My son and I at a New York City subway stop (2008)

My son and I at a New York City subway stop (2008)

A dad I knew once said to me –

“When my kids say Happy Fathers’ Day to me I want them to be able to mean it.”

When I asked him to elaborate a bit more he continued –

“It isn’t rocket surgery. I just want to have treated them in such a way that they would be comfortable wishing me well. I want to care for them and appreciate them in the hope that they would want to care for me, too.”

I have admitted more than once that the concepts of choice theory saved my relationship with my own children. I began really reading about choice theory around 1992 (it was actually known as control theory until 1996), and received Quality School training a short time later. In 1995, when the school in which I was principal embraced choice theory, my daughter was 16 and my son was 13. The timing here is significant. I was coming into a deeper knowledge and understanding of choice theory at just the time my children were dealing  with the angst of adolescence. When conflict arises, as can happen between parent and teenage children, I am just as capable as the next guy of being arbitrary and controlling. I am capable of wanting to take charge and be in control.

It was rare that I would do something like this, but one time I asked Glasser for some personal advice. After graduating from high school my son wanted to buy a very old van with two other friends and move to Southern California to make it in the music business. I could tell he was serious. I really didn’t want him to do it, for a number of reasons, but I wasn’t sure what to say or how to say it. Glasser listened as I described the situation and when I was finished he said –

“You want to keep two things in mind. The first thing is stay connected. Whatever you do or say, do or say it in a way that keeps the two of you connected. The second thing is to not say anything that in any way smacks of I told you so. In other words, don’t come across in a way that would ever make it harder for your son to come back home.”

I thought that maybe I understood enough about what Glasser was trying to get across to me and I decided to talk with my son. What I said went something like this –

“You already know that I don’t really want you to do what you have described to me, and that I would rather you get started in college. Instead of belaboring that, though, I just want to say a couple of things. It might sound like it isn’t smart for me to say this, but I think you are very capable of making this idea happen, of buying the van and carving out an existence in Los Angeles. I would worry a bit about how you were doing, but you are resourceful and resilient when the going gets tough. I also think you are an excellent and entertaining musician. If you didn’t get discovered it wouldn’t be because of a lack of talent. There are just so many excellent athletes and musicians that never make it to the big show. If you do decide to go ahead with this plan, please remember that whether you get discovered or not, you always, always have home to come back to. Thanks for listening. Let me know if you want to talk more about this.”

Glasser and choice theory helped me to say my peace in a way that not only kept my son and me connected, it actually brought us closer. Choice theory taught me to listen, to respect, to accept, and to negotiate. I wanted to understand the basic need that was urging my son to come up with this plan. I wanted to understand the quality world pictures that he wanted his life to match. The ideas of choice theory helped me, I think, to be a better dad.

If you are interested, my son eventually decided not to head to LA in a 1965 van. The van was already purchased, so there was momentum in the plan, but it was like our talk had taken the fight out of it. I acknowledged his ability and talent, yet stated my preference. He knew that I knew he could do it if he chose to. I believe that if I had come across in a traditional, controlling way, that he would have headed to LA, if only to prove that I was wrong.

Waiting for the next train, New York City subway (2008)

Waiting for the next train, New York City subway (2008)

It’s been 12 years since this took place and my children have gone on to begin lives and families of their own. It meant a lot to me that both of them wished me a happy Fathers’ Day yesterday and that our relationship is such that I think they meant it. Thanks, choice theory for being a part of our family.