Performance-Based Relationships (Part 1 of 2)

by Mark Gregston

Not a week goes by that I don’t end up telling somebody about performance based relationships. I believe kids live in a world that’s highly based upon performance and appearance. Due to this, it is especially important for parents not to kick into this performance-based relationship.

Parents typically do not have the appearance thing going on. I mean, they’re not sitting there thinking… I wish my kid looked better or they’re ugly. I haven’t heard parents say that. But I do see parents all the time, engaging with their kids in a performance-based relationship. It’s an amazing way to force your child into something, in a way that they should never experience.

You can tell your child that God loves you and I love you. You can say that all you want, but if you have a performance-based relationship, then your actions and demeanor aren’t really reflecting the true relationship that God desires to have with you, much less to have with your child. Psalms 86:15 says, but you Lord are a compassionate and gracious God slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. Here’s my encouragement, if we’re to parent our kids as God parents, we should be compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and abounding in faithfulness to our kids.

I tell people that they need to address the issue of performance-based relationships because most teens believe people will only love them up to a certain point. Beyond that, they believe that the love is gone. As a result, they strive to do well and never do wrong, or they lose hope, give up and rebel. I’ve been writing down a number of things and this will probably end up being a chapter in a book somewhere, just because I feel like it’s so important. Your child’s drive is rooted in the fear that if they make a mistake or do something badly, that they will lose those that they love. Unfortunately, that perception may be true in a number of different arenas. That fear is usually fostered in a children’s younger years and it’s extremely difficult to break that way of thinking. It develops from the pattern that when they do something bad, they get into trouble and when they do something good, they get rewarded.

  The problem in Christian circles of young people can be even worse. When you do something bad, you may get eliminated from a particular group because you’ve done something wrong. There was a young lady named Lee that I have always thought the world of. I still have a relationship with this young lady today, and I’ve known her for almost 40 years. She grew up with two loving parents who chose her to be in their family when they adopted her as a baby. I met her when she was 14 spinning out of control and letting everyone know she was unhappy. Her newfound role in life was to make those around her as miserable as possible. She was doing a great job… because everybody around her was miserable. Absolutely miserable. She set fire to other kids’ lockers at school. She cussed out teachers. She screamed at her parents, flunked every class she was taking, acting like she was an uppity city girl who didn’t care about anything or anyone. Her youth minister even asked her to leave the group, her demise came somewhat suddenly just a year earlier… 

She was the number one kid in the youth group. She loved school and always went to summer camp. Then her behavior changed, and her youth minister’s rejection really sent her over the edge. I think it brought about feelings about being adopted that she carried for years and didn’t recognize. Now they were boiling to the surface. She experienced feelings of rejection and abandonment. The better she performed in school and the better she acted in her relationships, the more confused she became about why her birth mother would give her up for adoption. Her parents were absolutely devastated. 

I remember the first time they called me, they were exhausted. When I met them, they looked exactly the same. They tried everything to make things work at home. Eventually they came to the conclusion that unless they got help outside of the home, their spunky little ninth grader was not going to make it past her 11th grade year. I agreed with them. 

I immediately liked her. I thought she was a wonderful young lady. I remember the first time I met her parents, they were successful and well-meaning, even though they were devastated and worn out, they were very sincere, but they were broken. I hurt for this family. As her dad shared their story and all they did to help her, my eyes welled up with tears and I felt as if my heart would break. I kept thinking that this could happen to my family. I was torn. I was distraught. I fell in love with the parents as much as I did the young lady who came to live with us at Heartlight. For those who don’t know, I live with a group of kids at a residential counseling center called Heartlight.

Lee had a real spunkiness about her. She was verbally interactive. She was a cute little girl who traveled a lot, and she knew the ropes and she knew how to get her way. I always thought that if we could get her a job selling something somewhere, that she could make us millions. When she wasn’t cussing me out, she was really a pretty sweet little girl. I spent a year counseling her. We filled hours and hours of coffee drinking with laughter and tears. We talked about her adoption issues and fear of not being able to live up to her parents’ expectations. I tried to help her sort through some of her jumbled mess of emotions and she completed our program and went home to a changed family.

