Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes
Chapter 7 – In our children's eyes
The Limits of Logic
As parents we ponder about life. We think and conceptualize; we argue and reason, relying on facts and logic. In many settings these maybe effective tools to cope with life. With our own children, however, these tools fail. In family relations logic has limitations: It does not warm the heart. It is cold and sterile. Teenagers contest our conclusions. They reject our notions of success: and seek their own rewards: The acceptance of peers, the trust of friends, the affection of the opposite sex.
There is no way to win a war with our own children. Time and energy are on their side. Even if we mobilize and win a battle, they can strike back with awesome vengeance. They can become defiant and delinquent, or passive and neurotic. They have the key element: power to make choices. If enraged enough, a teenage boy can steal a car and a teenage girl can get pregnant. They can worry us to death or put us to public shame.
This situation is illustrated by Elia Kazan in his novel, The Arrangement.
The only trouble in an otherwise idyllic prospect was Finnegan's son. He was a falling-down drunk, determined… to do everything possible to blemish his father's public image… At one point Finnegan had disowned him, settling on him a sum of money which was to be the last ever. The boy used the money to have an expose of his father privately printed… which the son gave away free to anyone and everyone. (p. 246)
Like Finnegan, all parents are vulnerable. They cannot win by attacking. There is only one way in which parents can win: By winning their children over to sensible ways. This task may seem impossible, but it is not beyond our capacity. Where do we start? The Hebrew sages said: “The beginning of wisdom is silence; the second stage is listening.” The following statements were made by teenagers. Let us listen to them.
“A brute intellect.”
Says eighteen-year-old Harriet:
“My father prides himself on being an intellectual. He thinks and theorizes, with relentless rationality. He sees all sides of every issue, and tries to be impartial. Yet, I often feel furious with him, and all mixed up. My father is not a bad person. He is fair and not too stingy. But he has a brute intellect. His mind is a hard hammer, and his logic is like sharp nails. If I make a comment or ask a question, he puts me through torture. He wants to test my logic. He follows every turn in my train of thought, and then demonstrates that I am on the wrong track. I wish he were less clever and more human! I wish he could do something on impulse. I can't imagine him stopping by the roadside to pick a flower, to take a walk, or to watch a sunset.”
“I refuse to be like my father.”
In a letter to a friend, seventeen-year-old Harold wrote:
“When I look at adults, I see greed and ambition. My parents are rich. My father owns nearly everything. Our house is filled with electronic gadgets. Is my father happy? No. He is miserable. He is overworked and worn out. He is pressed by time and taxes. He is tormented by headaches and doubts. He has climbed the ladder of success, only to find that it leads nowhere – except to more climbing. Now he is panicky. He has fits of depression and his age is showing. At his pinnacle of prominence, he is a bent and spent old man. I refuse to be like my father. I do not want to amass fortunes, or pile up possessions.
“I feel sorry for my parents”
Says eighteen-year-old Stuart:
“I feel sorry for my parents. They have wasted their lives dreaming security. My father does not live life, he calculates it. He adds and subtracts and invests desperately. He is full of facts and figures – a regular IBM computer. My mother too shares his search for gold. But she is disillusioned and bitter. Deep inside herself she knows how little they have lived.”
“I am becoming cynical.”
Says seventeen-year-old Michelle:
“I take life seriously. I want to live ethically. But I am becoming cynical. I have discovered that hypocrisy is institutionalized. It is expected at home, in school, and in society. My father is very ethical in personal relations, but he is almost a crook in business. Mother is a liberal in politics, but she prays and hopes that no poor people move into our neighborhood. Our school teaches equality, yet the faculty is all white, and the classes are only tokenly integrated.”
“He tries to fit life into a formula.”
Says Howard, age sixteen:
“My mother knows a good deal about science, but very little about human beings. She is a chemist, and tries to fit life into a formula. Se has a great need for order and control. So she is always frustrated. Life is just too disorderly for her. She never feels free. She controls her feelings, she controls her employees, she controls our home, and she is trying to control me. She has not tolerance for people. She herself is not altogether human. She is more like a controlled experiment. She says he loves me. I don't feel it. She says he wants the best for me. How can she? She does not even know me.
“My father's dream.”
Says Nicole, age seventeen:
“In my father's mind there is a picture of an ideal daughter. When he compares her to me, he is deeply disappointed. I don't live up to my father's dream. Since early childhood, I sensed his disappointment. He tried to hide it, but it came out in a hundred little ways – in his tone, in his words, in his silence. He tried hard to make me a carbon copy of his dream. When he failed, he gave me up. But he left a deep scar, a permanent feeling of failure.”
“I'm her only interest in life.”
Says fifteen-year-old Monroe :
“My mother is determined to make me happy, even if it kills her. I'm her only interest in life. My health, my homework, and my social life are her major concerns. Mother works hard; she never stops doing all kinds of unnecessary things for me. She runs errands for me. When I get sick, she becomes hysterical. Our home turns into a drug store full of antibiotics and chicken soup. In sickness and in health, she watches over me like a hawk.”
“The original Mrs. Clean.”
Says Ralph, age seventeen:
“My mother is the original Mrs. Clean. She is nuts about neatness – a regular sanitation bug. You take bite of a snack, and she starts sweeping crumbs. Our house is not a home, it's a booby trap. You cannot take a step without some kind of explosion. Every litter bit hurts her, and she screams continuously. I tell her: “Look, Mom, life is for living, not just for cleaning.' ‘You want to live in a pigsty,' she answers as she bends to pick up some crumbs from the carpet. I feel sorry for her. Her life is so spotless and frantic.”