As a father of two teenagers with three more children in the pipeline, I have received — and continue to receive — plenty of parenting advice. One bit of advice that I hear over and over is this: pick your battles. Standing in the middle of this experience, I haven’t yet decided whether this advice is merely self-evident encouragement, truly insightful parenting counsel, or complete hogwash. I am leaning toward the hogwash hypothesis.
What do people mean when they say, “pick your battles”? They could be saying something self-evident, like this: do not attempt to control every aspect of your teenager’s life or you will both be miserable. I suspect that almost all of us recognize the value of allowing our children to learn from their own mistakes, and we tolerate experimentation within some range of behaviors. Advising someone to do this is trivial and uninteresting.
In my experience, the “pick your battles” advice seems to be aimed at something less obvious and perhaps more controversial. Something like this: don’t criticize or correct your teenage children on minor issues, or they will rebel and do some really bad things. Is this good advice?
Obviously, rebellion does not necessarily follow from correction — even incessant correction — though I dare say that most of us can imagine that result. But the big issue here is where we should draw the lines. Those who proffer the “pick your battles” advice seem to me to be suggesting a relatively relaxed position. Big issues — premarital sex, illegal drugs, etc. — are worthy of parental intervention, but other issues — immodest clothing, music with sexually explicit lyrics, movies with objectionable content — are matters where the teenager should have the freedom to experiment and learn.
I am not sure whether any of this is subject to abstract definition. My own experience suggests that each child needs and deserves special treatment that is tailored to fit the child. Keeping all of that in mind, I can say this with some confidence: the youth and young adults I most admire are overwhelmingly the product of demanding parents. These are parents who control television viewing, internet access, and music in the home. These are parents who know where their child is at all times of the day and night. These are parents who know their child’s friends. These are parents who have long discussions with their child and are not afraid to express opinions about right and wrong. I would not describe these parents as people who “pick their battles,” but as people who are engaged on all fronts. And my sense is that the children understand that and interpret it as love, even if they find it sometimes annoying.