What a 13-year old taught me about parenting and life

And 2 things you need to start doing before it’s too late

Yep. One of my biggest life lessons came from a 13-year old girl.

First, some background. I’ve volunteered for over a decade with a Lagos-based nonprofit working with secondary school kids. We had been in their school that day, splitting up in pairs to take them in classes based on their years, and I and my partner had gotten one of the senior years. We waited behind for a while, as usual, so anyone of them who wanted to talk could, and she was right in line.

I’ve never forgotten the conversation we had.

I won’t go into the details here, but suffice to say she had stuff going on that she felt really terrible about, and yet had been unable to speak of to anyone, mostly because she couldn’t imagine anyone safe to talk to. She had a lot to say, and the tears to go with it, and I just let her talk, only chipping in with questions when I needed help better understanding what she was saying.

(On a side note, I find it almost-funny-except-it’s-too-sadly-real-to-actually-laugh-about when people talk about kids not wanting to talk to adults. I hope you’re not one of those who believe that, because that gets it all wrong. It’s adults who don’t listen to kids.)

Anyway, that wasn’t the worst part.

The worst part came when I asked about her parents, and what kind of relationship she had with them. I was surprised when she said it was “very good,” and especially with her mum, with whom she could discuss just about anything.

Girl, what?!

I mean, I was used by then to kids saying they couldn’t talk to their parents about their issues because they didn’t talk to their parents, period. I would listen to them as they opened up to me, and wish these parents were more present with their kids.

Now, here was this girl with the kind of relationship with her parents that I thought was necessary, and she still couldn’t open up?

So I did the obvious thing. I asked her why she couldn’t talk to this mum she could discuss anything with. And her answer was the thing I will, so help me God, never forget. No it wasn’t the standard, “She’ll kill me if she knew” reply—which, by the way, she did say. What blew me away was what came next.

“My mum thinks highly of me, and if she knew about this, I’d have failed her. I’d have lost her respect and trust.”

I don’t know about you, but…wow.

Look it’s not like it’s the most profound thing to come out the mouth of a 13-year old. It’s not even about whether it’s profound or not. But this girl fresh out of childhood just upended my idea of parenting.

What changed for me after this conversation?

To understand what my young friend did to my mind, allow me to explain what I thought before our conversation.

Basically I thought parenting should be like this:

  1. Set high standards for your kids.
  2. Communicate the standards.
  3. Be close so they know you’re there to help.

It was a great model. By setting standards, you gave them a vision. By communicating the standards, you provided clarity. By being close you offered support. What else could they possibly need, right?

Now here’s the thing. The conversation didn’t change those three things: to my mind, they remained as important as ever. So what changed? I realised, finally, that they weren’t enough.

Something was missing.

  1. Set high standards for your kids.
  2. Communicate the standards.
  3. Be there for them to help them through.
  4. Let them know it’s okay to fail.

That last item, is the fourth pillar that held up the model: recovery.

You see, the problem with the model I had before this was, it’s a perfect model, as long as the child is perfect. But what happens when there’s a failure and things go sideways? What then?

You’d expect that they’d know enough to return to base, right? Logically, yes, that makes sense, except emotions are real. And shame is the realest emotion of them all.

And in that moment of failure, when shame is strongest, returning is the last thing anyone wants to do.

Except it’s been made clear, before that, that failure is part of the course, not the end.

That’s what my 13-year old friend didn’t have.

So what can you do about this?

This doesn’t apply only to kids, of course, as you have probably realised. It applies in any relationship, whether with friends or colleagues, bosses or marriage partners. But perhaps it’s most important for leaders.

As for what you can do, here’s two steps that will help:

  • Talk often about what happens if things don’t work out. Don’t expect that they will know to come to you if things don’t work out. If you don’t talk about it, you’re saying it’s off the table. Put it on the table yourself. Don’t wait for them to bring it up. And when you talk about it, make it clear that you aren’t discussing it because you think they’ll fail, but because they’re human and humans mess up. And sometimes, random mistakes happen.
  • Tell them about your own failures. Again, don’t assume they know that. And it’s not that they don’t know, but when you don’t talk about it, it’s less likely they’ll remember in those critical moments when they feel thoroughly stupid. And it’s actually worse if they really respect you, or think you respect them. Lucky for you, you don’t have to intentionally fail to do this: you already have. Just be open about it.

All of this, when you think about it, really comes down to one thing:

Don’t make failure a big deal.

Not because it’s not. But because to anyone who has failed, it’s big enough already.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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