(Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy - Robert A. Heinlein, prize winning author)
Let me start this letter with a few real life examples and Reverend Harold Wilke's upbringing is most relevant here. The good reverend is a minister who was born without arms and he is an advocate for the disabled. He recounted how his mother taught him to be independent through solving his own problems unaided. And she did it the hard way.
"I was two or three years old, sitting on the floor of my bedroom trying to get my shirt over my head and around my shoulders, and having an extraordinarily difficult time. I was grunting and sweating, and my mother just stood there and watched. Obviously, I now realize that her arm must have been rigidly at her side; every instinct in her had wanted to reach out and do it for me.
Finally, a friend turned to her and said in exasperation, "Ida, why don't you help that child?" My mother responded through gritted teeth, "I am helping him."
Contrast the above with these two examples adapted from the book, Raising Unselfish Children in a Self-Absorbed World, by Jill Rigby.
The first incident happened in an airport where a mother and her teenage son were waiting by the luggage carousel for their luggage. As a crowd huddled to get their luggage, the mother reached out to grab her large black duffle bag. At this time, her son was standing behind her. He was plugged into his iPod and did not lift a finger to help her.
As the mother retrieved her second bag, feeling a little strained from it's weight, her son remained completely oblivious. With her hands full and struggling for her third bag, a passerby pushed past the young man to assist his mother with the bags. He then threw a look of incredulity at the teenager. Instead of feeling ashamed, the young man glared back defiantly.
The man then turned to his mother and said firmly, "Ma'am, you better do something about your boy or one day somebody else will."
The next example is even more disturbing as told in the author's own words. "A Massachusetts couple and their three year old daughter were returning from a Florida vacation on an Air Tran Flight when their daughter refused to take her seat for takeoff.
When the flight attendants insisted the girl had to be buckled up, she threw a "you're not the boss of me" tantrum. The parents asked for more time to talk with their daughter. (Remember, she was three!) The kicking and screaming continued. Fifteen minutes later the attendants asked the family to leave the plane because the child refused to be buckled up."
Well, that's the end of the examples and here comes the commentary.
Have no delusions, parenting is tough. There is no doubt that we love our children dearly and love per se is not the problem here. It is the expression of it that is. Many of us as parents want the best for our children. But somehow along the way we lose sight of what is important and we quite unwittingly turn our kids into our little pet science project; to be molded and shaped by our own idea of how we want them to be when they grow up.
This mentality pushes us to become obsessed with perfection in our kids. And, at the same time, it pushes us to crave for their affection so that we become readily compliant to all of their whims and fancy. It is like trying to be "Miss/Mr Congeniality" to our children. Parenting of this sort is extremely confusing and we often end up a nervous wreck; loss and unfulfilled.
One comedian once said, "No matter how calmly you try to referee, parenting will eventually produce bizarre behavior, and I'm not talking about the kids." This is very subtle. Parenting changes us and sometimes more than we can even keep up. The quest for the perfect child makes all of us victims of our own making. We become obsessively competitive, helplessly protective, and hopelessly self-centered; a disastrous alter-ego that we would most readily disavow before the arrival of those little attention-grabbing, life-sucking monsters.
In the book, Under Pressure, by Carl Honore, the author hits the nail on the head with this observation: "The urge to upgrade our children has taken on a Frankenstein edge. Inspired by research showing that taller people tend to be more successful, some parents now pay to inject growth hormone into their healthy, normal kids, with every inch of height costing about $25,000
...A doctor in Sao Paulo, Brazil, tells how a 16-year-old girl recently broke down on his operating table just before the anesthetic was administered. "She was sobbing and asking why her parents couldn't accept her face the way it was, so we sent her straight home," he says. "Her mother was furious."
I am concerned that children of affluent families may just be more depressed than those who come from lower income families. In most cases, this is not the result of the lack of love for them, it is unfortunately the result of misplaced priorities.
One mother wisely said, "When you're raising children in an instant gratification society, the most valuable lesson you can teach them is restraint and respect for others, and the only way to do that is for the children to be children and the grown-ups to be grown-ups." And this misplaced priority is to refuse to allow our children to enjoy their childhood because we as parents want to live our "adulthood" through them.
In other words, we act like children when we are supposed to be the adults and we expect them to be adults when they are only children. Make sense?
