I was rereading a therapy magazine from 1999 — so the problems were full-blown even back then– and it related the following: In a difference of opinion between a child and her mother who wanted the TV shut off, as the mother’s demand became stronger, the child finally used a swear word on her mother, something like, “F-you, mommy.” That child was eight years old.
And this is not an inner-city family. It is a socio-economically privileged family whose mother spends time toting her daughter to after-school activities and the like. This young girl also does well in school and is liked by her peers. What’s going on? Why the language?
The article was filled with similar stories including those of kids who hit and kicked their parents when they didn’t get their way and another young child who didn’t like anticipating the arrival of a new baby and smashed a baseball bat into her mother’s belly.
The author, Ron Taffel, was compelled to interview parents to try to find out what was missing in their approach. It turns out that parents — who may have suffered harsh discipline themselves growing up — are afraid to do the same to their children.
So they do nothing.
Maybe their child needs to “get out” their anger, they’re thinking. If so, then letting them vent should be a good thing. No, it isn’t good.
First, because the venting never ends. But this is only the beginning of the problem.
What Taffel found is that these same parents who are afraid to injure their children by punishing them also don’t like their children’s company.
Can you blame them? The children are rude, spoiled, angry, unpleasant. So they make no attempt to share time with them, listen to them or relate to them — other than to bark orders when their patience finally wears thin.
When this article was written, there were few cell phones. Today the problem is worse. I just about never see a parent pushing a stroller with a child and actually engaging with that youngster. The parent will be — 99-to-one — on the phone. And I often have the urge (which I manage to control) to point out to these parents that this precious time will be over before they know it, so put the phone away and talk to your child!
In fact, Taffel found, on interviewing the kids, that they craved parental attention even if they would never admit it to their parents.
How much more so today when people’s eyes and ears are glued to their devices. Why is the person who is not with you more important/more interesting than the one who is?
This is how the cycle seems to me to have gotten to this place: Parents have no map of how to handle their children since they were not handled in an ideal way themselves. They are afraid to discipline but there isn’t much attention, love, and affection given either.
This leads to two problems with the children:
First, the children are out of control because no one ever set up limits and boundaries for them.
Second, the children are very unhappy because they have no clue how to get their needs met; they feel lost and alone.
So, if you only pay attention to the first problem — the obnoxious behavior — you can fall into the trap of not even liking your own child. You then may become punitive yourself, the very thing that you were trying to avoid. You may end up saying mean things to the child about his or her personality which doesn’t help and only hurts.
And you, the parent, are stuck not knowing how to get out of this mess.
If you only pay attention to the second problem, you take the child to a shrink so that the child is put on “meds” for “his” depression, anxiety, alienation, and so forth. You, however, still don’t know how to handle this depressed but unruly child.
The only way out is to look at the big picture: The child is both ill-mannered AND depressed (or angry or anxious).
And the cure is one thing only: a good relationship with you.
Not that that is easy. Having a good relationship is what you wanted in the first place but didn’t know how to achieve. So I would like to break down the elements of a good parent-child relationship:
- Boundaries must be slowly built. Boundaries go both ways. I would never enter my children’s rooms without knocking. When they received mail, back in the day when they lived at home, I did not look at the return address because that would be nosey. Boundaries are a way of creating the fertile soil for respect. We don’t interrupt, yell, criticize, blame, say mean things, show contempt. When the child says something disrespectful, I would suggest initiating the following conversation: “I realize that we have not been speaking nicely to each other. I’m as guilty as you are. But I am starting fresh because I want to do the right thing. So I won’t be disrespectful to you and I’m expecting the same from you, too.”
- The above conversation probably won’t work at first because another thing that has been missing from the mix all this time is caring. You may care for your child, but the child may not realize it. Caring is shown, first of all, by listening. You will then say, “But my child won’t talk to me!” An atmosphere for conversation and sharing can be built by doing fun family activities together. Some families play cards, scrabble, chess or other games. Some do puzzles, go on outings, or watch videos together. Playing charades, Simon Says and other stepping-around games are great for younger children. Arts and crafts are also an option. I know many fathers and sons that bond over Legos and sports.
- Acceptance of the person is an absolute necessity. No matter how much trouble your child has caused, accept who he is. What if you really don’t? Then you are conflating the person with the actions. Why are you doing that? Are you unable to tease apart the person underneath? How did this happen and when? Take some time and pour over baby pictures to get back the feelings you had before things went wrong. Do some deep breathing and imagine a real relationship and how nice that will be. If you are very honest with yourself and acknowledge that this is still a problem, then you should get outside help to figure out how to get over that barrier.
- A key part of loving is giving, but how much? Some parents give so much of their own time and money that they have lost themselves — and the child may not appreciate it anyway. Consider the cost of holiday gifts — have you overdone it? Are you trying to buy your child’s love? Don’t think for a moment that material things will ever make up for a relationship that lacks time shared together with quality conversation thrown in. On the other hand, children should get some gifts because this creates a happy atmosphere. After all, it is a holiday in which your child knows everyone else is receiving something. One must be careful in how much time, attention, and material things are given to children. The Goldilocks rule applies here: not too much and not too little.
Let’s start fresh with our children: That is possible, no matter how far and how long you have veered down the wrong path. The responsibility to teach them is in your hands. And miracles do happen.