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Arrrr!... Parent Like a Pirate!

The consequence stung, but needless to say, the loss of an iPhone beats being sentenced to "sweating," a playful pirate punishment that involved the crew surrounding the transgressor around the ship's mizzenmast wielding cutlasses, swords and sharp tools.
09/17/2014 06:55pm ET | Updated November 17, 2014
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As any concerned citizen preparing for International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I did some preparation, reading Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, a history of pirates by the English naval historian David Cordingly. With 25 years of family therapy behind me, I thought: Why stop at only talking like a pirate? Why not parent like a pirate? These bands of murderous thugs can impart more guidance to today's parents than you might think.

Reading about the reality of these maritime marauders, I was broadsided by the realization that family life has a lot in common with life aboard a pirate ship. In any given session, some of the folks who come to my office in a suburb of Washington, D.C. will be fundamentally hostile to authority, motivated by prodigious self-interest, willing to attack if the odds look good and fiercely defensive when aggrieved. They aren't carrying swords, but in many other ways, teenagers are a lot like pirates. But their parents could be more like pirates, too.

One of the main motivators to sing "It's a pirate's life for me" was a flight from oppression. Many pirates were escaped slaves and sailors who had been forced into service as sailors. As a result, they were leery of absolute power. Economist Peter Leeson examined pirate organizational arrangements, noting that the sea rogues discovered a kind of proto-democracy.This was a reasonable alternative to the oppressive systems they'd left on shore. Decades before the United States was formed, pirates recognized the value of democracy and practiced it on board. Largely illiterate gangs of thieves concocted an impressive early draft of our constitution, complete with a division of power and a system of checks and balances. The captain -- the executive branch of these floating democracies -- commanded only in times of battle. The quartermaster was the judicial branch, arbitrating disagreements and meting out punishment. Serious punishments, which were usually as creative as they were brutal, required a majority vote.

Zach, a 17-year-old self-described "average" high school student, shared a good deal of likes and passions with his parents, Stephanie and Jason. Neither a cutlass nor pistol was drawn to compel him to attend family therapy sessions, he did so willingly. Yankee fans, Zach and his dad spoke about the unthinkable: what life will be like in 2015 AD (After Derek Jeter). Zach and his mom poked and jabbed each other about musical tastes -- hers steering toward Pink, his leaning toward Lil Wayne. The conversations often sounded as if they were among close friends of different ages. However, friendly chats were not effective in resolving Zach's disregard for consistently showing up for school. A course of pirate captain parenting was proposed and adopted.

When Zach started playing fast and loose with attendance in his senior year, justice was swift and decisive. A couple of weekends without leave, then no screens for a few days until Zach reconsidered his premature dash to freedom. Parents discovered transgressions, explored the facts of the case, decision rendered, sentence imposed -- not much unusual there. What was striking was the calm, almost amicable way Zach was brought to justice. The first round, the grounding, was a tad too low-key, and failed to make the intended impact. When he skipped school again, Jason and Steph uncharacteristically but firmly demanded the iPhone. Zach resisted, insisting he faced mortal danger cut off from all human contact, but his parents were resolute. He was returned to full rations after a week. There were no recurrences for the rest of the year.

Like a good pirate quartermaster, Stephanie and Jason tried on being fair but stalwart when it came to punishment. The consequence stung, but needless to say, the loss of an iPhone beats being sentenced to "sweating," a playful pirate punishment that involved the crew surrounding the transgressor around the ship's mizzenmast wielding cutlasses, swords and sharp tools. The prisoner danced in circles around the mast as the pirates jabbed, poked and punctured him to the upbeat tunes of the ship's fiddler.

When kids are young, moms and dads enjoy sovereign rule. "I'm the mommy, that's why." But, when those malleable youngsters turn into adolescents, parental seas are roiled. As children grow up, parents focus less on the hard skills -- the basics of reading, arithmetic and sports -- and, often they sadly miss the clear signs of progress reflected in grades, awards and trophies.

