Picking Battles: Reflections on Parenting

December 28, 2004 | 16 comments
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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.

16 Responses to Picking Battles: Reflections on Parenting

  1. Lamonte on December 28, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    Gordon,

    I couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph. I have (4) grown sons and I wish I could say that I was that kind of parent. But they turned out OK anyway. Lucky me. I think the parental style you described can be accomplished without being overbearing. A lot of it has to do with style. Is your involvement in their lives hostile or threatening…or is it protrayed in a caring, concerned manner. What does the commercial say? “Parents, the anit-drug.” True.

  2. MDS on December 28, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Gordon,

    I agree wholeheartedly. My poor wife’s biggest annoyance as Young Women’s leader involved picking battles that the church clearly wanted her to pick, (usually related to modesty) only to have her stance undercut by parents who would not support her and gave her the tired lines about being unable to find anything modest in the stores.

    Your post did remind me of a recent quote from Lesson 22 of the Heber J. Grant manual, and I’d be interested in your thoughts on how to reconcile it with your stance:

    Quote:
    Following the examples of the influential teachers in his life, President Grant worked diligently to teach the truth to his own children. His daughter Frances Grant Bennett told of his gentle way of helping her and her siblings live the gospel: “In matters of small importance, father seldom said ‘No’ to us. Consequently, when he did say ‘No,’ we knew he meant it. His training allowed us to make our own decisions whenever possible. He always explained very patiently just why he thought a certain procedure was unwise and then he would say, ‘That’s the way I feel about it; but of course, you must decide for yourself.’ As a result, our decision was usually the same as his. He was able somehow to motivate us to want to do the right thing rather than to be forced to do it.�
    Close Quote

  3. Gordon Smith on December 28, 2004 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks, Lamonte. I agree completely, that the underlying message has to be love.

    MDS, about the HJG quotation, a couple possibilities: (1) They were talking about their father, but what did their mother do? (Mothers and fathers often play good cop-bad cop with children.) (2) What did Frances mean by “matters of small importance”? Would they have considered modest dress, for example, a matter of small importance? (I doubt it.)

  4. diogenes on December 28, 2004 at 5:39 pm

    Some years ago, Hartman Rector Jr published an article in the Ensign entitled “Let Everybody Win.” It was essentially parenting advice on the topic of picking your battles. He related that when his sons were growing up, they wanted to have “Beatles” style haircuts. He didn’t particularly like “Beatles” style haircuts, but decided that it wasn’t that important — his sons were attending seminary, keeping up with their schoolwork, and serving honorably in the Aaronic Priesthood. He decided he could afford to let them “win” on a fairly trivial disagreement over the hair style that they preferred so long as he was “winning” on all the important issues. Everybody came out ahead and there was a lot less contention in the home.

    The clear implication was that he would have been willing to go to the mat on what he considered to be an important issue, like school or seminary. The other clear implication was that it is not worthwhile for parents to fight with children about trivialities, where the damage done from the confrontation is frequently greater than the gains from “winning” the point — in other words, where a win is really a loss.

    Perhaps this is obvious to Gordon, but it is definitely not obvious to many parents, and is something I have had to contiually watch out for myself — maybe I’m not really a big fan of Evanesence or Avril Lavigne — so what? If the lyrics are unobjectionable, I just need to let it go. There will be enough to disagree over with my kids that I can and must save my fire for the important issues.

  5. mj pritchett on December 28, 2004 at 7:15 pm

    The case you describe as trivial and uninteresting, i.e., a parent trying to control every aspect of his or her child’s life, does in fact occur. However, the pathalogically controlling parent who could benefit from the “pick your battles” advice usually also has difficulty accepting advice from others. So in those cases it may be useless advice as well.

  6. mj pritchett on December 28, 2004 at 8:13 pm

    I would rephrase the “pick your battles” advice this way (but only if specifically asked by someone who wants my opinion):

    Try to win all the battles you can using kindness, gentleness, meekness, pursuasion, love unfeigned and prayer (and make sure you and your spouse have a unified front). However, realize that with some children at some times, these tools won’t be enough to win a particular battle. In those situations, resist the temptation to use counterproductive tools such as physical or verbal abuse, threats, blackmail, dishonesty, bluffs or buyoffs to try to win the battle, since those techniques may or may not win the battle, but will increase the chance that you will lose the war in the long run.

    Once you realize you are not going to win a particular battle, despite your best efforts, try to reach a settlement that allows both sides to quit the field without too much humiliation or long lasting wounds. Unfortunately, sometimes the best settlement that can be achieved in these situations will leave the parents feeling like spineless whimps and the child still feeling that his or her parents are the most controlling parents ever.

