“I’ll Never Be Like That”
A striking thing I heard from clients in my practice who had children is the frequency with which they wanted desperately not to raise their children the way they were raised. They thought that if they just didn’t act like their parent(s), their kids would be fine. Not so simple!
There are three fundamental things you must remember if you want to give your child a better childhood than you had. They are:
- Be aware of and manage your own reactions to them that stem from your childhood.
- Understand how your child views your actions toward him/her—it’s personal!
- The quality of your interpersonal relationship with your child is more important than the way you manage his/her behavior.
Manage Your Own Reactions Stemming from Your Childhood
How your parents raised you, i.e. acted toward you when you were a kid, did affect you, often a negative effect. It is this effect you must be willing to examine and to manage. It is the effect that will limit how you parent your child. How your parents acted toward you is long gone….it is in you, now. The way in which inadequate parenting is in you is as a general feeling of being “not good enough” in some way, e.g. not smart enough, not responsible enough, not nice enough, not important enough, and on and on.
Early on in life, we develop subconscious patterns that we use to avoid threatening feelings such as not being good enough in some way. The early forms of these patterns morph into adult self-protective strategies. These well-entrenched strategies become the way we try to manage situations to avoid a feeling of insecurity. These self-protective strategies affect the way we interact with our children. And, we see these “strategies” as our “personality characteristics”—not as self-protection.
These protective strategies may limit our effectiveness as parents if we are not aware of them and manage them. However, when well-managed they can serve us well in our adult lives. It is important to be able to tell the difference between when these characteristics are protecting us from perceived threats from others—even our children—or are assets.
Below is a table that lists several characteristics that can function both as a self-protective strategy or as an asset, depending on your self-awareness. For example, the first item in the table is BEING CONTROLLING. We all want our children to behave well—to follow our lead. Now suppose you have a child who hates to wear her overcoat in the wintertime—like I did. You can just imagine your critical neighbors eyeing your kid outside not dressed warmly enough. In such a situation, you (and I) are at risk to come down too hard on your child, becoming demanding and controlling—likely ending in an argument with this rather independent child.
On the other hand, it is important—not so much what our neighbor thinks—but that our child learn the importance of being warmly dressed. I must assume AUTHORITY (see the third column in the BEING CONTROLLING row) in this situation. I try to negotiate a compromise with my daughter—a less heavy coat, e.g.—but require that she must dress warmly or stay indoors. Here is the table of other characteristics. Here is the table with other typical characteristics.
Let’s imagine a child in the following situation with his dad. One Sunday the child’s dad is enjoying reading the newspaper, preoccupied with what he wants to do. His son interrupts him, asking dad to play a game with him; he wants some attention. The dad is preoccupied and responds to the boy in a sharp tone, “Can’t you see I’m busy? Leave me alone.”
Children cannot be objective about themselves; they’re not self-aware enough to know that they are okay even if they are in trouble or aren’t getting what they need or want. This inability to think objectively about themselves is a characteristic of how children think. The boy in this example experiences his father’s lack of acknowledgment of his wish as a rejection. It is as if the child is saying to himself, “If there weren’t something wrong with me or what I want, my dad would have paid attention to me.”
The father in this situation, who is usually an attentive dad, failed to understand the impact of his unkind action toward his child. (I would not call this abuse, unless it is a consistent pattern causing harm to his child.) A self-reflective father quickly recognizes his harsh reaction to his son, apologizes, and explains his (the father’s) wish to have time to himself. The father plans a time to play with his child. Fathers do get time to themselves.
Being aware of the impact you have on your child—how you child sees you–will help you provide a better childhood for you him/her than you had.
A Note About “Toxic” Parenting…
Not all inadequate parenting should be called “toxic.” Most of us try to be “good enough parents” even though we bring with us our own injuries from childhood. And, there are family situations such as single parenting or having a child with a disability, which causes significant stresses on a parent or parents. I don’t see such parents as “toxic.” On the other hand, parents who physically and/or sexually abuse their children certainly are “toxic” to say the least. I do not consider them “parents” except in name only.
The Relationship with Your Child is What is Unique
Many of us get caught up in how well our children behave. Do they have good manners? Can they sit still in school? Do they clean up their rooms? Are they polite to their elders? Do they mind me? Do they do their homework? Do they ask for too much “stuff?” They don’t want to wear their overcoats in winter! And on, and on, and on.
We are responsible as adults to teach our children how to behave well—our society holds us responsible for this. It is important. To make a point—anyone can teach our children how to behave (grandparents, other parents, teachers, police persons, etc.)—often better than we can.
What is unique is our interpersonal relationship with our child. Others have important relationships with our child–again, teachers and grandparents, for example. But our interpersonal relationship—how we interact with our child every moment of every day—is unique. No one can replace the personal connection we have with our children. Remember, he/she takes everything personally!
- Make the effort to examine the impact your parents had on you, rather than focus on their limitations. Pay attention to being “controlling,” “perfectionistic,” etc.
- Pay attention to how your child experiences your actions toward him/her—it’s always personal.
- Always remember the quality of your interpersonal relationship with your child is what is unique between the two of you.