The new world of teenagerhood changes the map for everyone. While still learning many new things, a teen is seeking to find a port as an adult -- with the rights (yea!) and responsibilities (boo!) that come with that role. At the end of their voyage, they'll need to have that quality known as "character" -- the willingness to pursue challenge and cope with failure. In other words, young adults must be able to sail on, whether the winds are favorable or otherwise.

Parenting like a pirate means letting the navigation of the day to day evolve into an egalitarian project. The pirate parent does not command unless absolutely necessary -- at times of crisis, mutinies and broken rules. On the routine voyages of life, these parental buccaneers encourage the emergence of their teenagers' individual talents, navigation by celestial dead reckoning or making the plans for a road trip. That means sharing the power to make decisions that affect the entire crew, like where to embark on vacations or dreaming up solutions to a family financial problem. Such sharing can convey the message that your kid's judgment just might be trustworthy. The most intrepid of these swashbuckling stewards even encourage dissent in their offspring's ranks, saying, in essence -- challenge me! I will listen to all cases.

Pirate parents also have the capacity to assume command when needed. Helping a kid grow character, the parent needs to break from the calm "steady as she goes" default when necessary, like a staunch and unflinching captain in battle. When a young salt fails to act like a responsible member of the crew or neglects their duties, the pirate parent can revert quickly, decisively and calmly to hierarchy.

Adam, a bright but motivationally inconsistent 18-year-old, started college strong, but, early in the spring semester of his freshman year, his work slipped precipitously. Steve and Laura, his parents, detested having to pull rank. They thought the best path to changing Adam's behavior was tracing its origins. In high school, similar events happened each year. These regularly occurring crises resulted in painful and dramatic arguments, endless discussions about what was "really at the root" of this recurrent mess, pleas for mercy, promises of change and parental rescue operations.

At my behest, they reluctantly stripped their command to a few reminders of the rules, and eventually stopped their exhausting attempts to continuously intervene. He was warned that if he didn't finish his incomplete coursework by the second week of July, the school's deadline, he wouldn't be returning to his second year of college on his parents' dime.

That fall, Adam did not make it back to college. He worked as a classroom assistant in a preschool, attended a community college and eventually transferred to a state university. Steve and Laura came to see that what at first seemed unkind and detached -- issuing the command and giving up responsibility to have it followed -- actually made a lot more sense in the end. Adam came to see his missteps as something he had to confront and resolve. He spent less time making his case to his parents and more on taking steps to get out of a situation he did not want -- being stuck at home. It's too early to tell for sure, but signs are positive that this semester will be an improvement.

By some accounts, there appears to be a general erosion of hierarchy in modern families. Many who are parenting now came of age during an era that rightly challenged conventions of privilege and power. From the 1960s through the 1980s, confronting the need for greater civil rights, gender and sexual equality incited two generations to distrust institutional and absolute power. But parents have not just a right, but a responsibility to the occasional moment or phase of assuming the rank of master and commander. On a more mundane level, a generational incompetence in all things digital challenges us: How can we be the leader when we don't even understand Snapchat? Also, some parents who I meet feel compelled to pick an extreme with teens -- to be either a cop or a pal, neither of which is a desirable full time position. Pirates grasped that shifting currents and rapidly changing conditions required a nimble organizational response: collaboration as the default and decisive command in time of need.

Parenting lore has no shortage of metaphors to choose from. Recent options have included tigers, helicopters, free-range, dolphins and French people. Some more authentic labels include authoritative, authoritarian and laissez-faire. Obviously, the path isn't as clear as some authors suggest. Perhaps parenting is less about which theory is correct and more about what the current conditions call for. Maybe the parenting that works best with young adults is that which parents least and cooperates most.

Maintaining order can get oppressive fast, whether on a ship or in a family. Parenting like a pirate seeks calm seas and the treasures of amiable cooperation. The goal, after all, is nothing less than a civil declaration of independence.