is human and normal but all too frequently—and unnecessarily—activated in our children and teenagers by the ways in which many adults try to guide, instruct, care for and counsel them without taking into account the emotions upon which they trod. Kids who have to be right will, in the face of inarguable evidence, refuse to change their mind because for them being right is better than being smart. Kids who have to be independent will reject a parent’s great idea for the sole reason that it wasn’t theirs. “Solving a problem doesn’t count unless you solve it on your own,” a sad, aloof, hungry-for-contact girl of thirteen years once confided in me. Similarly, some kids who have a hard time defining their areas of competency will bristle when offered advice, because accepting the help summons their feelings of shame and inadequacy more than it invigorates what’s left of their shaken confidence. There are times to help bring forward gently in these kids an awareness of how their need to be right all the time, or always independent, is hurting them and keeping people from connecting with them. But there are also times when the best thing we can do with our kids is to stop talking so much, and stop making so many suggestions, and realize that what they may need most is our quiet, gracious appreciation of the small, mostly invisible (to us) indignities they face in their journey toward autonomy and self-hood.
— Janet Sasson Edgette