On Children

It is a great privilege to be parents and a wondrous gift to be grandparents. We invest so much in our offspring and for many of us this becomes a huge part of our identity. Children are also useful for the education of adults.

As the American humourist Franklin P Jones wrote, “You can learn many things from children. How much patience you have, for instance.”

Angela Schwindt, a mother in Oregon USA, wrote, “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”

It is unfortunate that some of us as parents can’t relate with our children as wonderful young people who need our nurture but as objects that are instruments to use for our own personal satisfaction. Such parents end up trying to live their lives vicariously through their children. It is not just that they want their children to do well but somehow they want their children to plug some of the gaps in their own lives, to realise the ambitions they never achieved. Some of us mistake this for love when it is really a pathetic parasitic dependency.
We would be well-advised to listen to the words of Kahlil Gibran expressed in his delightful little book “The Prophet”.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
Love is not conditional. This is true in all our relationships. It is particularly true for our children. A child’s psychological growth is facilitated by unconditional love. Our children need to know that our love does not need to be earned. Our love for them endures whatever the circumstances.

Some might say this is an indulgent point of view which will lead us into a situation that our children will take advantage of us. But this is wrong-minded. Once, in a household very familiar to me, I heard a woman who was trying to coerce a little girl into saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, state that “Grandma doesn’t love girls with bad manners”. This was patently untrue. She had no more likelihood of withdrawing her love than flying to the moon. I suspect the child knew this as well and the threat made little difference to her behaviour.

And as beautiful as the words of Gibran quoted above might be, in one respect he is wrong also. He wrote:

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.

Our children are influenced in their thinking by the behaviour of significant others, and particularly in their early years by that of their parents. One of the thought patterns often learnt in this way is that the child is responsible for the emotional well-being of the parent. This emotional blackmail that many of us practice unconsciously drives our children into dysfunctional behaviour for they come to believe that love and self-esteem are dependent on pleasing the whims and emotional needs of others. All such behaviour perpetuates the myth of our emotional dependence on others — a myth that seems to be so true, until we can see through it and come to understand a more secure basis for our self-worth.

Through these early experiences we learned the powerful myth that we were responsible for keeping other people happy with us, and we thereby placed our own internal judge under the judgment of others. Almost all of us grew up under such a socialisation process and from the time we were very young we were bombarded with such statements as:

‘Don’t fight with your sister Tom. You know it makes me angry.’
‘You make me so depressed when you don’t do your homework.’
‘I’ll never be happy while you’re so thoughtless of other people.’
‘You really frustrate me when you don’t pass your exams.’
‘You make me feel I am a failure as a parent when you don’t bring your friends home.’
‘I am very disappointed in you. You ought to show more self-control’.
‘It really upsets me when you say things like that’.

Or it may not have been said at all, it may have been a facial expression, or tone of voice, or body language. Of course, the well meaning parent, or teacher, was not attempting to do any damage, they actually believed that their reaction was caused by us, and they subconsciously hoped that if we felt guilty enough about what we were doing to them we would change for the better.

And change we often did, but not always for the better when looked at in the long term. Such responses as these, that become part of our daily psychological ‘training’, not only teach us to feel deeply responsible for other people’s emotional states but also form the basis of our belief that others are responsible for our own. This is particularly true when those taking this stance towards us are significant and powerful people in our lives.

The American writer on psychology, Barry Stevens, writes of her own experience of early childhood conditioning.

When I was small, one of the things that puzzled me was that when I saw something that I wanted to try, and did it, sometimes the grown-ups said that I was bright, sometimes that I was silly. A little later, with people outside the family who did not love me as my family did, it was sometimes I was ‘bright’ and sometimes I was ‘stupid’. I couldn’t understand at first what made the difference. As I went into doing things, they looked the same to me. Gradually I learned that ‘bright’ or ‘silly’ depended not on how it looked to me but on how it came out. That was puzzling to me because how it came out was something that I never knew until after I had done it. I did things to see what would happen. So how could I be ‘bright’ when it came out one way and ‘silly when it came out another? I was the same both ways, it seemed to me.

