It’s spring, and suddenly I’m hearing more and more of my patients speak about pregnancy and rearing children, so I thought it important to convey some of my thoughts on the matter. First, let me assure you that no one is the expert in this area.
It makes me think back to a story I heard about a man who had repetitive problems with his son. Finally, he went to his rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I don’t know what to do about my rebellious son. Can you tell me how to deal with this problem?” The rabbi hesitated and said, “I haven’t had a great deal of success in rearing my own son. He won’t go to the yeshiva; he questions Judaism and is attracted to a girl who isn’t of our belief. What we need to do is pray to G-d about our problem.”
Together, they went to the synagogue and said, “L-rd, we have a problem with our children. They refuse to follow in our footsteps. They behave according to their own desires and have little respect for our religious beliefs. We don’t know what to do. Please, give us a sign.”
There was a prolonged silence. Then, a deep majestic voice from on high said, “My children, I would love to answer your question, but I, too, had a son. It may not be as humorous to you as it is to me, but I think it says that none of us are G-d and there are no perfect parents.”
That being said, there are some thoughts I would like to share with you, regarding the parenting of your offspring:
1. The definition of parent should be changed to failure. The criteria by which you judge yourselves as parents should be based on how few mistakes you made while rearing them. The criteria by which you judge your offspring shouldn’t be by virtue of their mistakes or their achievements, but by their hearts and their intentions. Similarly, the way you evaluate yourselves shouldn’t be on the basis of your children’s actions but your own. It should stem from your motivation, the effort you put out and the intentions you had. At best, you need to recognize your humanness and accept that to be human is to be imperfect and to raise children is to care for someone who didn’t come with a warranty or an instruction manual. So, don’t judge yourself on their achievements. Judge yourself on how much you care, the number of mistakes you make and whether or not you learn from them.
2. Parent your children for them, not for you. What does that mean? When you child misbehaves, doesn’t say please or thank you or reach out in a highly confident, poised manner to shake the hand of a friend, be sure that your response to that behavior doesn’t stem from your embarrassment because your child didn’t display the manners that would portray your good parenting. The rule of thumb is that, whenever your discipline is excessive, whenever you’re totally frustrated or feel emotionally out of control, the degree to which you harbor over-the-top emotions is you, not them. So, wait until later to deal with them.
3. Never try to live your life through your children. When you do, your life will be similar to riding a roller coaster. It’s bad enough when you’re speeding on the straightaways, but it can get worse on the inclines and curves. You shouldn’t or needn’t ride with them. It would be good parenting to ensure that their safety belts, figuratively speaking, are on but, no matter how much you try, you can’t eliminate the pitfalls that are bound to occur in their lives.
More importantly, when you do attempt to live through them, no matter their age, you place a burden on them. They can’t afford to fail, because of what it will do or mean to you. Conversely, if they succeed, their success has to be shared with you. Something is radically wrong with that equation.
To make matters worse, as youngsters, your children are unable, emotionally, to hold you up or make you a better person. The truth is, you are who you are, no matter what your children do. Their successes aren’t a feather in your cap; they’re a feather in theirs. Their problems and difficulties aren’t a criticism or denouncement of you.
4. It’s not wrong to lift your kids up when they fall, but it’s far better to show them at a very young age, that they can get up on their own two feet after they fall.
For example, I recently visited my nephew, who is a child psychologist. While we were talking, his 3-year-old daughter, who was sitting on his lap, slid and squirmed, in an attempt to get his attention. Finally, she lost her balance and hit her chin on the table. As a result, she cried. Her mother started to say, “Oh, what happened?” Before her words came out, he calmly said, “I’ll bet that hurt, but it’ll get better. You’re fine.” Then he continued our conversation. Her tears stopped abruptly, and she went on doing her thing.
The moral is evident. You don’t react to or reinforce their childhood weaknesses and later comfort them. Instead, you aid them to learn to comfort themselves. You see, you cannot walk, talk, cope or accomplish for your children. They have to learn to do so for themselves.
5. Sometimes, too much love is as emotionally damaging as too much criticism. The perfectionist parent, who will accept nothing less than flawless behavior, who hides behind the adage, “I’m not telling you what grades you need to get, I’m just saying that you’re very smart and I want you to do your best” puts an enormous weight on his or her child.
