Conflict is an everyday occurrence. We worry about what we should do, how things ought to be, how others will react to our choices. How we handle conflict and teach our children to handle conflict often comes from how we were parented. When conflict occurs do we vomit our views on someone or do we hide from the conflict and hope that it goes away. Some people are obsessed with making sure that others are convinced of rightness of their point of view. Others are afraid of standing up for themselves for fear of what people may think.
Many of us labor over decisions that involve some kind of conflict. I want to get a tattoo, but what will my parents think? I want to put a political bumper sticker on my car, however, I work for a conservative organization that would not approve and I can not afford to loose my job. I want to tell people how abusive my husband has been, but my kids will be upset that I am trying to ruin his reputation (and besides, how bad was it really?) I want to tell my co-worker that her perfume is so intense it makes it hard for me to breath, but I don’t want to hurt her feelings.
There are so many kinds of conflicted situations where we assume a gold standard “should” for how we behave. Our standards of behavior were handed to us by our parents, teachers, and perhaps reinforced at our church. We were taught “manners.” If you can’t say some thing nice, don’t say anything at all! Nice girls don’t talk that way. Be respectful, get that look off your face, do you need something to cry about? Pouting is ugly, quit it. Don’t you be angry with me, you don’t have a right to be angry! You are so selfish! After all your mother and I have done for you, how dare you behave this way!!!
With all of these controlling and limiting messages, how does an individual ever figure out who they are and what they want? Do we have a right to seek our own level and live our lives as we want, or are we “bound” to fit into the picture frame our families and communities have created for us? Do we become Walter Mitty and lead secret fantasy lives while we drudge through our own life following the rules and being good? Or do we lash out at those who love us and dump our frustration about the unfairness of life on them because we don’t deal with the prevailing conflict in a healthy, productive way.
Last week, I wrote about parenting. I discussed setting boundaries so that children learned from consequences to make better choices. Children need to learn skills that will help them survive and succeed. The job of parents is to construct a safety net of boundaries that will protect the child and enable them to have practice opportunities to choose and to lose. Children need to try, and they need to fail. For years we have had such an erroneous “self esteem” movement in this country. We try to hard to make all children feel good all the time. We do not want them hurt, we don’t want them to feel sad or to cry or to be wounded. This is a mistake. Self-esteem comes from a sense of competence. If I learn to master a skill, I know I can do it. When someone completes the skill for me so that I don’t risk failure, I learn to rely on others for my success, rather than myself.
If I choose to risk winning, I also choose to risk failing. In order to learn how to fail and to be stronger and tougher, I need to experience failure. The job of parents actually involves allowing children to fail! I want my son to gamble on a strategy, to risk, to stretch, to experience new things, new flavors, and see new sights. I want him to explore, as safely as possible, outside the net I have created for his safety. BUT, I want him to have the skills to do that! I enable his acquisition of those skills by being involved with him, by supervising him, by supporting him to test himself against reasonable and cushioned limits so that he develops a sense of mastery. He learns what his strengths and weaknesses are, he learns to take calculated risks, knowing that he may loose, and he may get hurt. He learns that “the going up is worth the coming down.” He learns that when you fail, life is not over. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and grow from your experience.
One of the lessons for me in this style of parenting is learning that I have to hear and allow him to say “NO.” I have to teach him an appropriate, respectful way to say no. I have to respect him and his individuality while I force him to stay within lines or boundaries that I have imposed for his practice environment. One day he will leave and he will live his own life. My job is not to control his life at that point. As a parent, my job is to guide his choices when he is young. But gradually, I need to turn over that control to him so that he can gain the strength of character and the skills to survive that will help him become an autonomous, contributing member of society. How do I raise him to have those skills? How do I release him into the wild, knowing that he has the best education, training, and skills I can help him acquire, in order to test himself against the world?
These are questions I ask myself every day. It hurts to let him fail. I want to protect him. I do not want him to suffer. I want to protect him from the hurts that I experienced, but if I protect him from all hurt am I allowing him to develop coping strategies that he will need as an adult? Sure, I want him to win, but I have to look at the long term goal. I have to teach him that it is not all about immediate gratification. The essential parenting skills for socialization of children involve: teaching them delayed gratification, impulse control, anger management, and culturally specific functional skills such as the ability to drive a car or use a computer.
If I am successful, he will become independent. He will learn how to tell the co- worker that her perfume bothers him in an appropriate and successful way. He will learn to advertise his political beliefs, while being aware that others may disagree and that there will be consequences. But, he will be able to weigh the consequences and choose a path that allows him to be himself and be respectful to others. He will learn to use or not use manners as he chooses, knowing there are pay offs either way. He will learn to temper his anger, not to pout, but to communicate thoughtfully and respectfully. He will learn to test himself and try new things. Hopefully, he will not be unreasonably afraid of change or of the future. He will leave me. I will loose my baby and gain a man. A man who is strong, who is good, who lives his life boldly, loves well, and is happy. A man who pays his way and contributes to the society we both love. A good man, my son!