During my years in the practice of psychiatry, I frequently heard parents of children who were in trouble lament: “Where did I go wrong? I did my best to be a good parent.” Some might even point out they had read Dr. Spock cover to cover more than once and Dr. Brazelton’s Touchpoints books. I always tried to reassure them that they were not the only people influential in their kid’s lives and that we parents are probably not as powerful as we think we are. Most people would agree that children are quite capable of screwing up their lives without help; however, I think there are some ways in which parents can contribute to the process.
1) Protect and serve
I recently had a conversation with a retired school teacher who mentioned her difficulty dealing with the so-called helicopter parents who fly in at the first sign that anyone dare suggest their little cherub could do something wrong, or be imperfect in any way. A note to the parent suggesting something less than perfection in behavior or scholastic achievement is likely to result in a visit from the enraged parent to defend her poor little helpless child. The parent’s explanation is to blame someone else, usually the teacher, for the problem.
My teacher friend seemed have less than a high regard for helicopter parents (but to be precise, “helicopter mothers”). However, my teacher friend apparently had not considered that this behavior could be of immense value to the child in learning to cope with the exigencies of life. She did not take into account that the assumption of responsibility is not a highly valued quality in modern society, and that for little Johnny to learn to blame others for his problems could smooth the way for him to grow up to be very successful should he choose the right vocation. A career in politics comes to mind.
Additonally, the helicopter parent may also benefit from the practice of always defending little Johnny for these skills might be valuable later in juvenile court.
2) Don’t snoop
Most kids seem to feel they have a constitutional right to privacy. In my personal experience, nothing a parent can do is apt to generate more ire in kids than the violation of this precept, and to snoop places a parent at great risk. Besides, the discovery of a stash of condoms, or weed could lead to a lot of trouble. From the little I know about the electronic stuff, it seems virtually impossible to snoop. Therefore, a parent might as well hope for the best about what is going on in their child’s life. Your child is apt to guard the password to his/her computer with their life, and you certainly would not want to suggest he/she is untrustworthy.
It is mandatory that your child has a TV and/or computer in his room where he can escape from the family and watch skin flicks without interruption. It is important to remember like what the airplane has done for transportation, TV porn has done for sex education with the added advantage that there is no need to have that embarrassing conversation about the birds and the bees. In short you can avoid a lot of controversy by treating the door to Johnny’s room as if it were the entrance to a bank vault.
3) Don’t listen
Some so-called experts advise that children should be allowed to express themselves. I grew up hearing that “children should be seen not heard” which seemed to work out alright for me, as I grew to be as opinionated as the next guy. I suggest that kids are already mouthy enough, so it makes sense to tell them to shut up and do as they are told.
4) Encourage in-home activities
Much has been made about the detrimental effects to children of video games and cell phones. In my opinion these instruments have become the greatest boon to motherhood since Similac. No longer does Mom need to worry about little Johnny or Mary being accosted by some predator. She no longer needs to deal with muddy and grass stained clothes nor scrapes, bruises, or even an occasional broken bone. She always knows where to find them for they are either in front of the TV or on their cell phone.
Some people insist that these gadgets lead to a sedentary lifestyle resulting in problems such as obesity, poor muscle tone and a variety of medical problems such as type 2 diabetes and delayed reasoning skills, but they must not have noticed the dexterity of kids’ thumbs in action when they are texting. One can safely assume that as our digital age progresses, such a skill could be more valuable to your child than a burgeoning muscle mass.
5) Overindulge whenever possible
In this age of materialism, the most effective way to show our children we love them is to shower them with gifts.
If you celebrate Christmas you should consider that the kids are unlikely to remember any of that religious stuff, but they will never forget Santa Claus. Possessions are also an important measure of one’s status in society, and this principle applies not only to the kids but to the entire family. Our society has made giant strides in this area since I was a kid. When I was in high school there was only one student with a car and his dad owned a car lot. Now when I pass the high school parking lot it is jammed with cars with an overflow across the street in the church parking lot. It is true that some are not late models, but even those less wealthy kids need not suffer the humiliation of being seen boarding a school bus.
I am well aware that this may put a strain on the family budget; however one should bear in mind that credit card companies are usually very accommodating when it comes to increasing your credit limit. If all else fails Dad can always get a second job or a third one if he already has two.
6) Keep them guessing
There has been much made by so called authorities on child rearing about the importance of consistency, but I feel consistency is overrated. B. F. Skinner’s experiments have clearly demonstrated that intermittent positive reinforcement is the most effective tool to shape behaviors; consequently, house rules should never be rigidly fixed, but fluid and subject to change at the whim of those in charge. To be confident of the reaction to his actions is apt to render him a lazy thinker, while confusion as to an outcome will require deductive reasoning. Some kids are likely to initiate certain behaviors in order to see what reaction it will generate.
