“Mom, I really like your blouse. It makes you look pretty. Oh, and I have to show you this coat I saw online. It’s so nice. I just have to get it. And it’s on sale. Please? Maybe it’d look good on you, too. We could be like sisters.”
“Oh, all right. I’ll look. But if it’s too much, we’re not going to get it.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re the best mom in the world.”
Teenagers have a maddening propensity for laying on the charm when it suits their purposes, but otherwise are considerably less than cordial.
For instance, the next afternoon when Angela’s mother asks her to bring down her dirty laundry, she might get this kind of response.
“Mom, please! I’m really busy. Why can’t you leave me alone for once. It’s always something. I can’t stand living in this house. Just lay off.”
Her mother laments, “I feel so used. Most of the time Angela acts like a spoiled brat, and the only time she’s nice is when she wants something from me. Am I raising a child who is going to be this two-faced creature for the rest of her life?”
Maybe yes, but most usually, no. Think about it. It is normal for teenagers – well-behaving ones as well as not-so-well-behaving ones – to sometimes act in an insincere manner when they want a favour.
“Yeah, what does she expect me to say? ‘Get me this really cool coat I just saw online or I’ll start screaming at you?’” Angela might say.
The truth is that considerate behaviour – as opposed to self-centered, insincere behaviour – is a trait that’s learned. If, overall, you treat your child in a thoughtful manner, that, far more than anything else, will determine whether they will grow into a considerate adult. In fact, if you have been treating them considerately, they may already be acting that way with everyone else but you.
“She always asks to help when she’s over at our house,” says Angela’s best friend’s mother.
She may not behave like that at home. Yet, almost certainly she will in the future – it’s the miracle that occurs at the end of adolescence, as part of the normal psychological development as they mature into their far more independent young adult self.
When confronted with this two-faced behaviour, most parents feel the need to respond in kind, however.
“Well, young lady, if you think I’m going to do nice stuff for you while you keep treating me like dirt, think again,” says Angela’s mom. “Get you a new coat, that’s a laugh.”
The problem is that while this approach may produce better child behaviour in the short run, it does little over time. And it also teaches this not-so-nice moral lesson: don’t do for others unless they do for you.
The main thing is to not lose focus on the most important parenting issue at stake. It’s not about sincerity, but about control. The key – above all else – is making sure your child isn’t regularly bullying or manipulating you into making decisions that go against what you truly want. The biggest single disaster in day-to-day parenting is letting teens undermine your role as decision-maker.
Should Angela’s mother buy her the coat? That should be determined by what Angela’s mother thinks is best. Whether she gets her the coat or not doesn’t matter, as long as her decision isn’t based on being pressured. What does Angela learn? She learns that she cannot control her mother.
“When Mom really decides something, there’s nothing I can do to change her mind. It sucks.”
What happens is that Angela’s mother gets to feel that she – not her manipulative daughter – is making the decisions.
What about Angela’s bratty behaviour where she balked at bringing down the laundry? As always, bratty behaviour comes and goes with the territory of having a teen. As always, stand your ground, persist and do not pick up on Angela’s backtalk, which invariably leads to more backtalk.
It’s best to simply say, “No, Angela, I need you to bring me your laundry, now.” And begrudgingly, the vast majority of the time, she will do it.
“Omigod, I live in a house with a crazy person who won’t leave me alone.”
But she’ll do it. If not exactly with the charm that you might wish.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.