A particular strain of this inverse order of parenting is that we tend towards overindulging our children. When we overindulge, we blur the distinction between their needs and their wants. In fact, we blindly and conveniently treat every "want" they have as a need - to be immediately satisfied. At its worst, we try to be our children's genie in the lamp or a butler at their beck and call.
Dr Connie Dawson, author of the book "How much is enough?", defines overindulgent parents as this: "When parents give children too much stuff that costs money, do things for children that they can do for themselves, do not expect children to do their chores, do not have good rules and let children run the family, parents are overindulging."
This strain of overindulgence is further compounded by the reality of smaller families due to the declining birth rate and the holding off of marriages until couples are financially secure. This is where parents start to micromanage their child's life. For some families with only one child, the overindulgence can reach stratospheric levels.
Parents literally plan their collective lives around their "can-never-be-wrong-and-do-wrong" offspring. While they elevate their child to demigod status, they relegate themselves to be their humble coolies. As a result, the child becomes the center of their universe and an extension of their ego while their own marriage and individual identity get sucked into a cosmic black-hole of sheer neglect.
This reminds me of the inflight emergency procedure where we are directed to always, without fail, put on our own oxygen mask first before we assist our children with theirs. The logic is simply to look after ourselves before we can help others. I guess parenting borrows from this simple enough logic.
But parents who neglect their own well being and their marriage often find themselves shortchanged and emotionally sapped as they give and give without receiving back. Their over-involvement and over-investment in the child leave them little or no time for each other and for themselves. This strains the marriage and causes the parents to be running on empty.
Sometimes, I think that parents are overcompensating for the breakdown in their adult relationship. Living in denial, or just refusing to confront their partner, the parents loose themselves in their children, overprotecting and over-scheduling them with one activity after another, and living their hopes and dreams through their children's lives. They turn their children into showcase trophies which are expected to shine at all times for the world at large to see. As the trophy shines, part of the glory is deflected back into their own life; which always plays second fiddle to their children's.
One author wrote: "We are raising a whole generation of kids to please us, to make us happy and proud, to be what we want them to be." Sadly, by hedging our own happiness on our children, we forfeit our own and we also hijack their childhood.
But overindulgent parents also affect their children adversely in other ways.
First, their children generally turn out expecting the world to bend over backwards for them. They basically expect all others to kowtow to their wishes. Unless one is born to royalty or into an oil-rich Saudi family, this is of course unrealistic. It is said that it is a great obstacle to happiness to expect too much. These children will be sorely disappointed when they grow up to realize that their greatest fan are their parents while they get egg-on-the-face treatment by the rest of society.
Second, overindulgent parenting sends out a bad message for the growing kids. As they are always permissive parents, giving in to their children to please them and to maintain harmony within the family, their children usually interpret it as a lack of care/interest for them. As such, they begin to take liberties with their parents and exploit the parents' soft-heartedness for their own gain.
To test this theory, a study was conducted to show how permissive parenting affect the children. The study concluded that when parents are most permissive, their children tend to lie to them more often. Here, a saying by the actress, Bettie Davis, is most apt, "If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent."
Lastly, one author describes children of overindulgent parents as "putting them on a pedestal." Here again studies have shown that such children are so bubbled up in their own world that it makes it harder for them to take risks, to experiment, and to stick with difficult task. They are also less likely to make mistakes and to learn from them.
As failure is seen as a taboo by these overindulgent parents, their children would rather remain in their comfort zone than to go out on a limb to try and learn new things. This unfortunately stifles their maturity process.
A parenting expert commented, "Children thrive when they have the time and space to breathe, to hang out and get bored sometimes, to relax, to take risks and make mistakes, to dream and have fun on their own terms, even to fail. If we are going to restore joy not only to childhood but to parenthood too, then the time has come for adults to back off a little, to allow children to be themselves."
The above shows that overindulgent parents should learn to let go as their children grow. Just like a flower in a pot, our constant hovering over it only chokes it from getting the sunlight it needs for growth.
But, at this juncture, let's be honest. Who as a parent is not guilty of some form of overindulgence? Aren't we all also guilty of over-controlling, striving to compete with other parents, overprotecting and even over-scheduling our children in one way or another?
In today's relatively affluent society, I understand that there is a race to "clone" our children in schools, tuition centers, extra-curriculum courses and enrichment classes to be that dream child every parent can be proud of. We want to mold them to become the right child with the right attitude in the right school to secure the right education and to pass out into society with the right job and the right mate. Then the whole cloning process is recycled for our children's children.
