Chapter 8 of Your Teenager is Not Crazy starts off with a story of two teenage sisters. The father is driving the girls to school when the older, Jocelyn, realizes she’s forgotten her clarinet. The younger, Jasmine, is immediately enraged:
Are you kidding me? You always do this. Now we’re going to be late. I can’t believe this!
Let’s pause right there.
What did we just learn? Two things:
- “You always do this.” Assuming this isn’t a falsehood said in anger, older sister Jocelyn has a character problem: she isn’t responsible with her stuff.
- “Now we’re going to be late.” Younger sister Jasmine expects that she will have to reap the consequences of her older sister’s irresponsibility.
The father, narrator of the story, affirms that both 1 and 2 are true. Additionally, he says of his older daughter that she takes a “laissez-faire approach to promptness” and describes further actions that show Jocelyn doesn’t care that she is inconveniencing others. Saying “laissez-faire” makes her flaws sound sophisticated and forgivable, but in the eyes of the younger daughter, her older sister is just selfish, aided and abetted by their parents.
The story goes on, with teen girls yelling at one another, and then Dad yelling, too. The lesson we’re supposed to draw is that parents should take the high road and react peacefully, but talk about missing the point! I mean, yes — it never goes well when I yell, either. But there’s a much deeper issue going on here, and the author just glosses over it by focusing on the idea that we all shouldn’t yell at one another.
Situations like these can breed a lot of resentment in siblings if we’re not careful. Yes, we’re a family. This means we will all regularly be inconvenienced by one another, and it’s good for us to learn to love one another with self-sacrificing love.
But this situation reveals a selfish older daughter who doesn’t need to remember her stuff because her father is willing to turn the car around every time — a daughter who openly admits she doesn’t even care she’s made her younger sister late.
I asked my husband what he would have done.
“Drop her off without her clarinet; she’ll learn.”
Masterly inactivity solves the issues here and creates an environment in which the younger daughter won’t feel the need to yell because there’s nothing to be mad about in the first place. (This is not intended to defend the younger daughter yelling — I am aware that, for the younger daughter, this is an opportunity to practice patience, forgiveness, and right response.)
What is masterly inactivity?
I’ve a one-hour talk about masterly inactivity, proving there’s a lot we could say about it. The aspect of Masterly Inactivity that applies in this particular type of situation is giving children the freedom to fail. The positive way of saying it is let Nature (and natural consequences) be the teacher.
“Children must stand or fall by their own efforts,” Charlotte Mason said.
If a generally responsible child forgets something one time, we might turn around if we can. We’re willing to be inconvenienced. But if a teenager is always forgetting and always late, this has likely developed because he’s been coddled and nagged and indulged for a long, long time.
Here’s the deal: we want our children to grow up to be generally responsible human beings, and we’re not doing them any favors if they are 16-years-old and we’re still rushing in to rescue them when they’re ill prepared. You know how most adults learned to prepare? By reaping the natural consequences of being not prepared!
Masterly inactivity prevents yelling.
In a home where natural consequences do a lot of the teaching, these types of situations aren’t super-charged with emotions. The author characterizes the whole situations as one of the “inevitable battles that arise while living with teens,” which is completely untrue. None of it had to happen, and all of it happened because of how the daughters had been parented over many years. There was nothing inevitable about it.
You forgot your clarinet? I’m so sorry, Honey! I hope your teacher isn’t too hard on you. No yelling necessary. The younger sister isn’t tempted to yell, because she can trust her parents. The parents aren’t tempted to yell, because it’s not their problem, either. This is just a daughter learning to make her way in the world; she’ll be fine.
I hear objections sometimes — But what if she has a big performance? What if this negatively effects her grade? What if? What if?
Let’s turn this around. What if we take this approach when children are younger and the stakes are lower so that they’ve learned to be responsible by the time the big performance rolls around?
I remember when I was 17 and got a speeding ticket. I rushed into my dad’s office, jabbering away about how sorry I was and how this was awful and how I (truly!) thought I was driving the speed limit but had read the wrong sign and on and on and then I realized my dad wasn’t really saying anything.
“I’m just so sorry,” I repeated.
And then he dropped the bomb: I only needed to apologizing to myself because he wasn’t going to be reaping any of the consequences. He calmly and gently made it clear: I would pay for the ticket and I would pay for traffic school. I would appear in court (by myself), and I would lose my free time on three weekends because I had to attend traffic school. It really had nothing to do with him.
I was floored. It had never connected in my mind that he wasn’t going to take care of all of it (and I wasn’t an overly coddled child).
It was time to grow up, and so I did all those things: I paid for things and went to things and did all of it by myself.
And I was fine.
And our kids will be fine when they reap their consequences, too.
Masterly inactivity prevents resentment.
This is oft overlooked but oh so important. Imagine if I had taken my traffic ticket to my father and he had asked my younger sister to pay for part of it. Imagine the injustice of such an action! And imagine the resentment it would have bred in my sister.
And yet in the story above, the father is perfectly content letting the younger sister pay for the older sister’s misdeeds. There will naturally be times where the whole family pays the price. (That’s part of being a family.) But a habit of masterly inactivity puts some boundaries around consequences and says that, for the most part, each child pays their own dues. Do you know how much this protects sibling relationships? Generous siblings might even have some compassion and desire to help when they are raised in this sort of context.
But when we demand siblings pay for each other’s faults — when we say that we can’t allow Jocelyn to forget her clarinet while disregarding that Jasmine will be late — we aren’t building an environment for a healthy love relationship between the sisters.
And that, my friends, is a very sad thing.
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