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Scott Peck opens his book The Road Less Traveled with, “Life is difficult.” No truer words have been spoken when it comes to parenting. Parenting is difficult. Adoptive parenting, foster parenting, parenting in general, is difficult. It is difficult for the wealthy and difficult for the poor. It is difficult for those with healthy children and those whose children are behaviorally, physically and/or emotionally outside the norm. The acceptance of that fact is foundational to approaching the task in a way that is healthy for both parents and children. It is the precursor to accepting that no one gets to choose what happens to them, we only get to choose how we will respond. When we accept that parenting is difficult then we can set aside the unrealistic expectation that the path will be easy. We can set aside the expectation that our children will be the way we envision or behave the way we desire. It is when our children don’t meet our expectations or the parenting experience is not what we had hoped for that we become angry or upset. We are unhappy because our expectations have not been met. The most direct approach to becoming happy is, therefore, to set aside our expectations and accept what IS, not what we hoped for. In other words, happiness or unhappiness is all in our heads. We can’t choose how our children behave, but we can choose how we will respond to that behavior. We can’t choose happiness for them, but we can choose happiness for ourselves.
If we lose site of this basic principle we then project onto our children that they are the source of our happiness or unhappiness. We communicate to them that control of our well-being is vested in them. The problem with this is obvious. If we blame others for our unhappiness then they can blame us for their unhappiness. If we believe our personal happiness is up to those around us, those who, for the most part, are out of our ability to control, then happiness will always elude us. Anyone who has been a parent for any length of time knows we cannot make our children do anything, least of all make us happy. All we can do is set up situations where appropriate choices are rewarded and inappropriate choices have consequences. In this way everyone in the family has access to the same well of happiness. Some will choose it, some may not but those who don ’t choose it need it made clear that their choices are about them, not about the parents. If parents become unhappy because of their child’s behavior then the child is in control of the tone of the home and the parents have abdicated their responsibility. If everyone goes down when one child goes down then the child does not have a model of what happiness looks like. They believe that if happiness is not accessible to the adults, who are supposedly powerful, it is therefore not accessible to anyone. The family environment needs to remain overall positive so the child has a goal to reach for. It is the parents’ responsibility to maintain a high emotional tone in the home by maintaining their own equanimity.
It becomes of primary importance for parents to take good care of themselves. Sleep long. Eat well. Exercise. Get filled up by association with others. Don’t be “therapeutic” at your own expense. Don’t let a child sabotage the good times of the entire family in order to teach that child a lesson. Consequence and discipline in such a way that no matter what the child chooses you are ok.
When parents take good care of themselves and keep an emotional distance between their happiness and their child’s behavior they have the ability to mean business without being mean. They can remain dispassionate about their child’s behaviors and see them as separate from themselves. Because their child’s behaviors are not about them they can give directions to the child in an appropriate tone of voice. Choosing a tone of voice is critical to “meaning business without being mean.” Police officers don’t start yelling at the person getting a speeding ticket. Whether or not the speeder violates the law does not affect the officer personally. There is no emotional involvement. He just tells the violator what the law is, how they violated it and what the consequence is. Gate agents at the airport don’t start screaming at the person who runs up after the door has closed, “What, did you think the whole plane was going to wait for you? Why didn’t you leave in enough time? You should have been here 10 minutes ago.” Whether or not the traveler catches the plane has no affect on their day whatsoever. They simply tell the traveler they missed the plane and what they need to do to catch another flight.
The same is true for parents. If the parent exhibits a huge level of emotionality then the child thinks, “Wow, this sure is important to my parents. It is not nearly so important to me as all that. No point in both of us worrying about this.” The child then backs off taking responsibility for his actions as he is not as bothered by them and his parents obviously are. The general rule is that the person who has behaved the most irresponsibly should be the one bearing the brunt of the emotionality. In other words, if someone is going to get upset over unpleasant behavior it should be the one who exhibited the unpleasant behavior.
If the parent does not demonstrate that he or she is in control, even when angry, then how will the child learn that such a goal is attainable? Understand and appreciate that no one can make you angry. No one can make you feel any emotion. Parents are not puppets pulled by the strings of their children. You choose your response, positive or negative, to all events. If that were not the case then we would be a race of robots, entirely predictable. Everyone would be programmed to respond in the same way. Anything said in anger diminishes you, diminishes the child, and demonstrates you are not in control of yourself, much less anybody else. You are the adult. Anything said in anger loses all potential to affect change in the child. The child will focus on the anger, not on the source of the anger.