  7. Dan Barnes on December 29, 2004 at 9:04 am

    Some of the battles people chose to fight are the problem. I was more of a teach correct principles kind of dad and let my children do some crazy things like, watch the Simpsons, date non-members. I even allowed them to drop out of seminary when it became a “rule reciting contest” (school of the Pharisee’s vs school of the prophets) rather than the gospel. Someone please ask my opinion of CES.

    I couldn’t bring myself to take a stand on all things that some other parents thought were important, ie fighting with your kids to get them to church on time, color of shirts, do they have to wear ties. What’s important is gaining a testimony of the gospel and let that seed work in your life. Give it air, give it sun and it will. Choke it by fertilizing it with all the rules you can think of leads to a youth who mistakes the medium for the message, and doesn’t get it. ie social members of the church (pharisees)

    I made it very clear to my children that I was in most things a hypocrite, so we got that discussion out of the way early. I then explained that teen-ager was short for teeny-tiny brain. Since we both had the ground rules down, we could then talk.

    Ok, as an update, all of my 4 sons went on missions (and stayed out), my daughter converted her husband and married him in the temple. I chose my battles, but I made sure they were battles that mattered, I let the small stuff slide.

  8. Arwyn on December 29, 2004 at 1:07 pm

    I’m not a parent yet, and don’t expect to be for some years, which means that teenagers are somewhere in the very distant future. But I wasn’t a teenager very long ago myself, and have been watching my mother raising my three younger siblings who are right now…

    …andI have to wonder this:

    Do we have to phrase these questions of parenting in military terms? The idea of “picking battles” (or even mj pritchett’s more gentle rephrasing of that bit of advice) seems to rest on a mentality that there have to be battles to begin with.

    It seems to me that we in the Church tend to use the metaphor of battle a lot: there’s the great battle between good and evil, the battle we fight to remain pure from the influences of the world. After all, “we are all enlisted ’til the conflict is o’er,” and so forth.

    Maybe, in many cases, the military metaphor plays out better than any other. But even when it’s phrased kindly and balanced by prayer and love, the notion of having to fight our own children seems a little…off?…to my mind.

    Which leads me to agree with Gordon in the first place, and to offer this: maybe couching the advice in terms of diplomacy instead of warfare might induce us to take a more diplomatic approach to the problems. I’ve watched the way my mother has steered my 15-year-old sister away from potentially dangerous situations (those “big battles” such as undesirable interactions with boys, dangerous friends who were leading her in wrong directions, etc.) through gentle, very diplomatic means: inviting her friends over to the house often, getting to know them, and trying to help not only her own daughter, but to uplift and befriend those friends herself. That approach has seemed inifinitely more effective to me than my step-father’s more militaristic “fight the big battles” philosophy.

    And the difference? Perhaps it lies in personality. But I really think there’s something to be said for trying to move away from the war-oriented metaphors. Because battles require two opposite sides; diplomacy is the art of making the other side want to be on your side.

  9. obi-wan on December 29, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    Which leads me to agree with Gordon in the first place, and to offer this: maybe couching the advice in terms of diplomacy instead of warfare might induce us to take a more diplomatic approach to the problems.

    Hmm — you need to read von Clausewitz. Armies and navies are properly an extension of diplomacy, and vice versa.

    Don’t feel bad, though. The current administration hasn’t figured this out, either.

    More directly to your comment: diplomats pick their points of engagement every bit as carefully as generals. You can’t win every “talking point” with your teenager anymore than you can win every “battle.” Whichever metaphor you want to couch it in, the advice, and the strategy, will be the same.

  10. Arwyn on December 29, 2004 at 1:46 pm

    You can’t win every “talking point� with your teenager anymore than you can win every “battle.� Whichever metaphor you want to couch it in, the advice, and the strategy, will be the same.

    Perhaps it would; but maybe our approach to it would be a little different. Maybe we would be more inclined to be more gentle in that strategy. Maybe not. But I like to think that when we’re not thinking that the world is one big battle, we’re more likely to approach the problems with greater care and compassion for the “other side.” So even if the general strategy is the same, our outlook on it may be different, and I think that’s an important difference.

  11. Jim F. on December 29, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    Looking back on my days as a parent of pre-adult children, I am more and more at a loss to say what the right way to parent is. It seems to me that almost all parents are the best parents they can be, even if they are not very good. Thus, I agree with the admonition of D&C 121, of which MJ Pritchett has reminded us. We ought to admonish our children in gentleness and mercy; we ought to exhibit love unfeigned. But the problem is that, not being perfect ourselves, we are often not yet able to do so as we ought. I think now, having raised four children, I am in a better (though not good) position to do that than I was. But now it is too late to be that better parent.

