As Eric grew older he became aware of how fortunate he was to be the son of Jonas and Helena. Whilst they were reasonably strict parents their unconditional love for him was manifest. Some of his friends lived in dysfunctional families that seemed to oscillate between indulgence of their children and irrational demands. This gave Eric cause to think about the difficulties of parenthood.
Most times, when faced with a difficulty, Eric found he could navigate his life relatively sure-footedly. He only had to look at the example of his mother and father and think about the moral imperatives his parents had taught him. And yet his parents seemed as though they were just simple country folk that made no pretensions about being wise or particularly special.
One day Eric was working in the fields with his father. Eric enjoyed these times. Not only was he making a contribution to his household, that provided a sense of fulfilment, but he also had a chance to talk to his father while they worked, which he enjoyed immensely. So here they were together each with a hoe, turning over the weeds in the vegetable patch.
Eric looked at Jonas and enquired, “Father it is likely that someday, just as you and mama, I might be married and have children. Surely having children imposes a great responsibility on their parents. How might I manage that so that I might help my children go well in the world?”
Jonas, a little taken aback, leant on his hoe and faced Eric. He smiled and said, “Well that was a surprising question – but nevertheless a good one. Having only raised one child I cannot profess to be an expert, but I will do my best to explain to you what I think good parenting entails.”
Eric’s father thought awhile before speaking again.
“Much of the problem of parenting begins with the language we use. When I tell the world that you are ‘my son’ this can cause a great misunderstanding. It merely means that you are the product of the union between your mother and me. You carry our genes. Some people interpret the expression of ‘my son’ or ‘my daughter’ as signifying ownership, which it does not. Such parents believe that their progeny are there for their parents’ gratification or aggrandisement. They want to live their lives vicariously through their children.”
“Unfortunately, these parents believe that their children are there for them. Whereas good parents know that they are there for their children. But good parents are not only there to care for and nurture their children, they are there also to guide them to a fulfilling life.”
Jonas paused a while before continuing.
“It is very important for a child to live in an atmosphere of love and unconditional positive regard. Your mother and I want you to know that you will be loved by us for as long as we live, no matter whatever happens.”
Eric nodded his head.
“I know that is true father.”
“Good!” replied Jonas. “But if we love you, why is it, do you think, that sometimes we do things to you that you don’t find at all pleasant?”
“That is easy father. Sometimes when I behaved poorly, particularly when I was younger, you must of course punish me.”
“Well, it might seem that way to you, but we have no desire to punish you!”
“But I can remember the occasional smack on the bottom, or being denied a treat when I acted inappropriately. Is that not punishment?”
“Well, no, son. Punishment infers an act of retribution. That was never our intention.”
“Then what, pray, was your intention?”
“Our intention was to modify your behaviour so that you might live a more fulfilling life. Now it seems to us that if we are to mould a child for a good life, behaviours should have consequences – bad behaviours need to be discouraged and good behaviours encouraged. But because we love you unconditionally – that is, you don’t have to do anything to earn our love – we need to focus on your behaviour and not on you as a person. Our responses need to not to threaten your sense of self.”
“Well how do you do that?”
“When your behaviour needed correction, we needed to strive to ensure that you faced your behaviour and not our emotional response to that. When you behaved badly, for example, we needed to ensure our response was not clouded in anger. That ensured you had to respond objectively to your behaviour and not our emotions. That also helped to teach you another important lesson.”
“What was that lesson?”
“It is simply this – you are not responsible for our emotions – we are! Parents that don’t act in this way encourage their children to believe, erroneously, that they are responsible for the emotions of others and get locked into a lifelong pattern of trying to get their way using a repertoire of emotional blackmail techniques. As a result, when you understand you are not responsible for other people’s emotions, you are more likely to grow up with a greater sense of freedom and enhanced resilience and psychological robustness.”
“I am not sure I understand all that, father. I might have to ponder your response a while to try to get to grips with it and make more sense of the role of parenting.”
“That’s fine, Eric. But parenting is both a huge responsibility but also a great joy. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing your children blossom into adulthood well-prepared as they can be to make their own way in the world. We want you to feel free to have your own thoughts and pursue your own ambitions. The worst of parents are those who need their children to think as they do or who want to live their lives vicariously reliant on the achievements of their children.”
Jonas picked up his hoe again. “Enough of this for now. We need to finish cultivating this plot before it gets dark and your mother calls us in for dinner. But don’t be discouraged from bringing your questions to us. It is an important part of your learning.”