Children don’t come with a book of instructions. If they did, the likelihood is that the book would have to be revised on a continuing basis, because the rules seem to change from one decade to another. Recall the axiom, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. Today, that’s called child abuse. There’s another, “Children should be seen but not heard”. Today, parents encourage their children to express their thoughts and opinions and to interact with adults. I’ve also heard that when children are infants, you can’t wait for them to walk and talk but, as they grow up, you desperately hope they’ll sit down and be quiet. To say the least, raising children is a confusing endeavor. Doing it “right” is even more difficult, probably more so than any of you imagined before they came into your lives.
The reason is, there are no perfect parents. You all make mistakes and perhaps the accolades go to those of you who make the fewest mistakes. However, in your endeavor today to be better parents than your parents were, you oftentimes, with good intentions, genuine concern, and a desire to express love to your offspring, act in ways that are emotionally and psychologically more destructive or counterproductive than you might have ever imagined. For example:
1. Excessive praise. In Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, by Bronson and Murriman, the authors state, “We put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use constant praise to soften the intensity of their environments. But children excessively praised for their intelligence become risk-averse, in order to preserve their reputations. As a result, when they fear or anticipate failure, they either drop out or cheat, anything in order to avoid failure and to somehow live up to the excessive praise they’ve received.”
2. Erroneous compliments. It sounds the same, but it goes far beyond the sphere of the academic world. It involves encouraging children by falsely complimenting their abilities, their talents, even their appearance. It discounts the notion that they have any reality-based notion of their own capabilities or limits. These erroneous compliments result in children either attempting to fill the shoes that you have created for them, often falling flat on their faces and severely damaging their fragile egos; or, refusing to compete at all because of the failure they anticipate. As a result, they fail by default. In either case, their sense or worthiness is radically affected, in a negative manner. Additionally, they begin to believe that their parents, are either in left field or dishonest, which results in severely compromising their wherewithal to trust anyone.
3. Responsible love. These parents, during the initial therapy session, usually say something similar to, “Doctor, I’ll do anything you say to help my child. He/she is a wonderful young man/woman and if you tell me how to fix the problem, I’ll do it.” My response, “Mr. or Mrs. (Smith), why are you trying to take total credit for who or what your child is or does?” It’s my way of saying that you are not that powerful. Moreover, you alone cannot take on or fix your child’s problems. If you do, or try, you’ll find that your child will never see his reactions or behaviors as his problem. Instead, it will be yours. Accordingly, you’ll have to assume the guilt, blame, responsibility and credit for his actions. All the while, he’ll feel no sense of responsibility, remorse or achievement.
If you are one of these parents, you need to learn that being a responsible parent doesn’t involve you taking the responsibility. It means placing the responsibility on the appropriate shoulders.
4. Limitless love. If you are a parent, you’ve heard a thousand times, “Your child needs unconditional love”. That’s true. But, unconditional love doesn’t mean a lack of boundaries, limits or discipline. It means clearly understanding the difference between right and wrong, good and bad and appropriate and inappropriate behavior. It’s knowing that all behavior has consequences and that you cannot rationalize them away. For example, Craig was told that if he didn’t make a C or better in all his courses after the next six week testing period, he’d lose his driving privileges. Needless to say, Craig’s report card included a D in math, Spanish and physical ed. The latter for not dressing out for gym. It was almost as though he was trying to fail. Would you believe, report cards came out three days before the Junior girls annual dance? Craig’s date was the daughter of his mother’s best friend. His mother knew how much it would hurt her friend’s daughter if she missed the dance and justified not following through with the consequences because of that. As a result, Craig learned a valuable lesson: you can defy authority and, even if you’re caught, there’ll be no price to pay. But that wasn’t the first time and I suspect it won’t be the last, that Craig’s mother and father will teach him that rules are made to be broken
5. Selfish love. The best example is the “stage-door mother”, who feels inadequate in her own right and needs the successes and accomplishments of her children to enhance her own sense of adequacy, or the father, who needs his sons (or daughters) to achieve in athletics in order to be able to say, “My kid’s the quarterback, the .300 hitter, or the pitcher on the Little League team”. In these instances, the child’s accomplishments and failures are a direct reflection of the parent’s worthwhileness. The quintessential example of this, although 180º opposite, is the parent with Munchausen syndrome, who deliberately contributes to his/her child being sick, in order to be viewed as the “loving, concerned parent” who is there, taking care of their child. This behavior isn’t love, it’s a sickness.
6. Safe love. In many instances, parents who have difficulty with intimacy and closeness look for a safe haven to express the loving emotions they harbor inside. Nowhere is there a safer place to direct their love than to young, emotionally dependent children, who won’t reject or contradict them. The love, in itself, may be genuine, but the motivation behind it is neurotic, self-centered and, eventually, is interpreted by the child for what it is, dependent and self-serving. If this shoe fits you, the greatest problem you face is owning up to and accepting it.