    I see parents who have, to my mind, been psycyhologically abusive to their children, but who end up with very whole, good children, and parents who seemed to me to epitomize loving parents and who end up with wayward and broken children. Perhaps the irrelevancy of technique, however, points back to the necessity of love: I cannot determine by some technique what will make my children turn out right. How they turn out is far too complicated to be determined by a technique. But I can love them and continue to love them, in spite of my imperfections and the imperfect love those imperfections produce. If I love them and continue to grow in my ability to love them, guiding them without trying to produce something, perhaps that love, cleansed by the atoning perfect love of Christ, will eventually make up for my deficiencies. If so, then my children and I will stand before Christ as equals, together responsible for our lives together as well as for our individual existences.

  12. Gordon Smith on December 29, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    Arwyn, Yes. I like it. Obi-wan makes a good response, as always, but I agree that our choice of metaphors can be an important on our actions.

    I really like Jim’s concluding thought. As usual, he goes right to the most important thing. While I may be a deficient father in many ways, I want my children to know that I love them deeply, and I hope that this will compensate for my deficiencies.

  13. mj pritchett on December 29, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    Well said Jim.

  14. Martin James on December 31, 2004 at 11:38 pm

    Believing both that most children have a need to rebel and that parents have almost no chance intervening in serious transgressions to the sufficiently motivated ( stoney limits cannot keep love out…) there is a certain reverse psychology to having arbitrary and capricious rules. (Thou shalt vacuum thy room at exactly noon each Saturday or thou shalt date no girls whose names end in y or ie) in this way children can rebel against these absurd rules in relatively safe ways.

    On the other hand, there is no aphrodisiac quite like “whatever you do, don’t do X.” ( MJ will recognize this as the “don’t tell kids not to put beans in their noses principle.”)

    I also believe that part of paradox that Jim refers to is that people tend to adopt roles that aren’t taken. If the parents monopolize the “saint” roles, the children are left with only “sinner” roles.
    Children whose parents are sinners sometimes take on the saint role.

    Unfortunately, raising children is like trying to immunize them with live viruses. No exposure to sin leaves you vulnerable. Exposure to the wrong sin or too much of it can kill you.

    Love is great but again the paradox is that some kids just don’t value what they get for free.

  15. David King Landrith on January 1, 2005 at 6:12 pm

    I don’t tend to think of parenting in terms of battles, because if I did, my kids would always be the casualties. It’s a matter of boundaries, and I believe you have to draw them early and often. At some point, all kids are going to push the boundaries. And if you make your kids look for boundaries, then you’re courting danger.

    As far as parental advice, my older brother (who’s got 7 kids) has given me the best advice I’ve ever received as a parent. Of course, when a mother changes diapers, she coos and sings to keep the baby happy. My brother told me that if I make sudden movements and loud noises when I change diapers, I’ll end up changing many fewer diapers. I have found this advice to be both true and useful.

  16. greenfrog on January 2, 2005 at 10:19 pm

    Gordon,

    It is my sense that the “pick your battles” guidance is intended to recognize that the value of the objective should be weighed against the cost required to obtain it. If the only way a parent can get his son to wear a white shirt to church involves the involuntary use of sedatives and a straightjacket, I would suggest that the battle isn’t worth winning. If your parenting style is limited to non-assault-related types of coercion, you still might reach the same conclusion if the only way to get the desired whiteness of shirt involved a month’s grounding or some other sizeable quantum of whatever your preferred punishment mechanism is.

    I think that, understood in this fashion, there is a great deal of wisdom in this advice. It does not suggest that you should not care about things that you care about — only that you consider respectfully the different choices that the other moral agents in your household choose to make, even when they don’t coincide with your own.

    As to the correllation between relationship between parenting styles and the behavior of children you’ve noted anecdotally, I’m afraid that I think that we tend to find the correllations that we believe in. I suspect that the psychologist who said that what is important is not great parenting but “good enough” parenting may have been correct, after all. Children come with their own sets of preferences, predilections and personalities. They will, in the end, make their own decisions.

    I think it best to encourage them to do with regard to as many things as they can safely, and to do so as early as they can discern the connection between choices and consquences. That way, they can learn the to make good decisions when the consequences for poorer choices are relatively small. The older they get, the larger tend to be the magnitude of the consequences, and the greater their insistence that they should be able to choose to make decisions for themselves.