Dr. Mark McConville, FAILURE TO LAUNCH

Dr. Mark McConville, FAILURE TO LAUNCH

Zibby Owens: I’m talking to Dr. Mark McConville, PhD, who’s the author of Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up…and What to Do About It. He is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Cleveland, Ohio. As a senior member of the faculty of the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland, he has lectured and taught widely about child development, parenting, and counseling. He currently lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with his wife and within visiting distance of his two children and seven grandchildren.

Welcome, Dr. McConville, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dr. Mark McConville: It’s so disappointing to hear that moms don’t have time to read books.

Zibby: I’m hoping they do. My whole mission here is to help people get some book content.

Mark: You’re trying to into it, aren’t you?

Zibby: Yes, I’m trying, especially with books like yours, Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up…and What to Do About It. Can you tell our listeners a little more about what this book is about other than its subtitle?

Mark: It’s a book for parents, for sure, and specifically parents of kids who are — they’re entering emerging adulthood. Emerging adulthood being eighteen to thirty, roughly. That first part of emerging adulthood is usually referred to as the launching substage. That substage has, actually, a curriculum to it. There are things we want to see kids doing. We know if they’re doing them, it portends well for where they’re going to end up by age thirty. When they’re not doing them, I encounter parents who are just perplexed. The fact is there is no handbook for, how do you parent a twentysomething? Today’s generation of parents are much more, I don’t want to say saddled, but they are engaged with their kids longer because kids need support longer, given all of the particulars about education and the economy. They’re left still being close to the action, seeing their kid’s behavior, unless the kid is doing it on his or her own. They’re stumped as to how to intervene, how to exert influence, how to do it in a way that is constructive rather than just creating conflict and friction. That’s what this book is about. It’s for those parents.

Zibby: It’s funny. As you were talking about how parenting is now, it’s such an active thing. You don’t just stop being a parent because your child is past their teen years. There should really be books written by ninety-year-olds about how to parent their middle-aged children. I think my grandmother still has trouble sometimes with my mom. She’s seventy and ninety-five. It just never ends, basically.

Mark: You’re right. You think it’s over, but mm-mm. I call it parenting in overtime.

Zibby: This illusion of getting your kids to eighteen is nothing.

Mark: What’s very interesting, though, is when I started my career, the solid belief among therapists — my specialty has always been adolescents — if we could get that kid to eighteen, they’ll be fine. The world will take over the parenting. The world, of course, is a much better parent because it doesn’t coddle. It requires you to take your own initiative. It was a very valid principle. If we could just get those kids to eighteen, the adolescent trouble would evaporate. That is not even close to true today. It’s just not close to true. If you can get them to thirty, you got a pretty good chance.

Zibby: Although, I don’t know. I know a lot of thirty-year-olds who could use a little help.

Mark: That’s right, but it can’t be your responsibility forever.

Zibby: When you talked about picking up on signs early that will put your teen in a good place later, how far back can we work? Can we start with my five-year-old and see what can I watch out for? How early can you spot the signs that maybe they will not be launching?

Mark: I don’t think you can spot the signs back then. You can certainly, as a parenting model or parenting agenda, you can start, as soon as they’re able to take on even the most minimal responsibility, anything you do that supports initiative or accountability. “Your job was to set the table tonight. Look? We’re ready for dinner and the table’s not set. You get in there. I’ll help you if you need so that you’re learning the lesson that just blowing it off doesn’t work very well in this family.” Initiative, the kid brings home that project. They’re going to build a Rube Goldberg machine. My kids would bring that home, and boy, I could not wait to get to that assignment. I wanted to know what kind of grade I got when it was over. Those things where we hold back and we put ourself in that subordinate, supportive role so that if the kid is learning initiative — that’s often when you see it, you reinforce it.

One of my granddaughters came home two years ago and said, “I want to learn the ukulele.” We all looked at each other. We have zero musical ability in this family. Unless she’s going to follow in the steps of Tiny Tim, there’s not a tremendous amount of future. My daughter’s response was, “Let’s go get a ukulele. Let’s find a ukulele teacher.” You see that initiative. She stayed interested for about six months. Parents get discouraged, but that’s okay. Learning to have initiative, that I have a curiosity or an interest and the environment responds in a way that’s encouraging, at some point the ukulele player is now an utterly committed Irish dancer that’s just brough home a trove of medals from a competition in a neighboring city. It’s the process of initiative that you’re supporting. Those are things I would say about early childhood. You have some responsibilities. It’s your job to put your clothes in the chute. As all parents know if you have young children, it takes much more energy to do the parenting than it does to pick up the pajamas and put them in the chute yourself.

