Smarter Than Your Parents

June 1st, 2009 by Steve Pavlina

A common complaint I hear from teens is that they’re being raised by parents who aren’t as smart as they are. Suffice it to say there are a lot of people in the world who just aren’t very bright, and there’s no IQ test required to raise kids.

I did not suffer from that particular problem myself since my parents are both pretty bright intellectually. But I can still relate to the challenge of being raised by people with values that differ from your own.

I’ve also had some friends who were raised by — how can I say this tactfully? — intellectually challenged parents.

Some parents simply make some very dumb decisions and not just with respect to parenting. Some make dumb career choices and bad financial decisions. Some make poor health choices. Some are socially inept. And some are spiritually bankrupt. When parents make bad choices, their children are stuck going along for the ride.

In many cases, by the time the child is a teenager, they’re starting to realize that Mom and/or Dad are a few bits short of a byte. Then the kid is left wondering, “How the heck am I supposed to deal with these people?”

This situation can create a lot of conflict and stress during the teenage years. The teen is still dependent on the parents, but the parents aren’t doing a very good job as parents… or as human beings for that matter.

What do you do if you find yourself in such a position? How do you prevent dumb parents from making a mess of your life while you’re still dependent on them?

Here’s some advice on how to handle the situation of feeling trapped as a teenager by your own parents’ failings.

Accept the truth of your situation

Don’t resist or deny your situation. Accept it for what it is. Say to yourself, “So I don’t have the brightest parents in the world. That’s okay. It might be difficult, but I can deal with it.”

If you still have a few more years to live with such parents, it’s tempting to go dark and pretend they’re smarter than they really are. After all, you’ve trusted them to guide you this far. What’s the harm in continuing to put your faith in them?

Loyalty is a good value, but it’s best to direct your loyalty toward principles and key character qualities, not to individual people. Be loyal to the truth.

Being too trusting of people who don’t deserve your trust can lead to all sorts of problems. Even if you don’t have much control over your life situation, you’ll still share the burden of dealing with the consequences of (bad) decisions made by your parents. So it’s wise to limit your exposure to such risks when possible. And you can’t limit your risk if you deny that the risk exists.

Bad decisions made by your parents can create very real problems for you. For starters this can make your life very unstable, unpredictable, and stressful. When they screw up, you may have to deal with the aftermath.

It’s unfortunate to find yourself in a situation where you have limited authority but still must deal with the consequences of decisions made by others. In truth that doesn’t change even after you become an adult, so you might as well get used to it. We must all deal with the consequences of actions taken by others. It’s part of being a member of the human race.

If you deny the reality of your situation, you become truly powerless. Only by acknowledging and accepting your situation without resistance can you summon the power to deal with it appropriately. As tempting as it may seem in the moment, don’t allow yourself to go dark. Keep your eyes open.

Take responsibility and exercise your personal authority

After you accept the situation you find yourself in, assume 100% responsibility for it. Even if someone else is supposedly in charge, your life is still your own. If someone else makes a decision that affects you, you have to live with the consequences.

Your authority may be fairly weak as a teenager, but you can still exercise it to some degree. You can learn how to influence your parents to make better decisions. The skills you build to make this possible will serve you well later in life.

Whatever you do, don’t complain. Complaining only makes things worse. Don’t attack your parents for making decisions you don’t agree with. Learn to negotiate with them instead. Do what you can to help them make better decisions. That’s a lot to ask of a teenager, but again, this is a skill you’ll need later in life anyway, so it can actually be a blessing to develop it at a young age.

In order to become a good negotiator, you must learn to see reality through your parents’ perspectives. You need to understand what they value and why. Once you gain a sense of their values, you can use that as leverage to help get your own needs met.

Instead of getting angry and frustrated and throwing teenage tantrums, try to understand your parents as human beings. They aren’t perfect and they make mistakes. See your situation as an opportunity for you to learn and grow. If you can figure out a positive way to deal with your parents, it will help you out later in life because you’ll surely encounter others who are similar to your parents in at least a few dimensions of behavior. If you can’t handle them, you’ll probably attract others like them later in life until you learn this lesson.

For example, if your parents value peace and quiet, what can you do to make that a reality for them? How can you help them meet this need? Don’t guess. Just ask them outright. It may take a bit of massaging if they aren’t very expressive, but take your time. Keep feeding their answers back to them in your own words until they verify that you understand them.

If your parents are having financial problems, what can you do to help out? Can you help cut back on expenses? Can you pick up the slack by taking on more responsibilities at home? Can you encourage them now and then to help them feel a little less burdened? Can you start a simple web business to bring in a few hundred extra dollars a month?

