I was relaxing the other morning, following a string of websites that sprang one from another, when I ended up on a site that offered parenting advice. Further, it had a section for parents and parents to be to ask questions to see how other parents had handled a problem or face a certain situation. Two stood out, one, a dad, asking how to raise a 10 year old “girl child?”. First, what is a “girl child?” I thought they are daughters. Second, I am reminded of a time when I went deep-sea fishing in my twenties and caught a small shark. I only kept it because an acquaintance on the boat said they were good eating. Back at the dock, I asked the old gentleman cleaning my catch how one cooks shark. The fellow looked me in the eyes and said “Likes you do all fish, you fry ’em!” That answer was very humorous, but the one I would give the 10 year old’s dad is more serious, while just as generic for all children, “You love ‘em… deeply, unconditionally, and often!” One of my favorite child therapists, Virginia Satir, has a wonderful quote that I practice daily, and not just with children. “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” Being the father of an only child daughter, I wish I had known this as she was growing up, however I can make up for lost time now.
The other letter was from a woman asking how to address a child that bullies her parents. Unfortunately, I find this all the time and, the root cause seems to be so prevalent in this day and age. Looking back when I was growing up, there might have been severe self-esteem problems in adults, but I never saw it. Every adult, no matter how misguided I later found them to be, presented themselves as an authority on whatever matter was being discussed. Now, I am certainly not advocating to go back to the all or nothing days of the “greatest generation,” but a happy medium between their approach and what I see today would really help parents. Nowadays, parents seem to want to be their children’s best friends…. you are not, at least not how it seems to be playing out. You are there to love and teach, in that order. If you are truly your child’s best friend, you will be the mentor they need to thrive, both as a child and then later in life. This involves a delicate balancing act throughout the child’s development, not just when they are very young, and that balancing act is constantly changing. All children, as they learn to differentiate from their parents say hurtful things. In the terrible twos, it is pretty much limited to “I hate you!” since their cognition is so limited and, until 7 to 10, they think only in black and white terms. The next and longer period of differentiation is the teen years when they can now think and really gore you where it hurts. I always remind parents that children are simply little humans. As adults, we do not like doing something we do not want to do and neither do they. While they usually end up obeying, as another psychologist friend of mine likes to say, the least they can do before obeying is to piss you off! Your job is to recognize this, not get pissed off, stay in the loving, and be firm. This is how you truly are their best friend, not being popular with them, but being a wonderful guide. This not only prepares them for life after they leave the nest, but also teaches them how to raise your grandchildren.
There are several effective parenting styles that have been codified into programs, the one I am most familiar with and teach is “Parenting with Love and Logic,” but they all stress love, consistency, and firmness. Righting several years of allowing poor behavior by anyone, including a child, is not easily done, but eminently possible. We are the adults and we need to act like adults, not to go down to a child’s level and be popular or fight with them. As is the case so often, a little hard work initially makes for smooth sailing later. My same psychologist friend likes to say about relationships of all kinds, “Don’t think that you can grow into a better human being and your family and friends will take it laying down!”