Zibby: I found it interesting, your whole section in the book on motivation, parents saying, how do I get my kids to do that? How do I get my son to go to class in college? How do I get him to maybe stop drinking? How do I get her to drive a car better? all these little things. You talk all about motivation. Actually, you referenced Daniel Pink who was on my podcast in the past. That was very exciting.

Mark: I’m impressed with myself. I’m in such good company.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about motivation. How do we foster motivation and not force it down kids’ throats when we want them to do things? Really, they have to do it for themselves?

Mark: There are a number of answers to your question. One is you look for it where it grows in the wild. Your kid brings home a passion, like we said, a ukulele or Irish dancing. You foster that. You support it. That really cultivates the capacity to be passionate. Twenty years from now, that child may be passionate about something quite different. That’s the way you support internal motivation. Let’s face it, extrinsic, external motivation is part, certainly, of parenting. That child does not want to empty the dishwasher. It takes a parent that says, “Look, if you don’t empty the dishwasher, then there’s no movie after dinner,” or something. We use external motivation. Kids then, we hope over time they will internalize it. Many do, not all. The problem is that’s our repertoire.

Now you’ve got a twenty-two-year-old who is taking a semester off from college. You realize he’s taking the semester off. He’s not doing much of anything. We, of course, rely on all the tried and trues. We go back to the extrinsic. I’m going to try to encourage you. I’m going to try to inspire you. I’m going to maybe threaten you a little bit. I’m going to try to maybe present some consequences. That tends to create, particularly with twentysomethings, more tension and conflict in the relationship because frankly, you don’t have the same leverage you had. At sixteen you could say, “You want the car keys this weekend? Then the leaves have to be raked. I’m sorry. You don’t do your chores, you don’t buy into the privileges.”

At twenty-two, what shifts is — I introduced a notion that comes out of Gestalt therapy called creative adjust which is the fact that so much of what we learned in life, so much of what makes the world go around in adulthood, it’s not stuff we’re passionate for. You’re lucky if you have some things you’re passionate for. You, I suspect, are passionate about this podcast. It comes from within. When you and I are done, you’ve got to go walk the dog. You’ve got to pick up your daughter at ukulele practice. There’s all these things. What that has to do with is necessity. Necessity is different. The phrasing I like is you can’t get your twenty-two-year-old to do something, but you can set up circumstances so your twenty-two-year-old begins to get it that he’s got to do something himself. There’s a story in the book. I’d love to tell this story because it’s one of my favorites.

Zibby: Please. Go for it, yes.

Mark: This is absolutely a literally true story. A dad laments to me — this was actually a personal friend. He laments to me that his nineteen-year-old who tried culinary school but it didn’t take — he’s a really sweet kid, wasn’t doing drugs or alcohol, had a lovely girlfriend that the parents really liked. He was working a few hours a week for neighbors helping out with landscaping. He wasn’t getting a real job. The dad, he said, “How do I get him to get out there and get a real job?” My conversation was, “What bills does he have?” He said, “Bills? He doesn’t have any income. How could he have bills?” I said, “No. Actually, it works the other way around.” He said, “Well, come to think of it, I went in with him on a used car because I figured if he’s going to work — first of all, if he’s going to look for a job and then if he’s going to get back and forth, he’s going to need transportation.” They went in halfsies. I said, “How’s it working?” He said, “We got it about six months ago. He made most of his half of the first month’s payment. I haven’t seen a penny since.”

This is the classic dilemma for the parent of a twentysomething. I should just take that car away, but wait a minute. If I do, what’s the likelihood he’ll ever get a job? Then if he does get one, I’m going to have to drive him. The parent is caught between a rock and a hard place. There’s not a lot they can do. I said, “How’s the payment? How’s it set up?” “Bank loan, coupon book. Every month I say, ‘You got your check for $300?’ ‘No, I don’t.'” Dad writes the check for $600. I said, “Why don’t you flip it around? Next month, give your son the coupon book and a check for $300.” The economics don’t change at all. What changes are the ground rules or the boundaries of the relationship. Somebody has to carry this dilemma, this problem, how to keep this car from being repossessed or whatever. Somebody has to own that. The problem is that that was on the dad’s side of the relationship boundary. Getting him to do it was to put the dilemma on the kid’s side. That kid had a full-time job within a matter of two or three weeks.