Instead of blaming your parents for whatever ails you, step up and exercise your own power to make things better. Do what you can to improve your collective situation. You may not have as much societal leverage as your parents do, but surely you can do better than remain aloof. Whatever is testing your parents is a test for you as well.

Communicate your desires and don’t complain

It’s almost a truism that teenagers love to complain. They have an almost infinite capacity for talking about what they don’t like and don’t want. However, this practice doesn’t serve them at all. It merely turns other people against them.

Don’t succumb to the destructive pattern of teen angst. Instead, get into the habit of clearly expressing what you want. Then ask your parents what they need from you to make it happen. By all means assert your independence, but do it constructively if possible instead of lashing out recklessly.

My daughter Emily is only 9 years old, but she’s pretty good at letting us know what she wants. She can be a bit of a spitfire and doesn’t always express herself in the most tactful way, but I respect her more for communicating her desires so clearly. It makes it easier for me to parent her because I have a good sense of what she wants.

Emily loves thrill rides like rollercoasters. She practically equates good parenting with taking her on such rides frequently. As soon as she hits the minimum height requirement for another rollercoaster, she lets us know that we must take her on it ASAP. She recently hit 54 inches, which was the minimum height to ride the big rollercoaster at the New York New York Hotel on the Vegas Strip, so I took her on it, and she really enjoyed it. Since she’s so clear about what she wants, I don’t have to guess. I know that’s how she receives love.

It would be harder to parent Emily if she complained about what she didn’t want and never communicated what she did want. Sometimes when I pick her up from school, she vents about what went wrong that day, so I keep coaching her to shift her mindset. If she has a bad day at school, I ask her to tell me about what was good about her day. If she starts complaining about what she doesn’t like, I teach her to tell me about what she likes most. I still listen to her problems, but I try to keep her focused on overcoming those problems and turning them into positive growth experiences.

As a teenager, don’t waste your breath complaining about what you don’t want. It turns people off and conditions them to regard you as a whiner. It makes them less likely to want to listen to you. Complaining is negative personal branding.

Instead, take the time to clarify your desires. Make it clear to your parents what you want and need from them. Give them a clear picture of your personal boundaries. Ask them what is required to make your desires a reality. Open a negotiation with them about how to make your family life better for everyone.

Be persistent. Give your parents time to come to grips with your personal boundaries. Don’t expect their perspective to shift overnight. It may take many weeks for them to come around and be willing to negotiate with you. Just keep re-raising the issue once a week or so until they’re ready to deal with you as a more independent individual instead of as their dependent child.

If your parents are able to fulfill your needs, great. Do what you can to help make that happen. But if they aren’t able to come through for you or if they keep disappointing you, either due to unwillingness or incompetence, then don’t beat a dead horse. Accept that what you’re asking for is more than they can give you. They don’t have the capacity to fulfill your needs, so you must get your needs filled outside your relationship with them. There are plenty of other people on this planet who can help you out.

When you’re very young, your parents may be your whole world. But during your teenage years (if not sooner), you’ll learn that they can’t satisfy every need and fulfill every desire of yours. They have their own lives to manage, and you are probably quite a handful.

See the true intelligence of your parents

Maybe your parents aren’t very bright, but do they have any good qualities you value?

There are many forms of intelligence, and IQ is only one. People that aren’t very bright in one form of intelligence are often gifted in other forms. Social intelligence, interestingly enough, is a greater predictor of lifelong success and happiness than IQ.

If you have a conflict with your parents with respect to their apparent intelligence, perhaps it stems from connecting with their weaknesses instead of their strengths. Is it possible to shift your relationship in such a way that you can connect more often with their strengths?

For example, if you have a father who’s not very bright IQ-wise, but he has very high kinesthetic intelligence, then don’t ask him to help you with your math homework. Instead, try to relate to him on the basis of his strength. Perhaps you could ask him for advice on becoming more fit, or take up an interest in sports that you can share with him. When you have a personal challenge to deal with, maybe you could explain your problems to him using more physical language and body metaphors that he can understand.

When I meet new people, I like to probe them for their strengths, so I can relate to them on that basis when possible. For example, when I met someone with Asperger’s Syndrome that other people found to be socially awkward, I soon learned that he had a keen interest in video games, and I was able to connect with him easily when we talked about games. He was actually very bright, but he did poorly in school because school is pretty limited in the types of intelligence it values.

Society typically values some types of intelligence more than others. So if you have parents who struggle with seemingly basic aspects of living, such as being able to support themselves financially, it doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent. It may simply mean that society hasn’t yet learned to harness the value they can provide.

