Many of us, as parents, harbor some unfounded fears that, if left unchecked, can easily get in the way of our attempts to be good parents.
Nice Parent, Mean Parent
Have you ever noticed how often parents speak – even in jest – of being “nice” or “mean” to their children? “My son wanted to go to a friend’s house before finishing his homework. I didn’t let him, and he missed the chance to see his friend. I’m such a mean parent!” “She knows she can get whatever she wants from her Dad. He’s the nice one. I’m the mean one.” Most of the time, we are not serious when we say these things. But, jokes tend to have an element of truth in them. We often feel as if we are being “mean” to our children when we deny them what they want.
I was recently working with a parent who wanted her four year-old to say “thank you” to his grandmother for a Christmas gift. The child was simply unwilling to do so. He was being quite defiant. I suggested that the mother require that the child sit in the corner until he was read to say “thank you” to his grandmother. The mother agreed to try this. As she did, her face had an unintentional look of deep empathic sadness. Her lips turned down into a sad inverted “U” with her lower lip protruded out in a kind of pout. Her eyebrows were turned down in sadness and her forehead wrinkled. Her expression was deeply empathic in the sense that she really seemed to anticipate that her child would suffer from this intervention. She seemed to be sharing her son’s suffering. She didn’t want to make her child suffer! It is hard not to believe that in this moment, the mother experienced herself as a “mean” parent.
Thinking in terms of nice versus mean is a trap. It gives us only two choices! Either we are niceand we try to make our children feel good (even if doing so is not good for them), or we aremean – and thus bad – by doing something to make our children feel bad. The trick is to break out of thinking in terms of nice versus mean altogether! A better way to think about how to structure a child’s behavior might be, “What can I do to promote development in this situation?” Or “What will my child learn if I do such-and-such? What will my child learn if I don’t?”
I Want My Child to Like Me!
We all want to be loved; we all want to be liked. It feels better to be liked than not to be liked. However, it is not our job as parents to be liked! If our job as parents to prepare children for success in the world, then children are not going to like all of the decisions that we make for them. They might even feel that they do not like us at those times. However, if we based our decisions on whether or not children will like them — or whether our children will like us – we set ourselves up to make consistently poor decisions.
The fact of the matter, of course, that children love and value their parents even when they do not like our decisions. When parents act out of love, their children feel it, even when children don’t like what parents do, and even when parents make mistakes. Think of your own situation: Do you love your parents? Assuming that your parents were not abusive, the answer would probably be “yes, but…”, or “yes, even though…” or even “Yes, perhaps even because they made me do things that I didn’t want to do, but were good for me.”
Being Directive Squelches a Child’s Creativity, Initiative, Autonomy or Self-Esteem
Over the past 50 years or so, our nation has witnessed the drift toward “child-centered” parenting. We continue to live with the remnants of this way of thinking about parenting. Child-centered parenting consists of the view that children are and should be active in their own development. Rather than viewing children as lumps of clay that are to be molded into shape by parents, children are seen as inherently inquisitive, curious, exploratory, and capable to shaping their own development. From this view, a parent who gives too much direction is likely to stifle a child’s initiative, independence and autonomy.
A related issue concerns the issue of self-esteem. The self-esteem movement has done a great deal of harm to our children. From the standpoint of many advocates of child-centered parenting, self-esteem is an important pre-requisite for success in any given task. This line of thinking is commonly expressed in much children’s programming. The theme song of the otherwise wonderful Arthur (the Aardvark) includes the phrase “Believe in yourself…cuz that’s the place to start!” And we are all familiar with Barney the purple dinosaur’s desire to ensure that all children feel “special”, just the way they are.
The idea that self-esteem is a pre-condition for learning and success gets it exactly backward. Self-esteem is not a pre-requisite for success; self-esteem is the outcome or result of success. Children are not harmed by “too much direction”; quite the opposite. Children are harmed by well-intentioned parents who provide too little direction. Parents who believe that a child’s creativity and self-esteem will suffer unless they “figure it out for themselves” fail to provide children with the direction and skills that they need to become successful. Parents who heap praise upon their children may or may not have children who have high self-esteem. However, unless that praise is earned, such children are not likely to be competent individuals.
I Want My Child to See Me as an Equal
Some parents want their children to see them as their equals. This line of thinking often comes from a deep respect for the autonomy of their children. Many parents who think this way tend to have strong beliefs about the nature of authority. They tend to be people who believe strongly in democracy, and bring such principles into their parenting. From this point of view, children have their inherent rights – just like adults – and these rights must be respected. Such parents tend to encourage their children to state their wants and desires. Such parents tend to feel parent-child interactions should be egalitarian, and based on reasoning, discussion and negotiation. From this view, parents must have very good reasons to go against a child’s reasonable wishes.
The problem with this approach to parenting is that the parent-child relationship is not an egalitarian one. Although it may go against many of our Democratic and egalitarian sensibilities, the parent-child relationship is an asymmetrical one. Parents not only have power and authority over their children, they should have power and authority over their children. Parental power and authority is justified by virtue of their responsibility for their children; their greater knowledge; and their duty to teach children to be successful in the world. It is the greater knowledge and responsibility of parents that makes parental authority legitimate. It is only after children – as they develop – begin to achieve parity with their parents in many areas of knowledge and responsibility, that authority relations between parent and children can legitimately begin to change.
Children are not their parent’s equals. Children lack the knowledge, skills and capabilities to enter into egalitarian relations with their parents. This is not to say that children should have no say in their interactions with parents. Children can and should have a say – but only in areas in which conscientious parents determine that children are capable of making responsible choices. Responsible parents allow children to make choices within limits that are legitimized by the parents’ greater knowledge and responsibilities to their children.