It is also helpful if the parents disagree on many issues. This can result in valuable training in how to manipulate people, e.g., play one against the other. In the matter of discipline most of us can remember the old “wait until your dad gets home threat.” In the event that Mom remembered to tell him his response would largely depend on his mood or if he had stopped for a couple of beers on the way home. It could result in anything from “a good talking to” to a trip to the woodshed. In the latter case with today’s attitudes towards corporal punishment confiscation of the perpetrator’s cell phone would be necessary to prevent him/her from calling Children’ s Service.
7) Shame them whenever possible
I once wore a dunce cap. Few who read this will be old enough to remember the power of the dunce cap. It was usually cone shaped and made of paper, and its adornment was accompanied by a sentence of standing in the corner for a lengthy period of time. Its presence announced to the world that one had done something terrible. In my case, I had the audacity to talk in class. It was a two-room school and I was in the second grade. I was spared the paddle, which was displayed prominently behind the teacher’s desk, but was assured that it would find my backside were my behavior not to change. To make matters worse, the teacher was my uncle which guaranteed that my parents would learn all about my transgression.
The humiliation was made complete by the teasing I suffered at the hands of the other kids not to mention the “dressing down” (The time out strategy had yet to be invented) by my parents. The whole experience was remarkably effective as I never talked in class again. From that incident and others I suggest you not hesitate to use ridicule, and shame to shape your child’s behavior.
8) Teach humility
Children are born with an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Babies seem to know that if they cry people will hop to and immediately make them happy. In many cases this persists through the teen years, and has been accentuated by the propaganda of Mr. Roberts who was able to convince legions of rug rats that they were special. The process of comparing your child to those with superior talent or success will go a long way towards bringing him down to earth. It will also provide him with goals, but at the same time help him face his limitations so as not to waste energy or time on trying to become something he is not. Children need to face reality; consequently, if they are stupid, ugly, awkward, or weird they need to know about it. Yes, I am aware of all that psycho- babble about self-esteem, but if the kid is a slob like his old man, he needs to be told about it.
9) Don’t have dinner together
This is a subject dear to my heart for mealtime is my favorite time of the day, but come to think of it all the time is mealtime for me. However; I don’t feel that I am unique in that regard for modern families have given up the ritual of all sitting down together at an appointed time to break bread. That is probably just as well as a lot of time is wasted on such things as reviewing each person’s day, and making small talk. It was often the only time of the day when the entire family would spend time together. There were also the obligatory lessons in table manners, nutrition and hand washing. At times minor squabbles would energize the experience, but all in all it was not very exciting.Modern families (not the one on TV) have no time for such foolishness. There are too many activities and conflicting schedules to even consider such an old fashioned habit. Mom may have trouble making it home from work in time for dinner let alone prepare a full course meal. Often ordering a pizza or stopping by for a sack of Big Macs makes a lot of sense, but responsible parents will all be sure to keep a jar of peanut butter as backup. Crock pots have been a boon to today’s families as food can be made available at anytime and the ordeal of eating together can be avoided. The old policy of sit down family dinners pales when compared to the convenience of an every man for himself system.
10) The responsibility myth
One of the most difficult problems for families is deciding who should be responsible for taking out the trash. If the kids are assigned to take turns, there will be endless loud and disturbing bickering about who did it last. The timeworn strategy of listing a schedule on the refrigerator rarely works as it is subject to editing and will often disappear before it is implemented. When responsibility is fixed, you will witness such creative thinking in the formulation of reasons why the chore was not done that you can be very proud.
Eventually, you will come to realize that the energy required to fix responsibility, not to mention the frustration involved will lead you to conclude that the best solution is for you to take it out yourself.
I am reminded of an incident in my own family from many years ago involving my son. Barb had become very frustrated with him. She complained that his room was a mess. When she ordered him to pick up the clutter on his floor he simply shoved it all under the bed. She was incensed and insisted that I “do something.” When I asked what I should do, she replied: “Go up there and stay with him and make him be responsible.” My brilliant retort was: “If I do that, then who is responsible?” I did come up with an equally brilliant solution however. I simply walked upstairs and closed the door to his room.
You cannot force your child to be responsible so let him/her go. As an adult they will learn all about the wages of irresponsibility soon enough, besides you don’t need the hassle. It’s just a lot of work.
Some of you may not wish to screw up your children’s lives, but before you come to that conclusion you might want to consider all the ways they have screwed up yours. Think of all the sleepless nights, the school PTA/PTO meetings, volunteering, chauffeuring, the crying, whining, and the dirty diapers not to mention the enormous sums of money spent on them. You will need to decide if it is worth it. In spite of my best efforts to screw up my kids’ lives, they l have all turned out well. Go figure.
DISLAIMER: I strongly deny receipt of any remuneration from the American Psychiatric Association in return for the recruiting of patients.