I want you to allow your children not only to stand up on their own, but to recognize that they never would learn how to stand if they hadn’t fallen first, or made mistakes and learned from them.
6. Parents don’t have to agree. Nor do they have to hide their disagreements behind closed doors, so that the only edicts their children hear are finalized conclusions regarding the law of the land. Children need reality. They have to see that everyone doesn’t have the same opinion, that people can differ and still resolve their differences and come together in a united fashion without a major conflict or struggle. As a result of their experiencing honest interactions between their parents, your children not only learn to work together, but are exposed to a secure emotional environment they can trust and depend on, but can’t manipulate.
7. Children never should be used as an emotional football that is kicked between spouses in an attempt to avoid direct confrontation between them. Nor should they be used as a means of punishing one another. For example, a mother who has a conflicted relationship with her husband often uses one of their offspring as a surrogate emotional partner. Thus, the emotions, involvement and concern that should be shared between parents are directed toward the child. Initially, the child loves the situation. He/she has assumed an exalted position in the family structure. But, he also has gained a terrible responsibility. He/she now has to hold the mother up, has to be there to soothe her wounds, to agree with her and to support her. In the process, this youngster eventually loses his relationship with his father as well as his own identity. He sacrifices his role as a child and his existence, emotionally and intellectually, becomes a reflection of his interaction with mother rather than an expression of his own identity.
8. Refrain from loving your children too much. It’s an excuse I’ve heard over and over again during the nearly 50 years I’ve been in practice. I cared so much, I hated to see him suffer. I thought that if he/she had one more chance, he or she would take advantage of it. Interestingly, it’s the same parent who says, “If he weren’t my son, I’d fire him from the business. If an employee talked to me that way, he’d be gone. If any one of the people who work for me came in as late as he/she does, I’d fire them.” Love, in this instance, doesn’t mean setting limits, having boundaries and dealing with reality. It means giving an extra ounce, making excuses and doing so because you fear your children. You’re frightened to death that, if you don’t do right by them, they won’t love you and that fear, more often than not, causes your fears to be actualized.
9. Above all else, allow your child to know that he/she is OK the way the child is. Not if he goes to the right school, brushes his teeth, or behaves in kindergarten. Not if his/her grades are his best, if he wins awards, or he’s the best athlete, cheerleader or academician. Instead, they have to know they’re OK in spite of and, sometimes, because of their shortcomings. They have to learn that to reach high places, they first have to experience low places. Contrary to many of your children’s beliefs, you don’t start out as president or CEO of a company; you have to work your way up to it.
10. Children need to realize that being OK in no way suggests that they have to be perfect. Quite the contrary. Being OK consists of recognizing and owning your own uniqueness, both good and bad, and learning to cope and live with themselves in a healthy manner. That means they shouldn’t criticize, find fault or punish themselves for who or what they are. Others will do enough of that. Instead, they have to accept, laugh at and love who they are. It’s a message that is most meaningful when it comes from their parents. But, the only parent who can effectively give that message to them is one who has learned it himself/herself.
11. If there is any one fact a parent has to beware of, it is that every child catches parents’ problems. Unfortunately, it often is your feelings of insufficiency, inadequacy and neediness. So, if you never learn to live with you, and if you are critical of yourself, you will also be highly critical and negativistic when you see the same characteristics in your children. The rule is, dysfunctional parents raise dysfunctional children. Therefore, your obligation as a parent is, first and foremost, to make yourself functional.
There you have it, 11 generalized rules for raising children. Are they guaranteed to be successful if you follow these guidelines? Not necessarily. Your children are similar to a three-legged stool that can be stable and supported. One leg is the influence supplied by the way you raised them. Another is their own DNA, the various components of personality, physical and emotional chemical characteristics that they inherit and the other is the environment in which they find themselves. When one leg is completely absent, there is no way the stool can stand. When the legs are uneven, the stool will rock a bit but, generally speaking, most kids will keep their balance on their own, particularly if you give them room to grow. Because, basically, they’re OK. So, have confidence in them. Nurture them, care for them, celebrate and grieve with them but, mostly, allow them to be them.