Zibby: Love it. That’s awesome.

Mark: It’s a true story. He says, “The end of the first month he comes to me and says, ‘Dad, can I borrow $150?'” The dad said he actually pulled his pockets inside out, said, “I’m tapped out at the moment.” That’s creating necessity. When you have necessity, you, me, any of us, we connect the dots and we do something that we would not otherwise have been disposed or interested in doing.

Zibby: It sounds like the less you can enable your child at any age, the better, right?

Mark: Yeah, always trying to pay attention to, I like to call it the forty-nine percent rule. We’re going to get this job done, but I want you to be the majority owner of this enterprise, this project, whatever it is. I’m willing to help out and be a part of it, be the supportive parent, supportive grandparent, but not if you’re not doing your part. If you don’t care enough about getting that hoverboard, like one of my other granddaughters, if you don’t care enough about it, it’s not on my list.

Zibby: I like how you said we have to go from being supervisors to consultants. We’re on the wings.

Mark: That’s exactly what it is. Everybody thinks, okay, we know children develop. There’s a science called child development. Nobody realizes that parenting goes through the same kind of developmental sequential stages. In each stage — I’ve written a technical paper about this. I won’t get into the details. At each stage, there is a different contract or paradigm that has to do with two things. It has to do with power, and it has to do with boundaries. If I have a four-year-old, my four-year-old’s business is my business, other than when our granddaughters would say, “I want pwyvacy,” when they would go into the bathroom. Okay, that’s fair enough. Anything they’re up to, you should be vigilant. You should be overseeing. You should be a helicopter. The power, which is the responsibility, lays on the parent’s side. Even when you concede power to the child, it’s because you chose to do so. You let them choose an outfit, that sort of thing.

I actually have a story that illustrates this sequence. I saw it in one afternoon from supervision in that first stage, supervision and caretaking, into the second stage which is negotiation, and into the third stage which is consultation. In each successive stage, the child has more of the power, and you have less. What used to be your business is now the child’s business. My oldest granddaughter is making her first communion. Her mother tells me this story. I didn’t see it. She comes down in the morning. She’s got this beautiful white dress on. Everyone’s excited. She’s got a pair of some slip-on shoes that are very comfortable. Her mother looks at them and say, “Uh-uh, no. That is not how this works. There’s a protocol for first communion.” She huffs and puffs a little bit. She goes upstairs and she comes down with whatever the beautiful shoes are that they had bought for her. Off we go to church, and the whole business takes place. Then afterwards, we come back to their house. Cousins and family are gathering. She immediately goes to the slip-ons. My daughter says, “We have to do photos. That doesn’t work for the photos.” They argue back and forth. My daughter says, “Okay, I’ll make a concession. If you’ll keep your shoes on for the photos, then you can switch to whatever you like.” Now they’re negotiating. They’re horse trading. They do the photographs. Then my granddaughter goes and puts the slip-ons on, at which point my daughter turns to consultant, “You know what? I think they look kind of dumb, but it’s your call. It’s not my call.” I remember watching that thinking, oh, my god, there they are. There’s all three modes of parenting.

What happens developmentally is, with children, you really must be the supervisor. You decide when to negotiate and when to consult. When you have an adolescent, sometimes you’re going to have to negotiate whether you like it not because they are pulling some of their own weight. You horse trade. You give on something provided that they commit to follow through with some responsibility. Then when you get past adolescence into emerging adulthood, you really want to become the consultant. A consultant has plenty to say, lots of knowledge, lots of wisdom, but they have no power. It’s the dad who says to his nineteen-year-old, “Have you gotten those jobs applications filled out yet? You know, I think you need to get on it because this job isn’t going to wait around forever.” He has drifted back into being a supervisor. I coach him to say something more like, “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate. Job applications can be confusing. Lord knows I filled out enough of them myself. Let me know if any point I can give you a hand with this.” If you’re on the receiving end of that, you’re the kid, in the first example, you feel like a kid. In the second example, you feel affirmed as someone who’s capable of owning the issue or having initiative. You feel more grown up.

Zibby: This is excellent advice, even as a parent of tweens. This is fantastic. I like how you’re empathizing right away. You’ve been there.

