Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Is It Better to Disengage than to Argue?

For the past few days, I have been pondering the following anonymous comment left on Peace Doesn't Mean Perfect:

If a horse dies of thirst while standing belly-deep in potable water, whose fault is it?


This morning, Claudia over at Never a Dull Moment wrote a post entitled Watching in Silence and Self-Doubt.  In that post, she wrote the following:

And so I ended wondering if maybe the hardest thing about the transition to adulthood for my kids is just watching in silence as they make huge irreversible mistakes. Warning them does no good -- I've been trying to teach them and show them the way for years. Reasoning with them doesn't work either. Sometimes even their own bad experiences don't help them learn.

I'm not intending to be negative here, just trying to process my own thoughts. Which is better? To express myself and be ignored or to keep my mouth shut? The results are the same, but which is better for me?

Later in her post, she asks the following question:

Would love to hear your thoughts as to what you have found is best: Does it work best not to invest emotional energy in repeating yourself to someone who refuses to get it -- or to not invest emotional energy in keeping your mouth shut.

We've been pondering some of the same things and asking ourselves the same questions when it comes to our child, and the answers are not easy.

Although Danielle is still a minor, and the mistakes she is making now have less consequences to her than those made by Claudia's adult children, she is making decisions that will affect her future.  She doesn't engage in school, she refuses to even try to find a job, and she does her best to create an environment rife with conflict both at home and at school.

She needs to get an education, she needs to get a job to start saving for her adult life, and she needs to find a way to get along with people who are in positions of authority.

But she doesn't have the desire to do any of those things.  She is surrounded by resources and people who want to help, but she is like the horse standing belly-deep in potable water who is dying of thirst.  I feel like, at this point in her life, there is a crowd of people surrounding her, encouraging her to drink, but her lack of trust, her stubbornness and her mental illness are preventing her from taking even the tiniest sip.

We see an ugly, unpleasant future for Danielle.  She does not see it.  Her youth and mental illness combine to create this perfect form of magical thinking.  In her imagination, all the knowledge, skills and experience she needs to live a perfect life will be magically imparted to her on her 18th birthday.  She is absolutely convinced she will find a good job (doing what?) that will pay her a great salary (how?) and that she will be able to afford all the trappings of a middle-class life.  On her 18th birthday, she expects to move out to a fully-formed life that includes her own place to live, groceries, and a brand-new $50,000 SUV.

It's certainly nice that she can dream, but if she's not able to put any sort of action in place to work towards that dream, it will never happen.

At the most profound level, Danielle doesn't understand that action = achievement.

So my wife and I have found ourselves at the very heart of Claudia's dilemma.  Do we continue to invest ourselves and our emotional energy in trying to make Danielle understand the errors in her thinking, and why the world doesn't work the way she so desperately wants to believe,  or do we give up and just keep our mouths shut?

How do you teach someone who, for whatever reason, can't or won't get it?

I don't know.  What we have learned is that trying to teach Danielle all the skills she needs to learn brings forth too much conflict in our home.

An example of this is that Danielle needs to learn to cook. When she gets out on her own, she's going to need to have a basic understanding of cooking, shopping and household management skills.  We've tried to teach her, but our efforts have been met with nothing but resistance and arguing.

So we've given up.  We no longer make any effort to teach Danielle how to cook.  Instead, she'll take a home economics class at school next year.  Then, it will be up to her teacher to instruct her in those basic skills.  We hope she'll absorb the lessons she desperately needs at school, but we've realized that we can't teach her.  She prefers to argue and create conflict rather than learn from us.

The answer to Claudia's question, at least for us, is to disengage.  It is better, at least in terms of family peace, to keep our mouths shut than to try and teach lessons to someone who isn't willing to receive them.  That doesn't mean that we don't express (and enforce) our household rules.  It just means that we don't keep harping on Danielle about her future.  We've explained what the world is really like, and if she seems receptive, we'll repeat a lesson if asked, but we have pretty much stopped trying to convince Danielle that we are right.

She'll learn those lessons herself, when she turns 18 in just a bit more than a year and a half from now.

Of course there's one additional thing to ponder in all of this.  Exactly who benefits by this policy of disengagement?  Certainly we do, because it's our blood pressure and stress levels that are kept low by refusing to engage in a battle of wills.  Still, I wonder if it's the right thing for Danielle, because she still needs to learn certain lessons about life.

So, the larger question is, do we battle our way through the next 18 months, trying to force Danielle to learn certain life lessons, or do we give up to keep peace in the house?  Our fear is, given her extremely oppositional nature, that even if we did fight the battle, the lessons won't sink in.

At the end of the day, we are choosing peace in the house.


  1. I'm just curious -- do you really think Danielle will leave when she old enough?

  2. Unrelated to this post, you should read The Explosive Child by Ross Greene.

  3. ricecakes - In my opinion Foster Abba is going to ask her to leave the moment she turns 'of age', whether Danielle wants to or not! Or it will come to the first disagreement, and Abba will kick her out, because now there are no legal consequences! Make no mistake, Foster Abba is counting down the days!!! (I will be shocked if this gets published, SHOCKED!)

  4. Why battle when you already know it's just going to go on and on and on? Not that you have to totally give up--maybe you offer opportunities and if she doesn't take them, you just go about your own business. For instance, ask her to help fix dinner. When she says no, don't battle, don't coerce, don't try to talk her into it, etc. You did try, you invited, you made an opportunity available.

    And at 18, it's pretty easy to set up the rules that she has to contribute and when she doesn't, she out of there. But I think she's going to leave on her own anyway.

  5. I led my son to the water. I tried to show him by example how to drink. I deliberately taught the other kids when I knew he was nearby. I deliberately put him in situations where there would be no overt pressure to drink, and no one would think twice if he drank. I found other teachers. I gave him natural consequences for not drinking. I gave him logical consequences. I pretended to ignore it whenever possible.

    In short, I did what I felt morally obligated to do. Sometimes a lot more (although not as much as he got older and I got more burnt out), most of the time not much more, and sometimes a lot less. Because I knew that my son was never going to be able to drink on his own, and that as soon as he left our home, he would stop taking his meds and what little progress we'd made in teaching him would be completely gone.

    That's all we can do. When I feel guilty about it, or others try to make me feel guilty, then I'm going to try to remember this quote ("If a horse dies of thirst while standing belly-deep in potable water, whose fault is it?").

    Thank you for sharing it!!!!



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