You Gotta Be Delicate About These Things

It’s the moment we dread. Our son is dating someone we know is bad for them. Our daughter is about to change college majors and throw away years of work. Our toddler has started biting or hitting or shouting some curse words.

We know we need to stop them…and we think we need to do it fast. The problem is, trying to do the latter will only make the former less likely. We told the story recently of Clementine Churchill expertly managing to convince her daughter Mary that she had become engaged entirely too soon and almost certainly to the wrong person. She pulled off this parental jujitsu calmly, indirectly, patiently–knowing full well that if she tried too hard or too soon, it would backfire.

The author Giovanni Boccaccio, whose work on the lives of famous women has survived for hundreds of years, has a perfect quote about course correcting one’s children. “Certainly the ardor of the young should be curbed slowly,” he wrote, “lest by wishing to oppose them with sudden impediments we drive them to despair and perdition.”

Being a successful parent requires a delicate touch. Being an authoritarian, of course, does not. But in the end, how effective are authoritarian regimes anyway? And even when they are, does anyone love them? Or do their citizens, at the first possible chance, flee as far as they can?

We have to think about correcting behavior as nudging our children, not forcing them. We have to persuade, not overpower. That doesn’t mean being manipulative, it just means being sensitive, strategic, deliberate. We have to approach it that way…lest we bring about and cement the very thing we hope to avoid.

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