Learning to ‘Get Off His Back’
He is sitting on the couch playing a game on the iPad and tapping his foot to the beat of the music playing through his earphones. He looks relaxed. Very relaxed. It is nearly six in the evening, and he has been back from school for more than two hours.
I feel my anxiety rising as I observe him relaxing on the couch. Unlike me, he doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. I look at the clock again, circle around the living room a couple of times, and cast sideways glances at him, hoping that he will get the message, get up, and start his homework.
But he doesn’t, and I retreat into my room.
I didn’t want another emotional outburst with my son. The truth was that the last six months had been fairly tempestuous between my 11-year old and me, and I was largely responsible.
To quote my mother, I needed “to get off his back.”
Just like most other parents in the world, I believe that my children have intrinsic potential to do well. But just like most parents, too, I believe that my children are inherently lazy and will never reach their potential unless they are pushed to work hard.
Left to themselves, I am quite certain my children would never get up from the couch. Except, perhaps, to pick up a bag of potato chips from the kitchen.
So, in order to make sure that he was productive, I had grossly overscheduled my son for the last couple of years. He had sports practice for two hours a day, four times a week. He had piano lessons twice a week. I had signed him up for an online math enrichment activity. And he was expected to stay on top of his homework. There wasn’t a moment to waste.
In today’s highly competitive world in which we are raising our children, I had fallen into the trap of believing that he had to stay on top of everything, all the time. As a result, our communication was increasingly one-dimensional and revolved around a series of reminders about sports, school, and piano practice. If I ever saw him in front of the television on a weekday, I immediately rattled off a litany of things that he needed to do instead.
I pushed him hard, and for a while he complied, rushing from one activity to another. We could all see the results of his hard work. His grades were good, his performance in the game was getting stronger, and he was getting better at the piano. I patted myself on the back. All those hours of pushing him were beginning to pay off. And now that he had delivered, I was setting the bar even higher for him. If he could reach this high, surely he could work harder and reach higher.
But in this constant quest for stronger performance, our relationship started to suffer. He didn’t come to me for hugs and chats any more. Probably because he knew that if he did, I would remind him of something that had to be done.
One day he refused to go for a piano lesson. The next day he refused to go to sports practice. I asked him if he was feeling well.
“I’m fine,” he said flatly. “I just don’t want to go. I don’t want to do these things anymore.”
I asked him why, reminding him that he liked the activities and was improving.
“I don’t have any fun at them! You’re the one forcing me to do all these things. I don’t want to do any of them! I’m never going to do them again.” He stormed into his room and slammed the door.
He was pushing back.
I tried to reason with him, but he wasn’t prepared to listen. I decided to let things cool for the day. But the next day, it was the same story. He wouldn’t budge. He was digging in his heels against his parents and was absolutely certain that he wasn’t going to do anything I asked.
I was hurt and I was angry. But I also saw that this was not going to be a battle that I would win. Even if I forced him to do the things I wanted him to do, I would lose in the end because it would push my son away.
My mother was right: I had to back off.
I had overdone it, and now, I had to give my son his space. Perhaps he would play the sport again, or perhaps he wouldn’t. Perhaps he would pick up the piano again. And perhaps he wouldn’t. But it would have to be his choice, and he would have to do it on his own terms.
And I was just going to have to learn to be patient.