Thus we learn to do what those significant adults around us approve of and often that disapproval is expressed using emotive language. Generally the same sort of emotionally co-dependent relationships continue from home to school and on into the workplace.

But how then are we to change the behaviour of our children for the better if we are to eschew the path of emotional coercion and blackmail? The good Dr Phil has always preached that behavioural modification occurs when there are consequences for the behaviour administered in an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard.

As the author Harold Hulbert wrote, “Children need love, especially when they do not deserve it!” But of course I would contend they always deserve it! A man and a woman who conceive a child are surely obligated to love it. If we only had the sense to agree to this principle before passion over-rode us in begetting the infant!

What should the consequences be with respect to behavioural management? Well, whatever is age and situation appropriate. It might be as little as a verbal reprimand or as extensive as the withdrawal of some privilege. And remember that there should be positive consequences to reward appropriate behaviour just as there should be negative consequences to deter inappropriate behaviour. And as parent you should always deliver such consequences with equanimity, not anger, derision or any other negative emotion. We want the child to be focussed on their behaviour, not yours!

Also many parents need to change their mind-set. When a child behaves inappropriately we do not set out to punish the child or mete out retribution per se, but to give them incentives to change their behaviour.

Just as we, from our own parenting and conditioning, have learnt to use suffering anger and withdrawal to manipulate others, it is likely that our children will attempt to use these techniques to manipulate us. Parents are well-advised not to reward such behaviour, because that will only reinforce it.

When a child throws a tantrum it is natural that our maternal and paternal instincts are aroused to try and reduce the perceived suffering of the child. If you give in to such tactics you are now complicit in a game of manipulation that will be increasingly stacked against you.

I didn’t really mean to get into the subject of parenting when I started this essay, nor did I want to present myself as a model or even a knowledgeable parent. Much of what I have learnt about parenting has come to me later in life through my coaching, my reading and the observation of grandchildren. And I am sure my own children will be happy to provide you with many anecdotes attesting to my failures as a parent. Despite that I am confident of the love and regard we have for each other which remains a great consolation to me.

My children have been a source of great joy to me. They have lightened some of the darker periods of my life. As a result, when I read of dysfunctional family situations and the alienation and often the abuse of children I really despair. It particularly concerns me to read of family histories where generations of children have been abused and neglected. Then such children when they become parents themselves perform poorly because they have had few role models to demonstrate how to properly nurture and develop children.

We must remember that whilst with an ageing population children form a diminishing part of our population, they comprise all of our future. Love them unconditionally and rejoice in the privilege that nature has given you to enhance the world of the future.

4 Replies to “On Children”

  1. I agree with your thoughts in the main Ted but was wondering if you can account for those people who despite an abusive upbringing with little love received or given become model citizens and some times great leaders. Wayne Bennet springs to mind as an example but there are many others who have grown up in difficult circumstances who seem to be whom they are because of the circumstances rather than despite them. On the flip side I think we are all aware of children who have grown up in secure loving environments who go seriously off the rails causing great anxiety for their parents who often blame themselves. I was talking to a friend some years ago about parenting and he told me a story about a family of 5. The 3 children were so well behaved that the local church congregation regularly asked parenting advice which was freely given. That was fine until child number 4 arrived who by all accounts became the terror of the neighbourhood. By the time he was 4 or 5, Dad publically apologised for all the parenting advice he had given in the past, his parenting ego severely shattered.

    My question I thnk comes down to the nature / nurture argument again. Any thoughts?

    1. A good point, as usual, Greg.

      Often children who live in an abusive environment find someone to turn to. Such people, often providing comfort and respite become their role models. As well, and from recollection this was the case with Wayne Bennett, having one abusive parent makes them more dependent on the non-abusive one. But I have read many stories where the role model and the provider of respite was an aunt or an uncle and frequently a grandparent. Sometimes it might have been a teacher or another significant person in their lives. Sometimes also it might be an older brother or sister who they might want to emulate. I have also read stories of children who became aware of how dysfunctional their families were and turned to the families of friends for role models.