Adopt substitute parents

It’s unrealistic to expect your parents to successfully fill all of your needs. That hardly ever happens in the real world. Most of us grow up with physical or emotional deficiencies to one degree or another. That doesn’t mean our parents are bad people. It just means they’re human.

It’s perfectly okay to befriend other adults who can serve as surrogate parents for you in some ways. If your parents can’t meet your needs, other people can. Your real family includes billions of people, not just the few who share your household.

When I was in high school, I had interests that my parents couldn’t fully support because they lacked the ability to do so. I didn’t hold that against them; I just found other adults who could serve those roles.

For example, when I was about 16 years old, I got really interested in fractals. I programmed my Atari 800 to graph color fractals pixel by pixel. My program would run overnight just to produce a single image. My parents didn’t know anything about fractals, so they couldn’t help me in this area. To get the mentoring I wanted, I made friends with a couple math teachers at my school who were both curious about fractals. They were able to guide me in ways my parents never could, such as by sharing books and resources with me that I otherwise never would have found on my own. Thanks to their help, pretty soon my bedroom wall was covered with fractal artwork I produced. I even invented my own fractal algorithms and produced artwork unlike any else that existed. I actually still have some of those images in a folder in my closet.

For a less nerdy example, when I was 12 or 13 years old, I joined a local Boy Scout troop. (Okay, so maybe that’s still nerdy, but in a different way at least.) My troop had an amazing Scoutmaster and assistant Scoutmaster who worked as professional search and rescue guys. I learned all sorts of cool things from them, such as first aid and lifesaving techniques, some of which I still remember to this day. Our troop went on camping trips once a month, so that gave me a much needed break from my family. That troop became like a surrogate family that allowed me to express and develop other aspects of my personality. I learned so many things that I couldn’t learn from my parents, such as snorkeling, cliff diving, building overnight shelters, archery, metalwork, wilderness survival, and so on. These mentors helped me face and overcome challenges that I’d otherwise never have encountered.

You can apply the same general idea to fill in the gaps in your own family life. Don’t whine and complain just because your parents are unable provide exactly what you want. Be proactive. Go out and find other ways to fill those voids. Recruit some substitute parents to help you.

Recognize that your parents are still right sometimes

Even if your parents seem to be lacking in brainpower, they probably have much greater life experience than you, and experience is often superior to raw intelligence. Adults can call upon their greater life experience to recognize patterns that teens haven’t yet internalized.

If your parents seem to be giving you bad advice or making inappropriate demands, ask yourself where their decisions are coming from. Do they know what they’re talking about? Are their conclusions coming from personal experience? Or are they making leaps of bad logic in areas where they have little practical knowledge?

If you see that parental decisions are coming from real life experience (i.e. street smarts), you may want to give your parents a little more leeway. Ask them to share some of the experiences that led them to their conclusions. Take a deep breath, and realize that it’s possible they may be more right about this than you are.

When I was young, my parents were very financially conservative. They both worked full time, they avoided credit card debt like the plague, they paid down their mortgage, and they saved money year after year. Consequently, my Dad was able to retire at age 55, and now ten years into his retirement, he still has lots of time for his personal pursuits such as gardening. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t particularly keen on saving money, but I bowed to my parents’ will because I figured they had a lot more experience with money than I did. Whenever I got gift money, I saved most of it and only spent part of it. Consequently, by the time I turned 18, I had plenty of money saved up for college. Since I went to a state school  in California, my two degrees only cost me about $2K total for tuition, plus maybe another $500 for books. By saving money for years and by spending conservatively, I didn’t need any students loans, and I graduated debt-free. Given California’s current multi-billion dollar budget deficit, perhaps they should have charged a bit more. :)

On the other hand, I recognized that because my parents were both lifelong employees, I shouldn’t take their advice with respect to starting and running my own business. That was beyond their personal street smarts. So in that area, I had to dismiss their advice, trust my own intelligence, and learn from other mentors. I’m glad I didn’t follow in my Dad’s footsteps since he worked for a GM-owned company. That might not have turned out so well in the long run, given than GM’s stock is currently worth about 1% of what it was a decade ago.

Move out when you turn 18

The practice of living with your parents well into your 20s is rather loserish in my opinion, and it’s especially bad if your parents are none too bright.

Living at home for too long into adulthood delays the maturation process and holds you back from embracing adulthood. You become a child in a grown-up body. It’s rather depressing to see people who are 28 years old who still live like they’re 18. They may look like adults, but they’re seriously lacking in maturity. By staying at home for too long, their transition into adulthood has been retarded.

