A quote I repeat often is by the great Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” I find this sentiment close to perfect because it brings to the forefront not what people tell you about themselves, but what their actions demonstrate about who they really are. My husband has always warned of smooth-talking men (perhaps because he’s not one), claiming that any man who spends that much time worrying about the right thing to say is clearly not genuine or authentic. This made me wonder – does the same apply to our kids?
Think about what your kids tell you about themselves. Then compare that to what they show you. Is there a disconnect there? Do you sense any hypocrisy between what they say and what they do? I’ve heard plenty of people say that if a teenager’s mouth is moving, he or she is lying. I don’t cotton to that jaded perspective, but I understand where the accusation comes from. Teenagers often lie, directly to our faces, and we believe them. They have perfected the art of presentation, the art of image, the art of deception. I’m not saying they’re malicious and cruel. I’m saying they know how to present themselves to different people, as, well, different people.
Your teenagers are different around me, their teacher, than they are around you, their parents. They’re even more different around their friends. Their grandparents. Their minister or rabbi. Police officers. Cliques at school. Fellow athletes. They are malleable. They are, many times, whoever their audience wants them to be.
Does this make them less real? No, because if you think about it, we all do the same thing, if in lesser proportions. I talk differently to you than I do to them, to my parents, to my minister, to police officers. But I’m fairly certain people know the real me. I’m not a woman of mystery; my face gives me away every time. Plus, I’m a grown woman who quite frankly rarely cares a whole lot about what others think of me. But teenagers care, very, very much. So they become chameleons to survive, to be accepted, and to be loved.
How do you know who your kids really are? Just listen to Maya. Pay attention to what they show you in various life situations. How do they treat adults and people in authority? How far will they go to be accepted? What’s their bottom line? What are their top priorities? How do they react to setbacks? How do they spend their free time? What people do they choose to spend time with? You can ask them every question in the book, and they can answer those questions, but it doesn’t mean you’re any closer to knowing your kids. Watch them. Look for patterns of behavior that truly show your kid’s character versus focusing on an isolated incident that is likely the result of a single poor decision. The patterns are key. Because I’ve taught so many teenagers for such a long time, I can recognize patterns quickly and identify where a kid is headed. It will be harder for you, but you can definitely do it. Just don’t get sidetracked by flimsy words unsupported by actions.
If, for instance, your kid presents herself as someone you can trust, someone who is just hanging out with her friends on the weekends watching movies and talking, but she consistently misses curfew and acts strangely when she returns, pay attention to what she is showing you. Then follow up. Be the parent who calls the house (not your daughter’s cell phone) to make sure she is there and that parents are home. Set the boundaries, institute consequences, and see what she does next. Is she furious with you for checking up on her? Does she now start making curfew? What is she showing you about her level of maturity, her trustworthiness, and her understanding of her role as your daughter?
Your kids are not what you want them to be. They’re whole independent individuals who lead lives you only know a fraction about. They know you as mom and dad, but they really don’t know you as husband and wife. You know them as son or daughter. But how well do you know them as boyfriend or girlfriend, friend, student, classmate, or grandchild?
For help identifying patterns of behavior and figuring out just who your kids are, check out my book Teenagers 101.