I guess as parents we will always want the best for our children and our love for them cannot be faulted. In fact, in all parenting, and I say this with absolute confidence, love is and must be the starting point and the whole journey.
In the book, The price of privilege, the author, Madeline Levine, wrote, "We can learn all kinds of techniques for disciplining, but they are bound to fail unless, at heart, we have a loving relationship with our child."
If I'm given a Hobson's-like choice between discipline without love and love without discipline, I jump at the latter in a heart beat. I see a greater and an irredeemable evil in discipline without love. It is basically indistinguishable from physical and mental abuse. I dread to think how these children will turn out. This letter is not about this form of parenting anyway.
My concern here is with parenting that is blindsided by love and not its absence. I sincerely believe there is an effective form of parenting that is motivated by love and not abusing it. This is where love guides the parents to seek a balance between over-controlling and overindulgence, between perfectionism and spoiling the child. Such parenting avoids the extreme of either.
In the book Boundaries, the authors Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend give a glimpse of how this balance could be achieved: "Successful parenting means that our kids want to get out of bed and go to school, be responsible, be empathic, and be caring because that's important to them, not because it's important to us. It's only when love and limits are a genuine part of the child's character that true maturity can occur."
The authors emphasize the importance of limits or boundaries for effective parenting. And discipline is the tool parents ought to use to set boundaries for their children. Parents should set the rules of conduct in their home and enforce compliance of these rules with proportionate punishments and appropriate parent-and-child engagement. The authors remind parents that "discipline is an external boundary designed to develop internal boundaries in our children."
When a child steps out of line or breaks one of these rules, the parent should do two things: punishment and engagement. Of course punishment must fit the infraction or else the child may live in fear or rebellion, or just withdraw from social interaction altogether. A man once recounted this about indiscriminate punishment: "I got whippings for little things and for big things. So I started getting more involved in big things. It just seemed more efficient."
As such, our punishment must be tempered with fairness and moderation. It should be done when we are most calm and cool-headed. This is easier said than done because given an inch, our children will test us with a mile. So, I expect parents to fall short sometimes, especially myself.
But the point is not our shortcomings. It is our sincere attempt to make it work. It is a process of trial-and-error and because our discipline is motivated by love and for their well being, I trust that our consistency in disciplining our children will bear fruits in the long run.
Secondly, we must always bear in mind to engage them as they grow older and mature. At certain age, based on our discretionary observation, we will have to switch from corporeal punishment to meaningful engagement. This requires us to reason with them and also allows them to reason back with us.
Parents must understand that it is a two-way street. There are some conflicts between parents and children that are beneficial for their maturity and parents should not avoid them. One of these conflicts is meaningful engagement. When we give them the airtime to ventilate their grievances and frustration, and to allow them to bargain with us on curfews, purchases and night outs, we are developing in them a sense of responsibility and making them learn to take ownership of their choices together with the consequences that come with it.
Needless to say, when we engage them and allow reason and empathy to prevail, and not dominate like a dictator over all issues, the bond with our kids will grow and they will feel safe and secure with us. This allows them to see us as a friend rather than just another authority figure.
Further, when our relationship is deepened by positive and constructive conflicts, our children's trust and confidence will develop in lockstep.
Lastly, in the book Boundaries, the authors also wrote about the concept of "safe suffering". This means to allow a child to experience age-appropriate consequences. What is age-appropriate will depend on each child's maturity. Some will be able to take up more responsibility than others of the same age. As parents, we have a part to play and not allow our children to make decisions that they do not have the maturity to make. One example is to permit a 10-year-old to go out on an overnight road trip with friends.
When we give our child space and freedom to grow (instead of smothering them with toxic love), it is unavoidable that they will have to learn from the consequences of their choices. This is where safe suffering comes in when our children have to live with and learn from these negative consequences. As we allow our children to take responsibility for their own need, we must be ready to be there for them as a friend and mentor when they fail. But our role is largely that of a facilitator or teacher and not a shock-absorber to shield them from the lessons of life.
I recall a saying about teachers, for whom parents are in the same category, which says, "A teacher is someone who makes himself or herself progressively unnecessary." I believe this is the true test of maturity where our children are able to make their own decisions, take up responsibility, learn from its consequences, and move forward in life with greater resiliency. And when that time comes, we will find our role as parents to be less about interventing and more about guiding and consultative.