7. Substitute love. Oftentimes, in marital relationships between conflicted spouses, one or both parents develop a close, emotional relationship with one child in order to fill their own emotional needs. In these instances, the intention is to create jealousy in their spouse by giving gifts, attention, love and involvement to their offspring, rather than to their spouse. The spouse frequently becomes so jealous that they unconsciously treat that child with disdain, anger or even punitive behavior. Meanwhile, the child feels a sense of elation because, in the course of normal competition between girls and their mothers or boys and their fathers, they’ve won. But the cost of winning is far greater than the sense of achievement they derive. Unconsciously, the child feels a concomitant sense of guilt for getting attention from a spouse that is withheld from their other parent and, oftentimes, from their siblings. This cayuses them to emotionally detach from the other members of their families and contributes to conflictual feelings regarding the love they receive.
8. Martyred love. You’ve seen it in many different disguises. The parent who denies themself, but spares no expense for their child, or justifies staying in what they consider to be an intolerable situation or marriage, but lets it be known to their children and the world alike, that they’re staying because of their children. In the course of conversation, they often say, “My children are my life. I would gladly give up everything for them.” It sounds loving and caring but, in reality, it’s self-sacrificing martyrdom to its highest degree. It creates a sense of guilt and obligation in children who, later in life, resent the debt they feel they owe their parent because it’s one they can never fully repay. As adults, these children are reluctant to enter into committed, long-term relationships, because they dread the obligation they anticipate it will entail.
9. Dependent-creating love. This type of love, whether conscious on the part of the parent or not, is to use the child as a sacrificial lamb, whose sole purpose is to emotionally support and care for the parent in later life. In these instances, the parents create a sense of dependence and obligation in their child by conveying the message that the child cannot cope or live effectively without the help and support of their parent. As a result, later in life, these children rarely establish relationships of their own. Their world consists, primarily, of the interaction they share with their parent. Long term, they feel concomitantly dependent on and resentful toward their “dependent” parent. In old age, they assume their job as the permanent caretaker because of the emotional debt they feel, despite their covert anger over feeling trapped and burdened by their parent.
10. Absent or conditional love. Psychologists have long said, at least behind closed doors, that if you really want your child to love you, don’t love him. It’s a strange paradox. It’s not something that people necessarily do deliberately or consciously. Nevertheless, there are parents who bring children into the world, but have no strong desire to care for and nurture them. As a result, these children feel rejected, unloved and lacking in self worth. The reason: society, even as denoted by Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales, always portray mothers and fathers as good people who love, care for and protect their children. The only bad parents in children’s stories are step mothers.
As a result, children, when they feel rejected and unloved, don’t attribute the problem to their parents. They don’t say, “Something’s wrong with my mother or father, or they’re sick, disturbed people”. Quite the contrary. They say, “If mom or dad doesn’t love me, something must be wrong with me. Therefore, I have to rectify the situation. I have to become a better child, someone they’ll love.” But, no matter how “good” they try to be, it doesn’t change or cure their parents’ problems. The consequence is they’ll never come to feel themselves good enough or worthy enough to be loved.
These individuals, later in life, become the “good guys” and “good girls”, the ones who are hyper-sensitive to the needs of their spouses, who are constantly trying to earn love by being cooperative, compliant and dutiful. But, the axiom that rules is, “good people, bad marriages”.
Individuals who fit this pattern deny, and/or repress any feelings of anger or resentment toward their parent. Instead, they perceive their relationship as loving, caring and wonderfully rewarding. In instances where the anger isn’t denied, they may voice their feelings of resentment and rejection, but their behavior, paradoxically, is still directed toward attempting to be accepted and loved by their parents or spouse.
11. Reverse love. In this paradigm, the parent assumes the role of a dependent, needy individual. He/she draws in their child, early in life, as their special friend and benefactor and elevates him to adult status. The parent inappropriately discusses intimate problems and information with the child who doesn’t need to, and shouldn’t, know about the facts they are exposed to. As a result of this reversal of roles, the offspring feels the need to give up their life as a child. In their minds and oftentimes in their behavior, they become little adults, mature far beyond their years and inwardly even believing that they make decisions and care for their parent in ways that are far beyond their capabilities. This role creates a bond that contributes to the child’s impression that a loving relationship involves the subjugation of their own needs, desires and pleasures. As noted earlier, they later become parents to their spouses. But, covertly, they resent the role they assume and feel anger toward the individuals they love and whose love they desire.
