In Part 1, I suggested that sometimes children's act in ways that deserve neither approval nor a limit. I also suggested that parents could use what I call the third option when responding to these "in-between" behaviors.
The third option is a statement that combines parent's observations of what children are doing with a reminder of what the family values or believes. Also critical to using the third option is letting children decide whether their behavior should change following feedback from parents.
In Part 2, we consider using the third option to respond to teenagers' in-between behaviors. Most of these arise when teens start to experiment with new ideas and activities (e.g., hair, clothes, music, food, drink, sex, religion, politics).
Imagine that your 16-year-old daughter has a boyfriend, Derrick. It's her first serious dating relationship. You hope she's safe, but you have some doubts. You've met Derrick, but don't know him well. He hardly speaks and doesn't make eye contact. He has an older brother who got busted for selling drugs. Derrick also has the look, dress and attitude of someone who is involved with drugs. You don't know if he uses drugs; you only have your suspicions. You do know that he's only 17 and smokes cigarettes regularly. His smoking is not in line with your family's values and beliefs.
What would the third option look like in this situation?
You: "Hi, honey. I need to talk to you about Derrick. Got a minute?"
Child: "What's wrong? You think he's a stoner, don't you -- just because of how he looks. I knew you were going to do this."
You: "Whoa! Hang on. You knew I was going to do what?"
Child: "Make me stop seeing him."
You: "Because I think he uses drugs?"
You: "Well, I don't know that he uses drugs. Does he use drugs?"
Child: "No, but you think he does."
You: "Well, honey, he does look and act like a kid who uses drugs, but you're right. I don't know that he uses drugs."
Child: "So what's the problem?"
You: "Well, that's a good question. I'm trying to decide if there is a problem. I know that Derrick smokes cigarettes, which at his age is against the law. It's also not something I'd ever want you do. None of us smoke because it's so harmful."
Child: "Well that's not me. I don't smoke and I don't think his smoking is anybody else's business?"
You: "You're right. It is his choice. And if he weren't dating my daughter, I'd butt out. But he is dating my daughter and she really likes him. I see the smile on your face when he calls or comes by. But please know that his choice to smoke and break the law is not something I agree with."
Child: "So what are you saying?"
You: "I don't like that he smokes."
Child: "That's it?"
You: "That's it."
The third option is neither accepting nor containing, but a strategy that falls somewhere in the middle. There's no attempt to limit the daughter's behavior, but also no doubt that her parent is concerned about her boyfriend's smoking.
The value of using the third option will depend on the quality of the parent-child relationship. If that relationship is struggling from the weight of harsh words or hurt feelings, the third option will come across as a lecture from someone who doesn't have a clue.
Another way to use the third option is when there's a need to set a limit that's not sitting well with your teenager. Let's go back to Derrick, the boy dating your 16-year-old daughter. You grounded her and took her cell phone because she came home after curfew. Pay close attention to what is said and not said by the mom.
Child: "Mom! I can't believe you're actually grounding me."
Child: "It's so stupid. I mean, I got home 10 minutes late and you ground me for the whole freaking weekend. I don't get that."
You: "I'm sorry if seems stupid, but that's what we're doing."
Child: "But why? I mean, do you really think 10 minutes is that big a deal. Seriously, what do you think we were doing in our '10 minutes'? I'm sure those 10 minutes made a big difference."
You: "I'm sorry if seems stupid."
Child: "Can I at least have my phone? That's so unfair. You're doing that just because you don't like Derrick; you think he's this big druggie. It's so lame!"
You: [Pauses. Takes a deep breath. Looks at her daughter. Says nothing.]
Child: "I mean, it's not like I can't talk to him. We can still send messages on my computer. So you're little plan to keep us apart won't even work. It's stupid!"
You: "Honey, it might be stupid, but it's what I decided. And you're right; it does seem silly to take your phone if you can still send messages. But that's the way it is."
Child: "But why? It won't even work! What do honestly think you'll get out of this? Do you really think I'll quit dating Derrick? Do you really think your little punishment will matter?"
You: "Honey, I don't know. I'm not the smartest parent in the world, so I don't know whether it'll work or not. I just know that you got home after curfew and that we take that seriously in our family."
Child: "That is such a load of crap! Why don't you say what you really think: You hate the fact that I'm dating Derrick and you've been waiting for a chance to bust me so that you can keep us apart?"
You: "Do you really believe that?"
You: "Well, you're right that I'm not a huge Derrick fan. I really don't like the fact that he smokes cigarettes. But am I doing this to keep you two apart? I don't think so. You like Derrick and enjoy spending time with him. Does that make sense to me? Not really. But I love you and I want you to make your own choices. I'm just letting you know that you don't have a free pass when it comes to the curfew."
There's a lot happening in this conversation. The mom stays firm but admits to what she doesn't know. She doesn't chase after cursing, accusations, or sarcasm. And she tolerates self-doubt (What if I'm making a mistake?), hurt feelings (I didn't deserve that comment!) and fear (I don't want to lose my daughter!).
The third option can be very useful but, like many things in parenting, it comes with emotional costs.