Here, Dr Levine's advice also strikes a resonant chord, "But appropriately involved parents know the importance of stepping back as soon as it is practical, and of respecting their children's striving for independence. It is the capacity to know when your involvement is moving your child forward and when it is holding her back that distinguishes the appropriately involved parent from the over-involved or intrusive parent."
On this, we can take a page off from Madonna. Yes, the patron saint of so-called "bad behavior" has a thing or two to teach us about parenting. As a mother, Madonna, enforces strict rules on chores, homework and keeping bedroom tidy in the house. No doubt she allows her children some freedom within age-appropriate boundaries but regarding bedroom tidiness, she has this to say, "my daughter has a problem picking things up in her room. So, if you leave your clothes on the floor, they're gone when you come home."
When her daughter returns, she would have to reason and bargain with her mother for the return of the confiscated clothes. I believe this exchange between mother and daughter, if done with mutual respect and love, promotes a sense of responsibility, understanding and trust.
On a personal note, I have found it useful to internalize these rules I've read about being a human and I see it as my mission to instill the same in my children in this challenging journey:-
• You will learn lessons.
• There are no mistakes - only lessons.
• A lesson is repeated until it is learned.
• If you don't learn easy lessons, they get harder (pain is one way life gets your attention).
• You'll know you've learned a lesson when your action change.
To complement the above lessons, this quote is most instructive: "The world is not divided into those who succeed and those who failed; or winners and losers. It is divided into learners and non-learners."
I have come to the end of my letter about parenting. On this subject, I am at quite a loss to bring it to a close. I mean I can easily put my pen down and leave it at that but as a parent myself I feel that there are many experiences along the way that will be difficult to put on paper. I believe there is a discernible gap between theory and practice.
Try as hard as you might, you cannot sculpt you child's destiny the same way you can shape a clay vase or paint a portrait. A child is unique and the life he will lead is unique too. Many factors will come to play to influence, mold, shape, direct, nudge and transform him. And yours is just one amongst many; although no less important of course.
On my part, I strive to spend one-to-one quality time with my 10-year-old son. I do this by bringing him on recreational jog twice a week. We jog in the park, around a reservoir and along the road. After the run, I would take that intimate thirty minutes walking back to deepen our relationship. We talk openly. I would ask him about his day. And I would share with him my experiences.
This mutual sharing is how I keep my bond with him fresh and interesting. Although I do not expect him to fully understand what I share with him, I believe the time we spend together will remind him of my love for him and he can draw strength from it.
You see, I am a firm believer in "defining moments" or "points of inflection". As we grow up, the journey is full of distractions and interruptions. Everything whether negative or positive clamor for our attention and we hardly pay any heed to them.
So, we must create a conscious bubble where our focus for that brief moment is concentrated with purposeful intention; more like creating a mental hermitage. That's the defining moment for me and I strive to create those creative bubbles for my children by consecrating time with them one-to-one.
Then, as best as possible, I plant a seed in their heart and pray for its growth. While I don't expect every seed to blossom into practical understanding, those that do will agitate (or cogitate) a point of inflection, or a moment of deep learning which will positively influence their thoughts and behavior in the long run. And the rest is really up to them as they face the challenges of life.
A professor of psychiatry, Melvin Konner, once wrote, "Children are born as individuals. If we fail to see that, if we see them as clay to be molded in any shape we like, the tougher ones will fight back and end up spiteful and wild, while the less strong will lose that uniqueness they were born with."
So, parenting is a full time job with no retirement in sight and no guarantee of a smooth ride. However much you love them unconditionally and unsparingly, your children will one day grow up and branch out on their own. And the road they take will sometimes challenge them beyond all that you can and have carefully prepared for them. For isn't it true that we are never prepared for what we expect?
The only thing you can be sure of when that time comes is that you have done your best to teach them to internalize sound principles so that they may be able to face whatever life throws at them with resiliency, hope and courage. And most importantly, in this journey that you take with your child, he will have this quiet assurance that you will always be there for him when he needs you. To know that he knows that is half the battle won already.
Here is a poem by Khalid Gibran to bring us home: "Your children are not your children. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts."
Blessed parenting. Cheerz out!
(Ps: I dedicate this letter to all parents, especially, my in-laws. Dad and Mom, your love for each other is the love we desire to refresh ours daily. Although it is not perfect (wouldn't that be scary?), it is the closest thing to perfection this side of heaven. Sharing your love is like catching but a glimpse of why Christ forsook all to take that painful road to Calvary. This is my little appreciation for your dedication).