Pragmatics: The Ultimate Buzzkill

There’s noone like my dad. My mom will tell you that as well, so you know it’s true. They make a cute coupling, my mom and dad, she the opportunity chaser, he the eternal pragmatic.

I remember a time when my mom lined all of us up, we were six kids then (11 now), at the office-supply store, each with a set of coupons and an exact amount of pencils and other assorted necessities. After checking out with $159 worth of school supplies and paying nothing for it, after the coupons, we were still owed $10 by the store. My mom marched us out proudly as the cashiers scratched their heads in confusion and she, in an almost cocky fashion, handed my dad the receipt. The subsequent muttering about “what are we going to do with all this crap filling the house?” was music to her ears, coming from the man who’s favorite question was “when you get 50 percent off, who do you think is paying the other 50 percent?” She took her wins where she could get them, and he made sure to keep us all safely grounded.

I fought that pragmatism all my life, and still do. I’m a reach-for-the-stars kind of guy and my life speaks of it, but there is much to be learned from pragmatics, as limiting as they may seem to us dream-chasers. In the course of my life and my careers, I have learned much from my dad. You will note the plural: careers.

When I meet clients, I find that more often then not their relationship with their parents, and the way their parents have responded to their aspirations, has directly contributed to the paths they have chosen and those they chosen to avoid.

So how does one cultivate a perspective that doesn’t quash the potential of dreams and big accomplishments while simultaneously imbuing a sense of pragmatism and safety? How does one tell a kid to shoot for the stars but also put out a net to catch themselves in the event of a fall?

Two basic principles come to mind, both with clever and relatable imagery:

1. The trampoline: Like the long lived child toy and parental nightmare, the ideal culture to develop with your teen and young adult is one in which you encourage jumping while simultaneously laying the groundwork to ensure that the result of a fall down to earth is immediate propulsion and preferably up. 

To do this you must encourage (healthy) risk taking and creative exploration, and you must have a plan and a set of goals. Trying to get your teen to hold a job but finding it hard to buy into the dream of being a “pro-gamer” and skip college altogether? Want your young adult to get out there and try something new without getting hurt in the process? Research, research, research. What options exist for jobs similar to the one your teen wants? What environments and clubs exist for socially awkward loners? Who are some people that have pursued similar tracks, and are they available to meet or talk to you both? Using this data you can put together a plan for moving forward as well as, most importantly, establishing a plan for moving on.

Setting the stage so that the goal is followed by another goal or a redirect, without fear of failure and subsequent stagnation and without you needing to pick up the pieces or becoming a crutch, is critical to success. In a word, it’s about bounce-back.

2. Marco-Polo: You heard it here first. The game in the swimming pool where one person calls out (blindly) “Marco” and attempts to find their friends who are responding “Polo” is a lesson in communication.

In order to avoid the more straightforward encouragment and discouragement (the former feeling patronizing and the latter leaving you out in the cold), the better bet is one in which you simply check-in and have your teen respond and reflect based on your questioning.

This enables you to provide a baseline and allows them to respond with that in mind. In response to your young adult deciding to take a second or third “sick” day off of work, instead of pointing out the obvious issues with this kind of work ethic and the potential for job loss (possibly something they desire), a question like “I see you’re taking off more then usual, how’s work going?” will hopefully prompt a more informative and reflective response.

In response to your teen failing a class, the question might relatie to what kind of struggles they might be facing with the class.

This is not a perfect science, and many times you won’t get the response you want; however, always remember: It is more natural to respond to a general question that prompts reflection than to criticism. More importantly, the ideal situation is one in which such question and response is a regular part of your communication and not simply in response to a particular situation. In this way you develop a communication culture and comfort level. Go out of your way to check in, “Marco”!

The goal with both methods is to encourage reflection and health pragmatism in all areas of life while still nurturing a zest for life and pursuit of dreams. You want your healthy and adjusted young adult to eventually move on to a positive life of their own choosing and become a contributing member of society. Child’s play.

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