I understand that people mature at different rates, but seriously… if you’re still living with Mommy and Daddy at age 25 and beyond, it’s time to get out on your own and grow up. Put the online orc battles on pause, and give adult living a chance. There’s no substitute for holding the reins of your life. Delaying this transition only makes you weaker.

It’s unfortunate that modern society lacks strong rituals for transitioning from childhood to adulthood. It’s not like you have to go out and kill a lion with your spear or take a mate and have your first child at age 15. The borderline has become fuzzier. Celebrating your 18th birthday isn’t much of a transition. Society may grant you more privileges at that age, but otherwise your life looks pretty much the same it did the day before, and you may not feel that much different. Spearing a lion is a much more significant boundary crossing than gaining the right to vote.

When social constructs are lacking, it’s up to you to craft your own rite of passage into adulthood. For me it was moving out when I was 18. It wasn’t an easy transition by any means, but it got the job done.

A good part of transitioning to adulthood is to assume full responsibility for your finances. Put all your accounts in your own name, and start paying your own bills. If you can afford to, get your own vehicle. In my family it was common to get hand-me-down vehicles from other relatives. When I couldn’t afford a new car, I bought an old Pontiac off my parents for $3K (the Blue Book value at the time), so I didn’t have to spend a lot on transportation (other than paying for gas, insurance, and repairs). When I couldn’t afford a car, I rode my bike everywhere.

Is it okay to move back with your parents once you’ve moved out the first time? I think that’s alright under certain circumstances — as long as it’s temporary, and you maintain good boundaries to ensure that you continue living like an adult. Lots of people move in and out of their parents’ home during their early 20s when they need to save money. It’s especially common in places where rents are very high, and it can be quite expensive to secure decent housing on your own. When this happens, however, you need to assume full responsibility for elevating your financial situation to the point where you can move out again. It’s okay to use family as a safety net when necessary, but make sure you don’t get too cushy with it.

What about the opposite end of the spectrum — moving out before you’re 18? In general I don’t recommend that except in severe cases like where you’re being violently abused or seriously mistreated. But it’s hard to make a one-size-fits-all call here because there are so many variables. I’ve seen people move out at 16 years old and thrive. Louise Hay, founder of Hay House (publisher of my book), moved out before 18, but she suffered a lot of abuse, including being raped at age 5, so that’s a lot more serious than merely dealing with parents you don’t respect.

When possible I think it’s better to maintain the stability of staying with your parent(s) until you turn 18, assuming you do gain some stability from it. People mature at different rates though, and some people are clearly capable of managing their own affairs at younger ages. In practice it’s a bit of a gamble no matter when you move out. For some people it works well, but for others it turns out rather poorly. A setback isn’t the end of the world though. You have to learn how to take care of yourself sooner or later.

I think the biggest risk these days isn’t moving out too soon. It’s staying at home too long. People get too comfortable staying at home, having their bills paid by Mom and Dad so they can delay adulthood by playing video games and surfing the web.

Even if you’re going to college, I think it’s better to move out and live on campus if you can afford it. Get a side job to make ends meet if you have to. But give yourself the gift of independence. Start making your own decisions, and cut the umbilical cord.

Be patient

Realize that the passage of time will eventually solve many of your problems. Your situation isn’t permanent, so the worst case is that you must wait it out.

A very empowering perspective is to consider that on a spiritual level, you chose your parents. Perhaps you incarnated with them for a reason. What can they teach you? Why on earth would you pick such people if you had a choice? Hmmmm…

This can be a hard perspective to maintain when you’re in the midst of chaotic teenage experiences. Sometimes the passage of time is required to clarify the valuable lessons learned.

I was raised in a family that my siblings and I used to openly label as dysfunctional. We revered the Bundy’s from Married With Children as a more loving family. But my parents did a great many things right that put me in a strong position later in life. I had a superb education and access to cool learning resources like a home computer and programming books at a young age (not terribly young by today’s standards, but certainly back then). By the time I was 16, I could write very well, and I could code interesting computer programs in BASIC and Pascal.

When I turned 18, I was glad to be out on my own and breathed a sigh of relief. It took me years to see the value of my upbringing as it played out. The passage of time helped to broaden my perspective.

If you’re a teenager right now, feeling stuck in an oppressive situation with parents you don’t respect, you may not be able to see the value in your experiences. You may simply regard them as chaotic or unfair. But time will surely shift your perspective. Be patient with yourself and your family, and allow your life to unfold as it will. In any event, resistance is futile. ;)



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