Mark: If you’ve got tweens, here’s my tip. If I’m a twelve or thirteen or fourteen-year-old and I have the experience that I can negotiate with you, you’re my mom, I can get you to move off of your starting place and meet me halfway, I feel more enhanced. I feel more powerful. I understand that the way to get things is to go through you, to engage you, which is much better than just I learn to be sneaky. In my day, parents didn’t negotiate. I was really good at being sneaky. Your daughter or son comes to you about something. “I want to go to so-and-so’s bar mitzvah.” It’s twenty-five miles away. You’ve got some vague reluctance, but you know you’re going to say yes. You’re much better off, though, to play hard to get, to say something like, “Well, I don’t know about this. I’m not sure that’s a great idea. Let me hear why you think it’s a good idea.”

You make your kid make their case. “Hmm, I don’t know. Can you answer this question?” You make them work up a petition. Then in the end you say, “You know what? I can see your point. I think we’re going to say yes to this.” I’m that kid and I’m thinking, yo, I did it. I got Mom to change her mind. I have more confidence in my reasoning ability, my verbal communication ability. I have more confidence in your ability to listen and actually be influenced by me. That is a wonderful thing. When you’ve got teenagers, if they feel like, “I can influence my parents. I have to work at it. I kind of have to play by the rules to do it,” you’ve got a much more cognitively mature kid. You start cultivating it when they’re tweens. Play hard to get.

Zibby: I feel like there’s a fine line between negotiation and influence and then manipulation. I feel like sometimes the kids are trying to manipulate me and that if I capitulate, it’s a failure. Then they feel like they have the power versus I’m developing their cognitive reasoning skills by this insane conversation we’re having.

Mark: I think you’ve read my paper. I have this theory that negotiation is something that’s learned in stages. Here I am, I am sitting watching the end of the Sunday afternoon football game. You know I have a science project that I need to get done. You say, “Mark, time to turn the game off because you have to get to your science project.” I say to you, “No, no, no. Just let me watch the fourth quarter. I promise I’ll do it.” You say, “Okay. If I let you watch the fourth quarter, then you’ll get right on your science project?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Do I? Of course not. I’m at the beginning. I’m a neophyte in negotiation. For me, this was just a clever way of getting you to back off. You have to go down that path. Then the next step for the parent is, “Turn the TV off now and come and empty the dishwasher.” “No, no, no. Just let me finish this.” “No, no, no, honey. We negotiated last week with the football game. I had to get all over you about the science project. We are not making any deals. I’m sorry. Turn it off.” As the kid, this is a kind of recursive loop the kid goes through. Eventually, the kid learns, damn, I have to go empty that dishwasher because I told her I would. They start to keep deals.

It’s a stage that I call quid pro quo, which a term that’s taken on all kinds of other meaning. They learn, I can get what I want from you, but I do in fact have to give you something in return. Getting them to that is itself a developmental achievement. They don’t start there. Then just to give you some hope, the stage beyond that is when they keep their word. This is what Robert Kegan calls mutuality. It tends to come eighteen, nineteen, twenty, when they keep their word or they keep their deal, mostly because they value the relationship. “I told you I would do it. I don’t want to let you down. Your trust in me matters. Of course I’m going to come through with it,” which is a much more relational way of thinking and relating to your parent. Kids go through this sequence to get there.

Zibby: All right, I have some hope now.

Mark: I’m so tickled someone’s interested in what I think.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m totally interested. If I could have you here on my computer via Skype at all times, I could just lob you my questions every day.

Mark: I’ll have my accountant look into it.

Zibby: What made you write this book, Failure to Launch? You’ve been doing this for a while. You have this great position at your local — you’re running a whole center. You’re this big guy. Why are you taking your time out to write this book? Why now? Why this book?

Mark: I did not set out to write a book. I can tell you that. I learned this thing in graduate school. I went to an extraordinary graduate program. One of the things they made us do, we had a two-year sequence where we’re learning therapy where some other graduate student was my unfortunate client. What they made us do was keep journals. I thought journaling was about the dumbest thing I’d ever heard of. The journals they proposed were, “You are to be writing about the things that are perplexing you in your therapy work and integrating them with the things that you’re reading,” in the vast reading resources we had, “and integrating all of that with what you’re hearing in lecture and discussion classes, and integrating all of that with your own neurotic craziness.” You’re trying to understand how all of that fits together. I have, in my cave of an office in my basement, a stack of notebooks that literally is six or eight inches high. I have always used it when things come up in therapy. It’s how I wrote my first book on adolescents. I didn’t set out to write a book. There was nothing out there that told me how to really engage an adolescent into a constructive relationship. I would write about it. I would write about kids who challenged me or perplexed me or who said something very enlightening.

