One of those gloriously crisp afternoons last week, after a pre-school had just let out, I witnessed a harried mother with a toddler on her hip, and a pre-schooler crying, protesting and tugging at her to go the other way. The mom’s words were “what do you need at CVS?! What do you need ?!” It was as though all he had to do was just supply some answer (e.g. “What I need, Mom, is a candy bar!!”) and then, of course, they would take the CVS detour.
We start so early surrendering our authority to our children. Then we wonder why we feel so helplessly bullied by our kids’ clamoring demands.
As noted in Elizabeth Kolbert’s 7/2/12 New Yorker book review entitled “Spoiled Rotten,” a new wave of parenting books is rolling into bookstores targeting parents who hobble their kids with their hovering, producing a generation of functionally handicapped narcissists. The titles, like the articles, are judgmental, even contemptuous. (“The Narcissism Epidemic,” “Mean Moms Rule,” “A Nation of Wimps”).
But how can we bear to look at our own parenting missteps if we feel shamed by the experts even before we’ve begun to examine them? In my experience, none of us set out to produce selfish, presumptuous, disrespectful offspring. We may reflexively parent our kids the way we were parented (mistakes and all), or try ardently NOT to repeat our parents’ mistakes (and commit new ones instead). Or we may merely surrender to the sweeping tide of today’s parenting culture in all its acquisitive, techno-centric, hyper-scheduled frenzy.
Whatever the case, our parenting motives are loving. We just forget to consult and honor our own best parenting instincts. And we lack the courage to defy social pressures that corrupt rather than nourish our children. (Yesterday I overheard a mom asking where she might find a formal soccer program for children 3 years old and under.)
Habits, good and bad, are borne of a thousand tiny rewards dispensed by parents and reinforced by the surrounding society. Consider the one custom I was most impressed by during my stay with the Tanzanian tribe this past summer, called “eng’asakinoto.” As soon as they can walk, Maasai children are taught to approach, with bowed head, every adult tribal member they encounter in their daily comings and goings. Adults then extend the palm of their hand and gently rest it on the crown of the children’s heads in a gesture of affirmation and blessing. There’s a hushed reverence to this Maasai custom, like the Dalai Lama tenderly bestowing a sacred blessing upon a humble youth. Children greet every adult Maasai with that same solemn respect regardless of the relationship; parents, elders, warriors, grandparents, visitors from other villages. Even when young boys and girls are miles from their villages, herding goats or gathering firewood, they trot over and present themselves deferentially, heads bowed, to warriors trekking along the ridgeline. Then they scamper back to their tasks.
The more I witnessed the respectful humility with which Maasai children greet their elders, the more I appreciated the training and disciplining power of this particular custom. How? Teaching “manners” entails repeatedly insisting that children perform certain respectful social behaviors you hope will become second nature. Children abide by the parent’s directive out of mere compliance at first. I can’t help but think that after dozens of repetitions a day, hundreds of repetitions a month, the Maasai children’s ritual of solemn deference toward their elders instills in them not only a “muscle memory” reflex, but also a psychological and emotional readiness or “habit” to behold their elders as respected authorities (including, even, their parents! Feature that!). Even before the Maasai children can speak, they “know” to humbly honor adults. They “know” deferential humility before they’ve had a chance to develop its enemy, entitled egocentrism. As a fortuitous byproduct, parents can avert their children’s misbehavior with mere glances or gestures. No wonder I saw no evidence of embattled exasperation on Maasai parents’ faces! Back in the U.S. I often see more parental exasperation than contented pleasure.
Consider what Maasai children learn about how they should expect to be deferred to by their own children when they become parents. Contrast that with the CVS-tugging pre-schooler’s presumptions about how he should expect to be yanked around by his future child, as modeled by his current mother. In our frantically over-pressured pace, we forget to contemplate the lessons we are instilling in our children when we let them bully us. We forget to be intentional. We often tell ourselves and our children we’ll give in “just this once” to get through a difficult moment. But those “just this once” exceptions segue into habit-forming norms, which calcify into character traits over time. And our teeth-gritting capitulation to our children’s feet-stomping demands is not without a hefty toll on our relationships. Whether we dare to acknowledge it or not, when we give in to our children’s clamoring to “keep the peace,” we feel resentful, of our kids and of our own lack of resolve. That resentment quietly contaminates our family relationships. Then out of guilt for that resentment we regret harboring for our children, we give in more to our their petulant demands, and so the pattern grows.
How do we make a parental course-correction to engender values of respectful deference in our children? How do we release ourselves from our worries about our children’s character formation and our resentment of being shabbily treated by our children. How especially do we shift course in our parenting approach when the surrounding culture reinforces the very ego-centrism and immediate gratification we seek to avert?
-We can grow small subcultures of like-minded families among friends, neighbors, schools, community or religious groups, which will support us in parenting intentionally, calmly, respectfully, rather than reactively.
-We can arrange bi-monthly support groups or book groups of parents sharing challenges and counteracting strategies for swimming against today’s tide of entitled materialistic self-centeredness.
-We can institute “do-overs” within our own families, wherein we
1) reflect with our spouses or parenting partners on ways we’ve been complicit in empowering our children to their own (and our!) detriment;
2) delineate three new expectations and consequences on acceptable behaviors we’d like to introduce into the family routines (e.g. “when Mom and Dad ask you to do something, you do it; If we have to ask a second time, you forfeit ____” (e.g. ½ hour TV));
3) offset new strictures with the parental promise to enjoy weekly one-on-one times with each child with the sole purpose of enjoying companionable, stress-free playful time together (see parent-child-problems-doctor.com 12/13/11 post “The Perfect Family Gift” http://parent-child-problems-doctor.com/the-perfect-fa…g-and-its-free ) and
4) have a family pow-wow to discuss your resolve to have a “do-over” to improve family relations (e.g.”I’m sick of hearing myself nag you endlessly; I bet you are too. Here’s the new way we’re going to go about things:...” or “upon reflection, I ‘ve realized I’m not doing you a service as the good parent I want to be, by letting you spend so much time watching TV/on your computer. I know you won’t like this change, but it comes out of our attempts to be the best parents we can be. We’ve decided to limit the screen time permitted on a weekly basis. We’ll happily help you think about other better ways to enjoy free time when you’re bored. “)
Rather than condemning ourselves as bad parents raising spoiled kids, let’s acknowledge that our kids got the way they are out of the simple force of adaptation. They’ve become what we’ve told them they are; they’re as responsive to our directives as we’ve trained them to be; they’re as helpful with the family chores as we’ve insisted they be; they’re as respectful to adults as we’ve instructed them to be.
Yes, it’s tough for us to attempt a course correction. But if it springs from our earnest attempts to do our level best as parents, to coax the best out of our children even if it entails hardship, how can we NOT? Won’t it feel worse NOT to make this effort?
Formative years last all our lives. Sure earlier is easier, older patterns are more calcified, less pliable. But as long as we’re alive we can grow and change, parents and children alike. How? Earnest open-hearted discussions. Clear, consistent, reinforced expectations. And the rewarding gift of real undivided time with the most important people in their whole lives, us parents.