Every year, our Better Dads ministry hosts an annual Single Mom’s Family Camp. We bring about 25 single mothers and their children to a free, three-day camp. During the camp our male volunteers play with the children during the day while myself and other speakers provide education, insight, and spiritual development during classes for the moms.
At our most recent single mom’s family camp, we had many more teenage boys attend than was usual in past years. One of our male mentor volunteers, Jon, was in charge of the teen boys group and related on a deep level with them. In fact, by the time camp was over they were hanging on every word he spoke, seeking to gain wisdom from a man on how to be a man. They listened enamored as he told them secrets from a lifetime of experience as a man. He taught them how to use a pocketknife, catch and clean a fish, and build a birdhouse with their own two hands.
Jon’s wife, Susan, also helped at camp. Susan (who with Jon has raised three lovely daughters) told a story of how the camp had impacted her. She told about seeing Jon at the river with the group of teen boys. As they started to leave, two of the teen boys said they did not want to go and weren’t leaving. Jon slowly drawled, “Well, that’s your choice. But it is against the rules of the camp for you to be here by yourself. If you choose to stay you and your mom will probably have to leave.”
With that Jon turned and calmly started walking up the trail away from the river with the rest of the group. The boys looked at one another, shrugged, and followed him up the trail.
Susan said what was stunning to her was that if a woman (a mom) had been in Jon’s situation she would have spent 20 minutes discussing the boys’ feelings as to why he didn’t want to leave and still would have never resolved the issue. She was shocked that Jon’s communication method worked so well with the boys.
Jon was so successful because he did two very important things when communicating with teenage boys. He kept his sentences short and to the point. And he gave them options. Teen boys need to feel like they have decision-making capabilities and some control over their life. If you back them in a corner with no choices they will likely rebel. If Jon had ordered them to leave they might have challenged him just to see what would happen. They might have eventually complied but would have been angry and resentful for the rest of the camp. Giving them the option to choose allowed them to feel like an adult and in control of their circumstances.
Now it is important to understand that the choices we give teenagers are all choices we want to happen. I noticed many times when my kids were teenagers that if I just gave them two or three choices in a situation, even if they were choices that favored my desired outcome, they were much more willing to acquiesce and settle for a solution that was positive. You’ll notice one of Jon’s choices for them was not to stay at the river with no consequences. He gave them choices which guaranteed to lead to a solution that he wanted to end up with, while still allowing them the final say.
Excerpted from Rick’s upcoming book, That’s My Teenage Son, due for release in Jan. 2011.