12. Seductive love. This relationship consists of a union between a parent and their opposite-sex child. It rarely, if ever, includes sexual behavior, per se. It is a form of seduction that occurs in the head, but not in the bed. The parent, because of a dysfunctional relationship with his/her spouse, uses the child as a surrogate mate. As a result of this so-called positive relationship, the child feels extremely “special”. They are told that they’re so much better than their father or mother, so much more considerate, appreciative, attentive, conscientious and thoughtful. The accolades are, in themselves, rewarding, but they also create emotional responsibility and guilt that permeates their entire lives. Later in life, these parents become overly involved in their children’s marriages. They compete with their child’s spouses and attempt to demonstrate that the spouse isn’t as good a mother or cook, or can’t provide the monetary advantages and gifts that a father continues to supply.
For example, a mother invites her son and daughter-in-law over for dinner. Mother outdoes herself. She cooks every one of her son’s favorite dishes. Conversely, a father buys gifts, or maintains a credit card that the daughter can continue, in his words, “use for ‘mad money’.” The end result is tremendous competition between the parent and the new spouse, who feels jealous, put down and inadequate. Arguments between the newly married couple often include statements such as, “My father didn’t treat me this way, he wanted me to enjoy my life” or, “My mother always had a meal on the table, the house was clean and organized and I didn’t have to look for a clean shirt, they were there”, etc..
13. Overindulgent love. Overindulgence often results our of guilt. Divorced parents, or those who are frequently gone, often attempt to compensate with gifts, no discipline, few limits and a reluctance to emotionally upset their child. This overindulgence contributes to a sense of entitlement in the child and a feeling that “The world owes me whatever I desire without me having to put out any effort or energy.”
Overindulgence is also a form of love demonstrated by parents who were emotionally, financially or physically deprived in their youth. Later, as parents, they compensate for what they never had by attempting to give their children what they missed. But, anything in excess is pathological. The end result is that overindulgent behavior, whether stemming from guilt or compensation, is a socially acceptable form of child abuse.
I could go on at great length, regarding the insidiously destructive love paradigms that exist. But, if there were five basic rules I would have you consider before raising your children, they would be:
1. Don’t try to be perfect. Recognize that there are no perfect parents and you’re entitled to make mistakes. But, you need to learn from them. You shouldn’t sweep them under the rug.
2. Do not live through your children, for your children, or with your children, literally or figuratively. You need to have your own life, which you can then share with them
3. Don’t put your children on too high a pedestal, because they can never reach the heights that you believe and wish they could. Unfortunately, if you do, they’ll try and when they fail, it will severely damage their sense of ego worthwhileness. One, because they will perceive you as disappointed with who they are and; two, because they failed to live up to your expectations.
Conversely, never denigrate, label or depreciate your children, behaviorally or verbally, because, I promise you, they will never have difficulty living up to those expectations.
4. Your job is to raise children for them, not for you. Unfortunately, the reality that prevails is that parenting usually consists of children raising children and behaving in accordance with their own neurotic needs, frustrations and feelings of insufficiency. As a result, the biggest gift you can give your child is that you grow up first, before you attempt to grow them and that you get a life of your own, rather than make them your life.
5. As I noted earlier, raising children is not easy. In order to provide them with the love, sense of security, nurturing and positive perception of self that everyone needs, you must first grow up, yourself, because rearing children is not child’s play. The best example I can provide comes from a PTA program I gave nearly 20 years ago. The rule was good then and is still valid today. It was called Children are like kites. They’re made to be lifted. What that means is that raising children is, in many ways, similar to flying a kite. When you start out, you hold the kite by a short string and run with it, until a burst of air catches the kite and lifts it into the air. As it starts to climb, you let out more and more string, until an ill wind hits it. Then you rapidly pull the string taut, gain control and stabilize the kite. When the wind increases, you let out more string until, eventually, you let go of the string and the kite flies off on its own. That’s exactly the way you raise kids. When they’re little, you carry them in your arms. You run with them and play with them and love them. As they start to grow, you give them more and more room to explore, to discover and to gain knowledge of their world and themselves. You encourage them to venture out, until an ill wind hits them. If they’re about to fall or stumble, you lift them up, once again, by setting limits and boundaries until they’re stabilized. Then you begin to give them more string, until, eventually, you let go of the string altogether so that they can fly off on their own.
In essence, rearing kids is a job you take on to work yourself out of. There comes a time when you need to let go of the string you earlier used to control, guide and stabilize them with. At that time, you turn the reins over to your children, who have to learn to fly on their own. When you’re unable or unwilling to release that string, you must realize that you’re no longer loving them for them. Instead, you’re holding onto them for yourself.
There are far more examples of erroneous love that could be provided, and, certainly, a great deal more advice I could give you. However, at this time, I’d have you use the examples provided here as a starting point to aid you in developing a healthier, more productive and constructive way of interacting with the little people you brought into the world.
I should warn you that the examples provided are not carved in stone. Therefore, if you’re searching for where you fit, you won’t necessarily see yourself in any one category. You may behave in ways that are suggestive of several of the behavioral patterns. Also, recognize that they are not designed for you to punish yourself with, rather as an opportunity to improve your awareness of self, in order to contribute to healthier behavior in the future.