What Exactly is a Fair Exchange Between Parent and Child?

The other day my teenage daughter asked me a question that totally took me by surprise.  In my studies and upbringing, the idea of “exchange” is an important part of life and of surviving well.  The concept is easy and clearly observable:  you will receive help and cooperation to the degree that you give help and cooperation.  It is taught in every religion and family in the world.

So for all her life my daughter has heard at home, in church, at school, “it is important to keep your exchange in with the people around you.”  And honestly in most cases she is very good about doing just that but not always.  Sometimes she just wants to “relax” or “do her own thing” instead of cleaning or helping me out with a particular something.  It is a common problem between teens and parents.  Some teens are better than others and not all teens have had the advantages other teens have, but in one fashion or another I have heard this problem come up in my counseling sessions both from the parents and from the teens themselves.  Frustration abounds.

One thing became abundantly clear to me when my daughter asked me, “How can I possibly be in exchange with a person who carried me for nine months, cared for me, gave me everything and has helped me my whole life?”  When she asked, I was at first surprised and then discovered that I was no longer confused about any of her unexplainable behaviors.  It was a completely fair and honest question.

My mind raced to all the things my parents and grandparents taught me and to the teachings of a dear friend of mine:

“Continually in this society, you’ll find a sixteen-, seventeen-, eighteen-year-old kid is in a high state of revolt. ‘Papa, Mama – they’re no good anymore; they’re old-fashioned. They can’t understand. They wouldn’t be able to understand a woman of the world.’ Or a man of the world, as the case may be. ‘They don’t have a person’s best interests…’

“All the kid is trying to do there in his teens is simply break this ‘You’re helping me, you’re helping me, you’re helping me. I’ve got to do something about it because I’m getting owned, owned, owned. And I don’t own myself anymore. And I’m getting worried about it, so I’ve got to protest, and I’ll find anything to protest against.’ And the kid at that stage will have the doggonedest things wrong with his parents. Oh, he has just terrific numbers of things. The parents have done this and done that and done this and done that to him. And actually, what he can’t face is the fact that his mother fed him every day.”  – L. Ron Hubbard,  from Route to Infinity, Lecture #6 May 21, 1952

All these things went racing through my head and so I wanted to answer her as simply as I could since honestly, I have felt exactly like that myself!  Yes, even adult children find themselves at one point or another asking that question regarding their parents.  It would be so easy to become overwhelmed and just say it is impossible and then start to become critical of their parents.

Mommy Smiling at Baby DJ - on the pier over the water
Smiles & snuggles – that’s all I need from you right now!

With little children it seems easier and clearer than with babies and teens and adults for some reason.  You tell them, “I will buy you this toy if you clean your room every night before bed.”  Simple. “I will give you a one-dollar allowance if you clean up the living room.”  It’s very clear-cut.

But parents seldom tell their infant daughter or son what their exchange with the family is.  Now that must sound crazy to you right?  But a lot of times when a parent brings a inconsolable baby to me in desperation, telling me the doctor could find nothing wrong; no gas, no physical maladies, no observable physical discomfort, the first thing I do is ask them if they told the infant that they want him/her and totally intend to keep him/her.

The second thing I do is find out if they told the baby what their job is in the family.  And when I tell the child, “Your job right now, until you are older is to grow this body very healthy and strong, to sleep and eat well and to get as many smiles as you can from others,” I swear, every time I do this they stop crying and either become very calm or smile!  To which others around them smile and I tell them, “See, you are winning already!”

OK – so that is for babies and young children. What then is the answer to my daughter’s question? I simply told her what is true for me:

“At this age and through your adult life a good exchange for me would be:  be self- sufficient as you can be.  Get yourself up on time in the morning; help us get out of the house on time. Get a good education, be interested in your studies, do good work and help your teachers gear your education to your purpose in life so you will be happy in your education and your future work.  Start earning things that you want for yourself to take some of the burden off of me.  Be vigilant in your relationships with your friends so that you and they are kept safe and healthy but can still have a good time. Help out at home as much as you can.  If you see I have work responsibilities that are taking a lot of time, pitch in and help more.  

      “But first and foremost, stay in good communication.  Eighteen years old is the time when we move from being a child into becoming a friend to our parents if we want that.  I would like for you to be a friend so that when we are together we can laugh and have fun and exchange ideas and ideologies. Live a happy and successful life and be willing to allow me to share it with you by staying in communication with me.

      “Then as I grow older, it might be a nice exchange for you to help me out as you can, if you can. And if not in any other way, then call me and come to visit with me.”

After I said this my daughter actually let out a sigh as if she had been holding her breath forever. I am not saying that if you tell your teenager what you expect as an exchange it will then suddenly all go smoothly for you, but it might.  I do recognize that in their struggle for independence that mistakes are made and conflicting expectations result in secrets that need to be dealt with. They must be dealt with and confronted.

I am saying though that in order to do a job well done and to not make mistakes, the boundaries and expectations must be known and understood.

Let’s be honest here – a fair exchange for a child (regardless of age) to a parent is not always an immediate thing – for either of you.  Sometimes it takes time, even years for the opportunity to come up.  On one visit to my parent’s house, my mother was sick; an unusual thing for her even at 83 years of age.  She was upset for me that I was assisting her and helping her to get cleaned up.  All that ran through my mind was how many times she cleaned up after me when I was a baby and when I was sick.  How many times had she given me a hand up as an adult when I ran into some difficulty?  To me this was not an obligation.  “Are you kidding Mommy?  This is nothing.  I love you; this is love.”  And that is exchange.

I hope that this article helps you and gives you a guide of what to tell your children about their exchange to you as parents.  Exchange is a very important part of surviving well.  Let’s help them understand it well.

Wishing you certainty,
Diane DiGregorio Norgard
Mace-Kingsley Family Center
727-442-3922

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