One of the chronic worries reported by parents, in general, is their fear of getting it wrong! Parenting doesn’t come with a manual. I can’t tell you how many parents have come to me over the years and identified that they were concerned about doing something wrong…..or failing to do something right to the point that their child was damaged in some grave way. Therapy often involves working through those fears and trying to establish some basic parenting practices for discipline, encouragement, promotion of specific goals or behaviors, all in the context of a philosophy or “world view” that allows the parents to quiet their own anxieties.
Parenting begins before the child is even born. Parents have to give thought to their ability to provide a safe, secure, and nurturing environment for the child. Mothers in particular, have to be aware of prenatal health concerns and changing habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol. If the mom is on antidepressants, or some other strong medicine, it becomes a question between her and her physician regarding whether or not she can safely stay on these meds while she during her pregnancy. Hopefully, (in healthy families anyway) the mom and dad are having conversations about their parenting values. What is the worst consequence you are willing to provide for your child? Do you spank? Shame? Lecture? Do you take things away? Will you nag and scold? Do you give multiple warnings, or do you provide an environment that is based upon good boundaries, with clear warnings and consequences known in advance? Perhaps the message you will consistently give your child is: You are making a choice. You can choose to have a tantrum, but if you do, you will be choosing to spend a half hour in your room. If you choose to call your brother names, you are choosing not to watch TV tonight. It will be breakfast before you get anything else to eat. I do not want to do this, but I will honor the choice you are making.
As parents, do know how to say this to your children? “I respect and love you enough to allow you to experience the consequences of your choices.” When children are young they can be and should be micro managed. There need to be opportunities for experimentation and failure. Children should be allowed to fail, they should be encouraged to try for things beyond their capacities, even when those things lead to hurt, failure or disappointment. We need to create an environment where they are allowed to practice decision- making, analysis of consequences, and develop skills for the manipulation of their environment while they are young, and the failure costs are minimal. If a young child has never failed, never learned how to console themselves, nor to get up and dust themselves off and try plan B, then, when they are teens or adults, and encounter their first loss, it can be devastating. A child who has never experienced loss and failure and resilience and recovery might be suicidal if they do not make the dean’s list or the cheerleading team. If a child has always been on teams that gave everyone a trophy and they encountered a competition as high school seniors where they actually lost something they wanted (such as a scholarship) they would not have the resources, or coping strategies, for dealing with it.
As parents, we need to structure these environments for our young children, but as the children age, we need to step back and make the box larger and larger. They need more freedom and more room to maneuver. We still want to surround them with safety, involvement and supervision, but we want them to continue to practice their survival and adaptive skills so that they can handle the stresses and costs of life. This process is called the “Dance of Separation.” The goal is to get them out the door at some point so that they live independent, autonomous, contributing lives rather than living in our basements, emotionally handicapped, unable or unwilling to engage life and unable to accept or face the challenge of independent living, employment, or the development of friendships and relationships.
These are pretty universally accepted goals for parents in our culture. For most parents, the question is not should we engage in this type of parenting, rather how do we implement and pursue it? What do we, as parents, do to push our children into or onto paths of independence? What do we do when they make choices we do not agree with or think might be harmful? What if they do not want to be what we want them to be? How do we discipline when they still live in our houses but feel that they are all “grown up?” Here are some of my thoughts.
I think we need to articulate and communicate as clearly as possible what our bottom lines are, to the degree that we know what those are. What are we willing to support, to allow, even to indulge? Would you let your 19 year have a sleep over with their opposite sex friend? Would you let your child drive the car if they did not have insurance that was up-to-date? Would you let them smoke in your house or your car? Would you buy them cigarettes? What if they skip school, or even drop out? How will you handle it when they don’t want what you have prepared for dinner and demand that you fix them something else? Do you give them an allowance? Until what age will you provide their spending money? Do you require them to participate in household maintenance activities such as mopping the kitchen or cutting the grass? As the parent, YOU need to know your answer to these questions. You and your partner need to be on the same page as much as possible, so that you can give a consistent message to the child of what the boundaries and expectations are, along with the costs of non- compliance.
I believe that young people who are beyond the average age of a high school senior, no longer live at home as an entitlement, rather they live there as a courtesy. This is a privilege they are given in return for acceptable behavior and compliance. If they do not provide either compliance or acceptable behavior, then they should be asked to move out. I am always dismayed when I hear adolescents (or young children for that matter) speak to their parents in hateful, scorn filled voices, seething with anger or contempt. For me that is a hard line. My conversation goes something like this: “You will not speak to me in that tone of voice no matter what your level of distress is. I do not permit myself to speak to you or anyone else that way, and I will not tolerate your speaking to me, or your mother that way! Should you choose to not require yourself to speak in moderated tones and civilly negotiate for the things you want, you can choose, in fact, you are choosing not to live here. If you choose to live elsewhere, then you are also choosing to support yourself financially.” As a parent, the fact that you have healthy boundaries does not mean that you have abandoned your child or your responsibilities (despite what she may tell you.) Quite the contrary, it means that you are strong enough in your commitments that you are willing to allow your child to become independent. You can still love them, and support them emotionally, and even with some financial help. But, at some point, the goal is for them to support themselves.
What if your child struggles with the idea of independence? What if they refuse to move out, to get a job, or to pay their way? Then what? Obviously these situations do not happen in a vacuum. You do not wake up one day and find that your child has become someone you do not know. These behaviors will have been tested over time. There will have been in-vivo experiments where they practiced challenging your expectations and your use of consequences. They will have experimented with saying no to what you want or expect. How you handle these things when they happen is of critical importance. You must provide boundaries and consequences. You need to have them proactively established and known in advance. You must allow them to experience the consequences of their choices, or the child will learn from their experiment that you are a sucker and you cannot be taken at your word!
Many parents who find themselves in this trap are afraid. They are afraid that they will do or have done something wrong. They worry that their child will hurt themselves, often the child threatens suicide or self-harm. These are very scary times. They fear that their child will not be able to do the things to provide for the same standard of living that the parents have provided for them and that they must wait until that capacity is there. They are depriving their child of independence and of the joy of learning how to take care of themselves, of having self-ownership and self-capacity rather than “self-esteem” which is hollow and unfounded. Self-esteem comes from capacity and the ability to accomplish what you set out to do. Self-esteem does not come from entitlement, praise, or the absence of real-life consequences.
Remember, that as your child ages, you must stop micro managing. Do not tell your teenager to brush his teeth three or four times a day. Do not nag him about his homework. He must internalize the reasons for doing well in school and must take ownership of his grades and his progress. If he does, then he will strive to do well in school and love learning. You will see him grow and blossom. If he does not, even if he drops out of school, he will learn what it is like to be poor and not have many options in life. This is a painful lesson. But if he learns it, he will choose to go back to school, perhaps in a non -traditional way. He may go to night school, trade school, or work one or more part times job in order to make changes to his circumstances. He will learn to be a good worker, to be employable, or to save his money and pay for college. Just as you have, he will learn to recover from his mistakes and learn to pay cheaper prices for his choices.
The goal is to try to manage these situations rather than reactively and emotionally respond to them with fear, hysteria, rage, shame or embarrassment. You do not own your children. They are not detachable extensions of you. They must separate and become independent and you must shove them out of the nest. A child will not learn from false praise, pandering, and the lack of consequences. Learning is painful and growth is hard. The best learned lessons are the ones that result from experiencing consequences, failing and from engaging in the great game of life, knowing that you may win or lose by the nature of your effort and your choices. As parents, we often question if we have done enough for our children. When in reality, we often have done too much, given them more than they need, and we have been reluctant to let them lives the experience their own choices.