I like to have the Last Word. Who doesn’t, right? In many of my roles, I usually get to have the Last Word: as a professor in a graduate program, as an owner of a private practice, and certainly as a blogger. Long ago, however, I figured out that, as a parent, I am much better off letting go of my attachment to the Last Word.
When my own children were tweens, I watched the father of a similarly aged client manage an argument in my office masterfully. The conflict had something to do with money, the mall, and adult supervision. It was early in my work with Christie, and as I often do when I am just getting to know a family, I asked them to discuss a recent problem so that I could watch their interaction. The argument went on for a few minutes. There were several heated exchanges. Christie rolled her eyes a lot and cried and threw around words such as “trust” and “overprotective.” Mom raised her voice and spat out words like “spoiled” and “ungrateful.” Dad didn’t say much initially, but after several unpleasant interchanges between his wife and daughter, he summed up most of what had been said in a calm and matter-of-fact tone of voice. Then, with the skill of none other than the Buddha himself, he brought the argument to a close by saying,
Christie, I know you like to have the last word, so why don’t you finish this up? – Dad, 40-something
To which, Christie replied,
Whatever. – Christie, age 12
And then, the most miraculous thing happened: everyone stopped talking. Just like that. It took me a moment to process what had happened; Dad had offered his daughter the Last Word, she had accepted the offer, and then, that was that. The argument was over.
Looking back on this interaction, I am still somewhat in awe of Dad’s zen-like way of being in the midst of family conflict. I have not achieved this level of skill nor do I expect the families I see for therapy to do so. Still, I learned something very powerful from that father, and I have shared it many times over in the past several years. Here’s what I learned:
No matter how much a parent likes to have the Last Word, it is ten-fold more important to a child or adolescent. There is nothing to be gained by a parent who relentlessly pursues the Last Word. A child is likely to pursue it even further.
If we think about what is going on developmentally for our children at the age of 12, or 16, or even 3 for that matter, it makes sense that the Last Word would be of utmost importance to them. They are trying to establish separateness and independence from their parents. They need to demonstrate, over and over (and over and over and over), that they think their own thoughts, form their own opinions, and govern their own behavior. It goes against this developmental momentum for a child simply to acquiesce to parents in the face of conflict.
For parents, giving up the Last Word does not mean relinquishing authority. In the example above, Mom and Dad were annoyed that Christie had not complied with limits they had set about a trip to the mall. By allowing their daughter to have the Last Word, they had given up nothing. They had not bestowed upon her complete freedom to do whatever she wishes at the mall. They had not retracted the stern messages they (mostly Mom) had given her about her noncompliance. They had simply allowed Christie to speak last. Really. That’s it.
Sometimes, a child’s Last Word may feel disrespectful to parents, even more so than Christie’s “whatever.” If Christie had used her Last Word to speak disrespectfully by saying, for example, “You guys are ridiculous,” it would still make most sense in the moment to let it go. There will always be future opportunities to address such behavior. At the end of a disagreement, getting caught up in a disrespectful comment would take the focus away from the issue at hand, in this case not complying with limits. Parents can only deal effectively with one problem at a time. Much more than that and kids check out completely.
This dad’s way of relinquishing the Last Word is just one way, albeit a highly skilled one. Here are some other possibilities:
- Thanks for hearing me out. Anything you want to add?
- Final thoughts on the matter?
- Before I go mow the lawn, anything more you want to say?
Try letting go of your attachment to the Last Word with your own kids. Notice how this strategy changes the way disagreements play out. Notice in particular how everyone feels when arguments end. If you like what you see unfold, and especially if you don’t, let me know in a comment. I really don’t have to have the Last Word.
For more on managing parent-child conflict effectively, see Redefining Winning.
[Names and other potentially identifying information has been changed to protect privacy.]