The Truth about Children

Grown-up parents are clear-eyed about having children. They know it is not a mutually respectful relationship, nor are the conditions fair. The parenting contract is more along the lines of I-give-to-you-without-ceasing, and you-give-when-you-feel-like-it. We can have expectations and socialize children, but it takes a long time for them to develop real concern for other people. Ultimately, if children get enough real empathy and respect for who they are, they tend to give back the same. By the time they are twenty-five, I mean.

The truth about children is that they are here to meet their needs, not ours. Kids balk at a deal in which you get everything you want, and they don’t. Many times parents think that out of love and respect, children should be willing to act directly against their self-interest, give up what they want the most, and do what the parent asks. When the child reacts like any self-respecting person would, by refusing or sneaking around the rules, parents often feel betrayed. By being so disobedient, it seems their child does not really love them. But this is not about love; it is about the power differential that causes anybody in a subordinate position to nod affirmatively to a boss figure, while plotting a way around it. Children are just as full of human nature as we are.

You never know what you are going to get in the kid lottery, but it is for sure that children are going to test every bit of your resolve to be a good person. Those little guys push every button and are so staggeringly egocentric it can take your breath away. The developmental high points for selfish behavior are especially vivid in the six-year-old, the thirteen-year-old, and the college freshman. You would think their agenda is to expect full support while simultaneously demanding we pretend we don’t exist. That can be hard to take for a parent. But it is especially hard on parents who have not had their emotional needs met in childhood.

Parents who have been emotionally neglected can equate their children’s attitude with that of their disinterested parent. People who have been over-controlled or even abused might see their children’s normal limit-testing as disrespect or even malevolent intention. Instead of understanding that a kid will naturally try to get what he or she wants, it is seen as a rebellion to overthrow the parent’s government.

No healthy child wants to overthrow his or her parent. Where would he be then? But if the child is a normal human being with normal human self-interest, he is never going to take a hit to his pleasure without protest. The parent who has not been too mishandled in her own childhood can see the child’s reaction as such, instead of a challenge to authority.

Parents always have the strategic advantage over a kid. Children just are not complicated. They are lousy at long-range strategy. They react very predictably. They have simple buttons you can push and pretty much get what you want. But you have to be smart about it and use what works. Good parenting books tell you all the juicy, manipulative ways you can work with a child’s simplicity and ultimately get their cooperation. I say ultimately, because nothing is instant in child-rearing. It is all about repetition, repetition, repetition.

When a parent tries to get instant capitulation from a child, whether through coercion or guilting (another form of coercion), they will get blowback instead. Sometimes the child will not fight back overtly, but will slide into passive-aggressive disengagement where the parent has no power at all. If parents expect a child to have the sensitivity and frustration tolerance of an adult, they will create rage or withdrawal instead of compliance.

Children want the same positive relationship with their parents that is found in a good marriage. If they get that, they ultimately (there’s that word again) turn into nice people who can see our point occasionally. Children just need a few things. They need their parents to be prepared to wait forever to see some sign of good judgment and responsibility in them. They need their parents to have the unconditional love of a bodhisattva and zero needs for affirmation or validation from their child. They need their parents to wait forever for them to grow up and show some initiative. And finally, they need their parents to expect so many mistakes and selfish behavior it would make you swoon.

Somehow, out of that witches’ brew of parental frustration and incessant disappointments, kids develop real self-esteem, and they even start showing concern for other people. I don’t know who designed it so that they have to start out so maddeningly egocentric and oblivious, but there it is.

Maybe kids arrive to stir up our old childhood issues for one last look-see. When our child is ignoring our wishes or challenging our authority, maybe it is our chance to heal what we went through with a disengaged parent or an over-controlling one. If our problem with our child has to do with feeling disrespected, maybe it is a big pointy arrow showing how much we may have suffered as children from not being treated with consideration. Instead of demonizing the little devils, we can wonder if we are subconsciously expecting our kids to be the caring, attentive supporters we wish we had had a long time ago.

The truth about children is that they bring our own childhood back. When they push our buttons, they are always hitting replay. Our child’s necessary egocentrism will trigger the places where we felt devalued by our parent’s self-absorption. Then we have a chance to finally mourn it and make it a part of our history, not an ongoing part of our present. Maybe those buttons they are pushing have been the right ones all along. 

 Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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