I started to do the same thing as I began to get more and more referrals of twentysomethings who were presenting the clinical profile of adolescents. I’ve tried to date that. It’s somewhere around 2000, right around the early 2000s. I just did what I’ve always done. I would write three mornings a week as a professional personal reflection writing about, what the heck is going on here? How can I be helpful? Boy, that session yesterday was a mess. I was wrestling with the issue. Over time, I began to understand it. I began to do better work. I began to find language for what I was understanding. There was a time, this was probably twelve years ago, where I said I may have a book here. It felt like having a big amorphous block of marble, and it was in there. The statue was in there. I had to figure out a way to get it out. I’m an incredibly slow worker. Some people accuse me of being perfectionistic. I don’t think so. I think I just really care very deeply. There’s not a word in that book that I don’t believe in. I feel, whether nobody buys it or everybody buys it, I feel very proud of it because it’s my voice. It’s what I know. Then I started that long project of trying to craft it into something that could work. With a lot of help and support and encouragement, Failure to Launch launched.

Zibby: Which launched, yes of course. I like how at the end of the book, also, you include a letter to the twentysomething. It’s almost like a shortcut for parents, like, “I’ve read this whole book. This is great, but here, I’m just going to give you this letter from this doctor in the book. You read this now and see how that helps.”

Mark: Look, I’m realistic. What are the odds that that kid is going to read that? As you know, in about the second paragraph I say when somebody gives me something to read, I smile politely and then toss it in the trashcan. If that’s what you do, I totally get it. No hard feelings. Good luck. Then I say, but give me three pages. Just see if I can get your interest for three pages. I loved writing that, I have to say. I gave it to a couple of twentysomethings who did not hesitate to edit the daylights out of it.

Zibby: I bet.

Mark: The first one said, “This is way too long. Nobody’s going to read anything this long.” It was fun to do. If I ever get an email from a kid who says, “I read that and it was useful,” I will do somersaults. I really thought as an oblique communication, if parents read it, this is a different way to think of and speak to and understand your kid empathetically. I really had a double motive.

Zibby: Having just survived the book process and now with your book launching, do you have any advice to other authors?

Mark: I loved reading writers on the subject of writing. It’s something I’ve always — Annie Dillard, I remain enthralled with her, John Updike. What they say, basically, is write. You have to write. I’ve had a lot of young clients who, they had aspirations to write. I say, “Are you writing?” “No. I mean, I started a short story last summer.” The fact is you have to build writing into your routine the way some people build exercise into their routine. It means you’ve got to sit down and write on the day when you feel as profoundly uninspired as you could ever be, but it’s on your calendar and you do it. Honest to god, if I were to show you the journal that I spoke about, there are countless entries that start with something like, “Hmm,” followed by an ellipses. “I have no idea what to do today. My brain is dead. This is going to be a waste of time.” I learned to write in stream of consciousness, which of course is like priming a pump. The fact is, you’ve got to commit to the time and the energy of writing. That’s the first thing.

What’s the second thing? Tell the truth. Tell what you know. When I write, I write like most people do, with an audience. It’s very distracting. If you’re a people-oriented person, the next thing I know, I’ve got some critical audience and I’m bullshitting my way through. It’s not making any sense. Learning, for one thing, to write just to myself was like learning to meditate. It was very difficult to do. Once I had something to say, I would change it. I would think of a group of parents from one of the schools where I consult. I love talking to those groups of parents. They’re so interested. It’s like talking to you. They’re interested. They seem to get what I’m saying. I would write like they were listening. That was very helpful. Tell the truth. Find your audience. The other very concrete thing is find a support group. Find a writers’ group. It just makes all the difference in the world. You’ve got someone that you’re meeting with them in two or three weeks and you don’t have anything. You’ll go to the meeting and confess, “I don’t have anything.” You will still walk out of the meeting inspired to get back to your writing desk. The two things I’d say is you’ve got to make time. You’ll probably need a writers’ group.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much for all of this advice, not just on writing, but on raising kids from age four to tweens to twenty-year-olds. Thanks for the framework of parenting and going through our own phases ourselves and having to navigate those. Now we have a guidebook, so thank you.

Mark: I have to say, you have been great fun to talk to. I really enjoyed this.

Zibby: Thanks. I’m so glad. You too. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Mark: Take care.

Dr. Mark McConville, FAILURE TO LAUNCH