Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Teaching the Concept of Social Currency

I am going to imagine that you have very polite and considerate teens. That is, they are very polite and considerate to most everyone else besides yourself. My youngest son has taken to telling me that I’m a towel he can use to dry himself on. He means this in really a jocular and somewhat literal way- following up with attempts to dry his freshly washed hair on me. Today I joked that I really preferred to be considered a door mat instead, the traditional position of parents everywhere.

My son’s comments are what I consider to be charming ways of engaging with me while not violating the teen Code-of-Separation. I have in my years of parenting, been called some very awful things by my teens and I had to learn that the really nasty stuff was going to have to bounce off, because it was just a test to see how steadfast I was and how safe my teens were with me.

Of course that didn’t mean that I had to just lie down and take it.

Oh no. There were always consequences.

I’d ignore the ugly stuff and then lie in wait as a spider in her web, for an appropriate time to talk about how I felt about being called names. Generally I would wax rhapsodic on the subject of human nature, one of my favorite topics. Of course I had to reign myself in to keep within the limits of teenage attention spans. I also knew that inevitably my child would need something from me, whether it be video time, a ride to a friend’s house, a trip to the market to pick up something he or she had run out of. I would mention that I always had numerous things to do and that it helped tremendously if I felt good about the teen for whom I was asked to do something. Had this same teen called me a @#% earlier, I would not feel the least bit inclined. Of course recompense would be necessary to reduce my feelings of injury. Extra chores or some limitation in some favorite activity were required. Apologies were also helpful though a particularly surly teen couldn’t always manage to bring themselves to do that. We would work something out. It was never necessary for me to express myself in anything other than a reasonable and solemn tone. Histrionics were never necessary.

When my eldest son, our “worst offender” in the nasty name-calling department, had his first set of high school conferences, I was stunned to hear just how polite and considerate he was to everyone. This included fellow students, teachers and administrators. Well knock me over with a feather. Something went in after all.

This same son, who lives with us now as a penny-pinching, hard working master’s student at CU, although generally exceedingly polite to everyone, still has some attitude about helping out with chores. He recently argued long and hard against cleaning in rooms that in his estimate didn’t need cleaning. Of course young men in their early twenties do not have the same general standard of cleanliness as do their mothers and I make accommodation for this. However, I must also make my needs clear. In light of my son's advanced age, I adjusted my discourse on the topic of human nature to include the concept of social currency. This is of course what I have been talking about all along. Once I helped him to understand how important it is that I feel positively disposed with regard to his needs when he calls late at night (during a snow storm) with a request for a ride home if he’s missed the bus back from campus, he shut down his argument altogether. Of course to vent his spleen he did a lousy job with the vacuuming and sweeping, but that was much better than the alternative (no vacuuming for another six months).

One can only push these things so far…

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