Two years later that ugly serpent’s head reappeared, and she wound up leaving home. We were devastated to see her leave. Months later, her mother called me and asked if I would come to Kansas City and help. I found a phone number, I called her and took her out to dinner… she ate two full entrees. I remember it was flank steak and she sat there and just sucked down both of them. And I knew. Her lifestyle was tearing her apart. She was prostituting herself for drugs. She lost her spunkiness and gleam in her eye. She didn’t laugh one time. Neither did I. And seeing what Lee had chosen after I’d spent so much time with her tore me apart. I can hardly imagine what her parents were going through.

Before I left, I went by McDonald’s and I bought her a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of gift certificates, not wanting to give her cash, but wanting to put food in her belly. She called me months later and asked if I could come see her. I did. She was pregnant and didn’t know whether to keep the baby. She said she finally wanted to make some changes. So, I flew to Kansas City and sat with this young lady who, had not only been around the block a few times, but she had also lived on the streets, eaten from its cans and stood on its corners. It was about 20 years in the making. 

She finally turned a corner and realized her value was not determined by what she did, does or will or will not do. She finally saw that she was valued during her bad years, not just her good years. I realized that perception is truth to the one who perceives it. In performance-based relationships, people are valuable because of their actions and accomplishments and achievements. They’re accepted because they meet other people’s expectations. Just take a moment and read through those statements again, because understanding this is critically, critically important.

In performance-based relationships people are valuable because of their actions, accomplishments, and achievements. They’re accepted because they meet expectations. Performance-based relationships are conditional and withhold love according to one’s performance. These types of relationships hold the bar of expectation too high for most to attain and then maintain. When a teen fails to meet expectations, they experience an overwhelming sense of disappointment and discouragement, despair, and even despondency. 

Most teens, I believe, have a performance-based relationship with their parents. They believe their parent’s love is conditional based upon how they behave. You may not think this is true with your child, but perception is truth to the one who perceives it. And in all my years of working with struggling teens, every young person I’ve met believes that their value is based upon their performance. We parents would do well to show our kids that our love is not conditional and assure them that we don’t want to have performance-based relationships.

Remember what your child thinks is reality for them. I would ask you this, what do you communicate to your child? What do you and your teen talk about? My guess is that you discuss academics and work and behaviors and rules and privileges and sports involvement, picking the right friends, choosing the right clothes, cleaning up a room, performing chores, and obeying rules around the house.

Now take a moment if you will and think about what else you talk about. Is it a pretty short list? If so, do you get my point? Most of what we talk about is performance oriented. This imbalance can create the impression your relationship with your kids is based upon how they perform. Mom and dad, the separation of performance in relationship is critical. You want your son or daughter perform well, but performance should have nothing to do with your relationship. Teens need to hear this repeatedly. If they don’t understand this, their failures will eventually catch up with them and move them to frustration and futility. We parents and grandparents must convey our love in ways not based upon performance. We need to help our kids understand our love for them is totally unconditional just as God loves us unconditionally. 

Lee thought her parent’s love for her was based upon her performance and their successful lifestyle conveyed an unspoken demand for Lee to achieve in order to receive their love. Her confusion wasn’t her parents’ fault, but parents do need to understand the way their lifestyle, parenting style and personalities affect their children. Lee was already trying to perform, she believed that her birth mother rejected her, that “she had given her up and she didn’t even know her”. She was trying to prove her worth. Every child wants to do well for their parents. We all have heard statements like, “hey mom, this is for you” or “make your parents proud”, or “don’t embarrass your mom” or “win for dear old dad”, or “do your best son”. 

Every mom and dad must release their children from living under the fear that love will be taken away if they don’t perform. I’m amazed at the negative comments some parents make to their kids. Those words stay with kids. I know because of what teens share with me, negative words, and sometimes just the absence of positive and affirming ones can turn the lights out on a child’s life.

Imagine how kids feel when the most important people in their lives say things like I’m ashamed of you, or you make me sick or get out of my sight. I can’t believe you, go to your room and away from me. How could you do this to me? Or maybe even saying… We should have never adopted you. Comments like these set kids up for performance-based relationships and make them question their own self-worth. They also drive kids to look elsewhere for their validation. Words can plunge a child into darkness. That myth that says sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me is a bold face lie. I once heard someone say that the root of all mental illness is the fear that love is conditional. You know, that might not be too far from the truth…

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This free two-week online course will help you to parent your teen in a counter-cultural way. You will  walk through topics like appearance, performance, authority and respect, setting boundaries, and many more.

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