Are They Listening by Bob Henderson, Head of School
Frequently I wonder if my three boys are paying any attention to me. I am so omnipresent in their lives as both parent and school head that I think they work especially hard to shut me off. Moreover, the seductive power of the technologies to which they have access provides them with easy escape. For those of you who missed the news of my infirmity, I managed to break my leg skiing back in December. The damage was sufficiently severe that I am still in the midst of a long recovery. Making it worse, this is my third time breaking my leg skiing. Sometime in late May, hopefully, I will be able to get rid of the cast on my leg and walk in my own two shoes. Despite the inconvenience of this, however, I am doing fine. Indeed, there have been many positive lessons learned through this process. One of those resulted from an enlightening encounter I had with one of my ninth grade twins, Patrick, a few weeks ago.
Through this winter, when I have been at my house, my nearly permanent position is parked on a couch with my damaged leg propped up in the air. One day back in February, Patrick was sitting on the other side of the room, thoroughly engrossed in his computer screen. Somehow I managed to distract him with an innocuous question and then draw him into an actual conversation. The subject turned to skiing, something we both love to do. Feeling some excitement at the prospect of skiing again someday, and with a flickering sense of determination to get back on the horse that threw me, I said to Patrick that I was looking forward to shopping this summer for new ski equipment. He looked at me gleefully and cited right back at me the precise advice I give him every time I review his grades and comments. He said, “Dad, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.” Checkmate.
Despite the rebuff, however, upon reflection I was delighted that he could regurgitate my words so precisely and creatively! Over the years I can’t tell you how many parents have expressed to me their concern that their connection with their teenager seemed to be eroding, and that he or she was becoming someone unfamiliar. Yet my observation of that same child while at school is often starkly to the contrary, and I see the values of the family reflected in behavior and relationships with confidence and clarity. I opine that adolescents have to push parents away sometimes in order to become an independent adult, and although this process can sometimes be difficult, it is also often an essential part of a teenager becoming the sort of person we, as parents, always hoped they would be. Good advice, but I have to admit that, like most parents, this process has been sometimes tough for me to experience personally.
So it is great when you have an insight that your child has been listening and the messages are registering. Even when we feel we are appealing to a void, there are neural synapses that are processing and ingesting our values. So it is important that we do not stop being parents when resistance grows. I once had an exchange with a parent on this topic that comes to mind. This father said to me that he was at a loss as to how to influence his son. I told him, “You need to fire and fall back, then fire again.” That does not mean retreat. It does not mean change your values or negotiate. It means we need to say what we think while standing firm, then stop and listen with real engagement and concern. Then regroup, perhaps figure out a new way to articulate your expectations, and stand firm again. Especially as the year draws to a close and the assault seems relentless, and you are at the end of your reserves, you need to do the right thing in order help them navigate well. As I said in an earlier letter to parents, no matter how much they resist and complain, they count on us to do that. They are listening.