      It sometimes surprises me how resilient our children are, being able to cope with many vicissitudes. It probably only goes to reinforce how harmed some are that fall by the wayside.

      You will also appreciate that because our children have different personalities it is unrealistic to expect that a particular parenting style will suit them all (apropos the story you relate.) Age also makes a difference in how you relate to your children. There is little point in having a debate with a four year old about their behaviour and rationalising with them why they should behave differently because they do not have the capacity at that age to apply abstract reasoning.

      Children will usually be influenced by those who love them and treat them appropriately. They are seldom influenced by those who indulge them except to find mechanisms to exploit such indulgence.

      And then of course, as you know, parenting is complicated by the psychological condition of the child. My heart goes out to parents of bi-polar children, those with severe depression and so on. How difficult must it be to try and parent a child with real brain pathology? I know too many parents now who have been confronted with the suicide of their children. I can’t imagine a worse thing for a parent to have to deal with.

      But overall, it is hard to go beyond the advice of loving your children unconditionally and practising appropriate behavioural modifcation techniques. None of us are perfect parents, just as we are imperfect in many areas of our lives. But if we approach parenting with the view to doing the best for our children, rather than treating our children as instruments for our own satisfaction, then we are on the right track. And I suspect we will gain enormous satisfaction as a result anyhow.

  2. So much can be said about this topic… but the 9 year old is calling out that he doesn’t want to go to bed at 10pm, the lunches are yet to be made for school tomorrow, swimming bags to be packed, the tutoring bill needs to be paid and the husband is requesting 5 minutes of adult conversation! The person who comes up with the manual will enjoy many riches!!

    But seriously, my first thoughts on reading your blog this week were ‘Don’t despair Ted, they may still come across words written by such people as yourself, which do so much to heal and strengthen the soul.’

    When it comes to my own children I accept that I am far from a perfect parent nor did I have perfect parental role models. There are many other factors to consider of course and every child has within them their own amazing character and potential just waiting to be explored and nurtured. That is what I try to focus on as a parent. Finding within them what makes them tick, what makes up their true spirit. I feel my role as a parent, above everything else, is to find this out and try to nurture that in every way I can. (Another manual pleading to be written and handed to every parent at their child’s birth!)

    Again, I emphasize that I am by no means perfect. I worry about what I shouted to the kids from time to time in moments of frustration, anger, sleep deprivation etc. Have I done irreversible damage? What will my kids think of those words when they grow up? Will they remember them? What hope is there of clawing back their fragile psyche that I have surely crushed?

    But I know you are right when you say that children are resilient little human beings. They can take a lot and come out of it still happy and functional. They might need to discover or have someone explain to them at some point that no-one can be perfect, even your parents, and there was probably some damn good reason they got annoyed with you at the time, on top of the fact that they hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in 7 years. Of course, that’s no excuse on my part!

    Or maybe, more seriously, there was some other reason for their negative influence. Maybe they had an upbringing themselves that was cruel or abusive as is the case in so many instances of generational dysfunction. But how and when do these children find out, learn how to accept that, how to cope with it and learn from it. How can they break the cycle and break it before they too become parents?

    When it comes to providing my own children with a role model I feel as a parent I should only take from my own parents what was good about them and try to entwine into my children’s life these attributes, along with my own good ones and those of good people around me presently or in the past. No matter how trivial or serious the act, no matter how hard or easy it is to place it into its own box on the shelf of your mind, forget what you felt your parents or some other adult once did wrong by you. If one can set out to forgive and forget, focus and present only the good in people, then as parents we can create another human being that was better than the ones before.

    If I can look back on the past 6 months… year… even 9 years of parenthood, and think to myself, ‘Yes I have really mucked that up in some ways, but on the whole they are still smiling, they have interests and strengths that have come from within, they are learning to cope with weaknesses (even if they are not their own yet but those of adults around them) and getting a good dose of reality every now and then’, if I can still get a sense that as children they are still growing and the scales of influence are tipped in favour of positive rather than negative, then I’m doing the best for our children that I have been capable of in the circumstances. Yes I might need to keep upping the ante going forward but at least that’s the direction we’re moving in.

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