Parenting. It’s a high-wire balancing act. On the one hand you need discipline, consistency and careful expectations. On the other, you need listening skills, lots of love and a Ph.D. in psychology. Most importantly you need leadership skills, since ultimately, that is what a parent is: a Leader of the most important kind. And ultimately - hopefully - the most influential leader in your children’s lives.
Leadership is another balancing act. One must demonstrate caring interest with clear expectations and appropriate consequences. The thing about parenting is that our children are not just people, they are our people. They come from us and are part of us. Therefore, what we must be most careful of is that we do not try to lead them to become us - or, what we wish we were.
What a balancing act that is! Often we assume children are happy and in the right activities because they seem to be doing well. But children are adept at showing us what we want to see, at being what we expect them to be. After all, their greatest fear - especially if we are good leaders - is disappointing us.
We will never know how they are really doing unless we give them the safety to express the truth - and then listen. Of course, asking leading questions to get answers we like doesn’t count. How can a child confide that they are having trouble in a classroom - whether it is the subject, a bully or an incompetent teacher - if the parent’s immediate reaction to poor grades is anger and blame? “You got a C? C’s are not acceptable in this family. You have to do better.” How can a child express that he would rather play the trombone if he is compelled, through desire for approval, to live out his dad’s fantasies of greatness out on the football field? “Of course Johnny wants to play ball like his old man! You don’t even need to ask him.”
How can a child communicate true opinions or positions when they are likely to be judged as wrong or unacceptable - or even, not allowed? How can a child be real?
As Thomas Gordon, author of Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children wrote, “Kids learn that talking to their parents is not helpful and often not safe. Consequently, many parents miss thousands of chances to help their children with problems they encounter in life.”
Often parents don’t accept children’s feelings because they seem inconvenient, unreasonable, over-reactive, or make the parents feel bad themselves. So, the parent argues: You’re just tired. You didn’t mean that. It’s not that big a deal. Well, it is to them. We can well imagine how angry and frustrated we would become if our spouse tried to tell us how we were feeling and then argued with us about it. The nerve!
Dr. Haim Ginott, author of Between Parent and Child, says, “Steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids. Also, it teaches them not to know what their feelings are - not to trust them.” Or to trust that you really want to know, for that matter. They will instead try to think of the “right” answer . . and then, perhaps, act out in other ways. Ginott says we all know how to improve communication with our children because we learned it from our own parents: by how they treated strangers and guests. I love his example:
“What do we say to a guest who forgets her umbrella? Do we run after her and say, ‘What is the matter with you? Every time you come to visit you forget something. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Why can’t you be like your younger sister? When she comes to visit, she knows how to behave. You’re forty-four years old! Will you never learn? I’m not a slave to pick up after you! I bet you’d forget your head if it weren’t attached to your shoulders!’ That’s not what we say to a guest. We say, ‘Here’s your umbrella, Alice,’ without adding, ‘scatterbrain.’ Parents need to learn to respond to their children as they do to guests.”
Children, like all human beings, need to feel valued for who they are, not just what they do. As parents, we are often so focused on their continued improvement, which is, of course, extremely important, that we forget to tell them how wonderful we think they are now.
One of the most moving interactions I have ever seen between parent and child was several years ago at a Bar-Mitzvah ceremony. At one point, the boy’s parents got up before the entire assembly and, speaking directly to their son, spoke about all the things they admired about his character and how they appreciated his unique qualities, how proud they were of him and who he was becoming. To have this recognition and praise from one’s parents - in public no less - must be a powerful experience.
We are each born as unique individuals who will only exist one time in the history of the universe. One of the greatest things we can do for our children, besides training them in the ways of the world, right and wrong, and the other attributes that make a quality human being, is to notice what is special about them, what makes them unique, and to help them to value and take enjoyment in it. This is especially true if they are passionate about it. As adults, we often push aside such things in the interest of more serious matters and day to day obligations. We may well remember having our own dreams discouraged by well-meaning adults who wished to steer us in more “sensible” or “realistic” directions, thereby perhaps losing something that was once an important part of us.
It is tempting to try to guide our children toward some preconceived image, but the greatest thing we can do to benefit our relationships with our children is to see them for who they are. To see their true qualities, not the qualities we wish they had. Their perception of us will change, too, because they will see we are interested not only in whether they cleaned their room or got a good grade on their report card or did well in their last game, but that we are interested in who they are becoming. This builds confidence not only in themselves, but in us, because they feel safe to be themselves. This will make them much less likely to go out and “find” themselves through somebody, or something, else. Your children will be the product of thousands of influences in life, the greatest of which are the unique talents and abilities with which they were born . . . and you.