When Baby Boomers get together we often talk about our observations of parenting in these postmodern times, one of which is that today’s parents seem, as a rule, to want to be liked by their children, to want to be their children’s friends. That, we agree, is very odd. What is lacking in the life of an adult that they want to be liked by a child? we ask. Furthermore, what could it possibly mean that a child – an emotionally immature, ignorant (no matter how smart) human being – likes you? Or, at any given moment in time, does not?
Well, to begin with, it means to the parent in question that he or she is doing a splendid job. Being liked by one’s child is the measure of a parent these days, or so it seems. If you are not liked, then you need correction and you will know when you have corrected yourself sufficiently when your child begins to like you, or like you again. It is indeed odd that grown-ups – or supposed grown-ups –think in those terms. (If you happen to be one of the parents in question, and you are offended at my characterization of you, fine. Offense may be prerequisite to your coming to your senses.)
What is so bad about wanting to be your child’s friend? the reader may ask. It is an excellent question with at least five bads:
First, a parent’s task is to raise a child out of childhood into adulthood. To accomplish that requires a parent who acts capable of the heavy lifting often required. The parent-friend lowers himself to his child’s level (the child, after all, cannot rise to the level of the adult), thus rendering himself so incapable.
Second, a parent who desires, above all else, wonderful relationship with one’s child is incapable of delivering effective discipline. Discipline, if it is properly corrective, does not make the recipient feel warm and fuzzy toward the agent of correction. That is contrary to the intent of having a wonderful relationship, because the overarching Rule of such is “Thou shalt never make thy child upset at you.”
Third, and for the reason immediately above the parent in question allows himself to be manipulated by his child’s emotional output, which becomes, over time, more and more uncivil. Said parent interprets his child’s emotional outbursts as evidence (a) he has done something wrong and needs to correct it or (b) that something is wrong in his child’s life and he needs to discover it and fix it. That boils down to the child being in COMPLETE CONTROL of the relationship. The parent-child relationship, therefore, is inverted, which is bad for both parties.
Fourth, we have defined a codependent relationship in which said parent becomes an enabler. In this case, the job of the adult enabler is to always make sure his child is happy.
What’s wrong with that? a reader shouts.
Because that is not in your job description, which says you are to prepare your child for responsible living in the real world, and the real world is full of disappointment, failure, loss, and other stuff that isn’t “happy.” Accepting those realities is to become emotionally resilient, and emotional resilience is key to personal satisfaction. It is more important than success. Truly happy people are not in codependent relationships with dedicated personal enablers. People who are being enabled have not had to accept full responsibility for state of their lives. Their enablers are the responsible parties.
Fifth, enabled people almost always think of themselves as victims. Enabling always fails. No amount can defeat life’s realities. So, enabled people are unhappy; either angry unhappy or depressed unhappy.
All of which is why I am convinced that the post-1960s phenomenon of parents trying to be their kids’ friends is a major contributor to childhood, and especially adolescent, mental health problems.
If you think you can defend your attempt to be your child’s friend, I’d love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I use your defense in a future column, rest assured I won’t use your name.
Putting Child First Can Ruin Marriage
Q: I am stepfather to my wife’s only child, age 8, from her first marriage. My wife always and in every way puts her son before our marriage. We went through counseling several years ago and things got better for a while, but then began slipping back into child-comes-first mode. Believe me, we have a near-perfect marriage outside of her putting her son first and not supporting me when it comes to discipline. My wife struggles constantly to make him happy and it’s really hurting our relationship. Do you have any advice for me or us?
A: You’ve described what is in my estimation the number one reason why the divorce rate is so high (relatively speaking) for marriages where at least one party brings a child or children with them into the union. Specifically, either the male parent cannot shift out of dad and into husband or the female cannot shift out of mom and into wife. Said another way, for the person or people in question, being a parent trumps being a spouse.
A parent-child relationship of this sort is defined by the lack of an emotional boundary between the two parties. Your wife experiences her son’s emotions as if they were her own. Any unhappiness on his part makes her anxious and kicks her into high-enabling. Furthermore, his unhappiness is, from her perspective, indication of her failure as a parent. The solution, she thinks, is more enabling. A vicious and mutually destructive cycle has developed. The more she enables, the more helpless he behaves, and the more she enables. And around and around they go. That is, in a word, codependency.
The following is pure speculation: Your wife may have thought she wanted to get married, but in fact what she really wanted was a live-in male role model for her son as well as your income. I admit to the cynicism of that, by the way. Your wife would certainly take great umbrage over it, but if I was counseling the two of you, I would challenge her to prove that it is not the truth.
