It's Never Too Late to Teach the Three R's

In order for a child to become successful at the three R's of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, their parents must first teach them the three R's of respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness.

After I explained this concept to a group of professional educators in Phoenix, a teacher approached me to ask, "Can something still be done for a fourteen-year-old whose parents, until now, have failed to teach your three R's?"

"It may not be too late," I replied, "but in order to reverse a situation with that much history and momentum behind it, the parents will have to do the very thing they've been afraid to do for fourteen years."

"Which is?" she asked.

"Make their child unhappy," I said.

The personality of a child is not, contrary to myth, carved in stone by age six - or by age sixteen, for that matter. It remains flexible and, therefore, malleable well through adolescence. Even an adult will find that significant events and relationships continue to mold their personality for as long as the individual is receptive to change. In the final analysis, the ability to change is a matter of choice, not chronology. The problem is that teenagers in need of an "attitude adjustment" aren't likely to recognize the need. Since they aren't going to make the decision, someone needs to make it for them.

Once the decision has been made, the first step is that of getting the teenager's attention. The only way to do this is to confront the teen with full responsibility for his behavior. Since responsibility is measured in terms of consequences, this means the parents must stop whatever they're doing to protect the youngster from consequences.

I'm talking about a crash course in reality. This kind of emergency action demands commitment, consistency, and a complete lack of sympathy for the child's sudden plight. In addition, the parents need to let go of guilt for past mistakes - whether real or imagined. Actually, sympathy and guilt go hand in hand. Guilt - the idea that "if I'd been a better parent, my child would be a better person" - drives sympathetic responses. In turn, these responses generate compensatory behavior.

For the confrontation to succeed, parents must stop blaming themselves (dwelling in the past) and charge strategically ahead toward their objectives (focus on the future). It stands to reason that when you confront the irresponsible youth with reality, unhappiness will be the inevitable result.

The problem is that most parents don't like to make their children unhappy. They seem to think that the evidence of good parenting is a happy child. It follows, therefore, that if the child is unhappy, the parents must be doing something wrong.

Absurd? You bet! But powerful, nonetheless.

For example, the parents of an unmotivated 10th-grader might insist that, every Friday, he must bring home a progress report signed (in ink) by every one of his teachers.

To have freedom, all of the teachers must indicate better-than-passing work. If not, or if the report is incomplete or doesn't find its way home, then the youngster has no freedom until the following Friday, when another chance to "pass inspection" is granted.

The heretofore irresponsible teen will greet these requirements with (a) rage (b) refusal, (c) plea bargaining, (d) all of the above. In other words, unhappiness.

The storm is likely to last, with brief periods of deceptive calm, for three months or more.

But if the parents will batten down the hatches and hang dispassionately in there, it will eventually subside and a new day of understanding will dawn in that teenager's life.

You see, sometimes unhappiness is not only the best form of therapy, but also the only form possible.

(From 'The New Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children,' copyright 2006 by John K. Rosemond)

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