If feeling overwhelmed by anger, then the parent needs to model what is expected of children when they are angry. Go for a walk. Eat chocolate. Separate oneself until you are calmed down. Don’t do those things, as a parent, that will cause you to lose respect for yourself. Demonstrate that people can be angry and no one gets hurt, demeaning words are not said, nothing gets broken. If the parents can’t control their own anger what hope is there for the child to learn how intense emotion is handled? Every time a child hears, “You make me so angry!” the message becomes more deeply engrained that as individuals we are not responsible for our emotions or the behaviors that are generated as a result. Parents must not be surprised then, when the child hurls the same ill-conceived words back.
In order to reach some sort of nirvana of parenting, do we avoid imposing tasks in order to avoid the anger it generates in the child? Absolutely not!! What it does mean is that our attitude about chores changes. We understand that in order to have a happy life and engage in happy relationships we must learn to be reciprocal. The adage should not be “Give and take”. The adage is more appropriately worded “Give and get.” When we give of ourselves then we get back in reciprocal measures. The more we give the more we receive. The more we behave responsibly the more privileges and rewards we have. Teaching children to be reciprocal is therefore an absolutely critical goal of parenting.
Children who do not learn to do chores grow up believing that the world owes them a living that they are powerless to affect their own happiness, as they are dependent on others to take care of them. Children who do not learn to do chores end up having a lower self-esteem, not a higher one, as they do not see where they fit in the world or what they can do that has value. Having children help out around the house is not about raising a generation of personal servants who must fulfill the ego needs of the adult by having someone to order around. Teaching a child to do chores is a gift that parents give their children. Tasks are opportunities for the child to learn the skills of living in relationship with others. Not doing the task is not disrespectful it is a lost opportunity. When a child says “no” to his parents, it is not about the parents. It is about the child! When parents have this attitude it becomes clear that children who refuse to do a chore are robbing themselves of learning a skill that will enable them to have a happier life. The child who refuses to cooperate is not making life for the parent harder, as for the most part; it is easier for the parent to do the job himself. Teaching task completion is a sacrifice the parent makes for the child. It is not about being the master in your home or dictator for life. It is about teaching children that they can do for others, cooperate, and their life gets better, happier, as they earn more freedoms and privileges.
A foundational concept of teaching children reciprocity is for the parents to not impose a task unless they know what the reward will be if the child does it and what they will do if the child chooses to not do it. Anger at lack of cooperation and reciprocity is more apt to occur when the parent is caught off guard. Planning for it enables the parent to stay on an even keel and keep a positive tone of voice. When dealing with a child who is not expected to cooperate, one of the most positive tools a parent can use is a double bind. That is, give the child permission to do what he is going to do anyway, that you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to.
Double binds are parenting techniques that short-circuit a child’s resistance. They work because they circumvent a child’s anger and fear systems and help prevent them from becoming aroused. They also work because they eliminate the control battles that often escalate into confrontations between the parent and child. The basic use of a paradoxical directive is to tell the child to do what he is going to do anyway. If the child chooses the usual negative behavior it is a win/win; the child did what the parents told him to do. If he does not engage in the negative behavior in order to demonstrate that his parents can’t tell him what to do then the parents win because he is making a good choice. Either way both the parent and the child win! Foster Cline in his book Understanding and Treating The Difficult Child wrote, “A therapeutic double bind means putting a child into a position where the only way out is health!” When done appropriately they move the control battles from outside the child to inside the child, from the parents to the child.
A classic example would be to tell the child who always tantrums when asked to do a chore that he is going to be asked to do something which always causes him to scream and yell so go ahead and scream and yell and get it out of the way first. If the child screams and yells the parent is in control as the parent gave the child permission to do exactly that. The parent can hardly get upset when the child is doing what he has been told to do. If the child does not scream and yell and instead states that he can do the chore without screaming and yelling the parent is still in control; the child has made a good decision and the end result is the desired one. Predicting for a child what he normally does under certain circumstances enables the child to make a different choice. Giving children the opportunity to make good choices is the foundation of healthy parenting.
It is not the parents’ job to guarantee their child’s happiness. No one can guarantee the happiness of another. No one can make someone else happy. The parental responsibility is to model personal contentment and give their child opportunities for happiness, then sit back. By giving children opportunities to learn reciprocity, emotional control, and task completion parents give them the keys to opening up the door of their own lives. Ultimately, it is up to the children to open the door for themselves.
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