More often than not, responsibility for marital problems is shared fifty-fifty, but this is an exception. A stepparent who walked unknowingly into a pre-existing situation of this nature should not be held accountable for solving the problem. He or she can certainly make matters worse (e.g. getting angry at the child), but the heavy lifting must be done by the codependent parent. The good news is that your wife has in the past demonstrated some willingness to come to grips with the nature of her relationship with her son.
Since the prior round of counseling had a positive effect, it makes sense for the two of you to give that another try. Know, however, that this is one of the most intractable problems a counselor will ever encounter. My question, therefore, to you: Are you prepared to hang in there another ten years or so, in the hope that when said son goes off on his own, the “near-perfect” marriage you now have will realize its full potential? That would certainly be my recommendation.
By the way, the problem of one or both spouses putting parenting in front of being husband or wife is not only the single biggest problem in step- and blended families; it is also the single biggest problem in first marriages where there are children. Unfortunately, the child-centric family has become the norm. That’s why so few husbands and wives these days are found on the same parenting page, or even in the same parenting book, or even in some cases in the same parenting library.
It may sound counterintuitive, but agreement concerning parenting issues requires being married first, parents second.
Debunking Hot Potty Training Myths
“Potty training is a nightmare.” So begins advice from Meghan Leahy, advice columnist for The Washington Post. More accurately, potty training has, of late, BECOME a nightmare, thanks to advice of the sort Ms. Leahy dishes. Her approach? Do nothing. The child will eventually use the potty on his own. That may be true, but what Leahy fails to add is “after the child’s mother has had a nervous breakdown.”
In the mid-1950s, Harvard and several other prestigious institutions found that nearly 90 percent of 24-month-old American children had been accident-free for a month, meaning the mean age for successful toilet training when Grandma was the parenting expert was 20 to 22 months.
This miracle was accomplished by parents – mothers, mostly – simply telling their children what to do. They did not ask said children if they wanted to use the potty, offer rewards, sing potty songs, play potty games, sit with their children while they got used to the idea, follow them around the house asking every three minutes if they wanted to try and use the potty, scream, weep, threaten Inquisitional beatings for wet or soiled clothing, much less consult lists of “readiness signs” pulled out of thin air by a nationally-known pediatrician who ended his career as a spokesperson for Pampers.
They simply and straightforwardly told their children, “You are no longer wearing diapers. You are going to use the toilet like the rest of us. Any questions?” To that end, they provided minimal structure, scolded (sans drama) “mistakes,” and voila! Within several days to a week, their kids were using the toilet reliably. I was one of those kids. My mother, as is the case with many moms of her day, did not even remember toilet training me. That’s how easy-peasy it was before people with capital letters after their names began opining on the subject.
The toilet-babble of said pediatrician became the gold standard in the 1970s and has prevailed since. He said toilet training a child before 24 months required “force” and would result in a psychological apocalypse. Ironically, he admitted that he was trained before age two (demurring, however, that it was his mother who had been trained). He was unable to identify how he had been traumatized by this abuse. That is because he had not been traumatized at all. Before his second birthday, his mother had liberated him from messy diapers and contributed greatly to his socialization. How that amounts to “my mother was trained” is beyond me, but that is the sort of thing one says when one’s lack of logic is exposed.
Ms. Leahy tells her audience that “…many of the timelines we place on our children (pooping in the potty) are not in line with their development.” She means parents expect too much. No, they expect too little, but understandably so. They’ve been led to believe, after all, that expecting what is historically normal will induce a life-long phobia concerning white porcelain objects.
As the result of expert-advice-induced anxieties, today’s all-too-typical mom waits for her child to wake up one morning and announce, “Good news, Mom! I’m ready to use the potty!” This mom does not know that research has found what Grandma intuitively knew: Waiting past his or her second birthday INCREASES the likelihood that a child will resist using the toilet. This problem has become so ubiquitous that pediatricians have come up with a name for it: Bowel-retention syndrome.
Ms. Leahy concludes her advice with “Good luck.” Wrong again. Luck has nothing to do with it. Toilet training success is nothing akin to throwing dice. Like 95 percent of parenting matters, it is a matter of the proper presentation of parent authority – a calm, straightforward authority that contains the subtext “I know what you need to do, and I am confident that you are going to do it.” This is about obedience, not bogus “readiness.” And make no mistake, everyone benefits from pre-two training.
The operative principle: If you want a child to do what he is told, simply TELL.
Isn’t that brilliant? Not really. Your great-grandmother could have told you that. There is, after all, no new parenting insight under the sun.