A mentor is a teacher who takes a special interest in a student, imparting to the student a lifetime of wisdom. I was extremely fortunate in having three life mentors—my father who taught me to write, Ed Heishetter who taught me to sell, and Harold Bessell who taught me the practice of psychology.
Bessell, a noted San Diego psychologist, was in the process of publishing The Parent Book when he asked me to be his assistant, sharing with me his deepest insights. For three years, the two of us teamed to teach parents and teachers how to increase emotional maturity in children. The best of Bessell’s methods was called “challenge and support.”
Stated simply: Children need to be both challenged and supported in order to thrive. Support is anything we do that shows a child we’re on his side—like saying “yes,” and spending significant time together giving our attention, acceptance, approval, appreciation, and affection. Challenge is anything we do that establishes boundaries and makes clear what’s expected—including saying “no,” pointing out unacceptable behavior, and asking for more appropriate behavior.
The balance between challenge and support is paramount, Bessell made clear. I remember him pointing at two children’s blocks on his desk, one atop the other, the bottom block larger than the top. “The bottom block is support,” he said. “There has to be a wider base of support in a relationship than there is challenge. It’s impossible to give a child too much support. But parents often provide too little challenge in relation to the support they give. That’s when kids become spoiled…when parents give and give and give and fail to ask enough in return. The more support you provide, the greater the challenge should be, as long as the amount of challenge in the relationship doesn’t exceed the amount of support.”
“What happens then?” I asked.
“If a child isn’t given enough support and hears only the ways he fails to measure up, he’ll either rebel, or be crushed by the weight of your overwhelming criticism.”
I looked out his window at the sea through the palms and pictured parents surfing—riding the tube—right down the middle between challenge and support. Not asking enough, kids become spoiled. Demanding too much, they fight back or cave in.
Years later, I had five kids of my own, which presented countless opportunities to give my support and ask for things in return. One day, sitting with my brood over dinner, I said, “You know what? I never punish you guys … like taking away the car keys, or grounding you for a month.” They snickered, as if already knowing what I was just figuring out.
“What do we do when one of you messes up?” I asked.
“We talk about it, so it doesn’t happen again,” a girl piped up.
A boy flashed a smirk and spun right back: “What do we do, Dad, when you mess up?”
“We talk about it,” they piled on, laughing, “so it doesn’t happen again!”