John Rosemond January 2019 Columns
Copyright 2019, John K. Rosemond
Feelings: To Express or Not to Express?
Feelings are a wild card. On the one hand, the ability to experience deep emotion is one of the things that defines us as human. On the other, feelings can be and often are destructive to relationships and even to self. Like thoughts and behavior, feelings begin in chaos (check out the toddler), and like thoughts and behavior, feelings require firm discipline lest they become ever more chaotic.
In the 1960s, the profession of psychology – my profession – began to focus on and obsess about feelings, especially children’s feelings. In graduate school, I learned that children raised in the 1950s and before (me!) had not been allowed to express their feelings freely. Their “bottled-up” feelings, starved of ventilation, rotted and became putrid, causing all manner of problems, most notably low self-esteem. Through various bogus therapies (e.g. hitting their parents with foam rubber bats as encouraging therapists looked on and asked the parents how they felt about being hit by their child), children were supposedly assisted toward “getting in touch with” and liberating their long-repressed emotions, thus cleansing their psyches of accumulated flotsam. (It is true, by the way, that we baby boomers were not allowed to express our feelings freely. For that, we are forever indebted to the common sense of our elders.)
America is now forty years into this movement, enough time to have figured out that not one speck of good has come of it. Ah, but the mainstream mental health community has yet to figure this out. Its true believers continue to encourage children to talk about their feelings. The answer to “How do you feel about that?” is, apparently, more important than the answer to “What is the right and proper thing to do about that?”
This sort of approach verifies that the child’s emotions are in some way valid. Now, hear me clearly: I am not saying that a child’s emotions are never valid. I’m saying that children are, by nature, soap opera factories. As such, giving a child the impression that every emotion that wells up inside of him is worthy of serious discussion (and that people should adjust their behavior accordingly) is destructive to the child. Just as children must be told that certain behavior is inappropriate, so must they be told that the expression of certain emotions is inappropriate.
These days, it is psychologically incorrect to say to a child, “You’re being silly. There are children in the world who have real problems, like not having enough food. If the worst problem in your life is that someone called you a name, well, sorry to tell you, but I’m not going to give that the time of day. I’ve got much better things to do. Get a grip, kiddo.”
Those approximate my mother’s words to me on occasions when I was making emotional mountains out of molehills. Most people of my generation can testify to similar experiences, for which we are thankful.
Which is the happier, more well-adjusted child: one who expresses his feelings freely when he doesn’t like the way things are or one who has learned to accept that things will not always be as he would wish? The latter, of course!
Parents routinely seek my counsel concerning the former, describing children who become apoplectic at, say, the word “no.” Invariably, the parents in question are attempting to solve the problem by talking to their kids about – you guessed it – their feelings. And, predictably, the more they talk, the worse the problem becomes. When they stop talking and begin to demonstrate calm, purposeful intolerance – in the form of penalizing consequences – for inappropriate emotional outbursts, the outbursts gradually stop and, lo and behold, the happiness quotient of the children in question begins to rise.
Which is a good thing for all concerned, especially the child.
Let Your School-Aged Kids Dress Themselves
“So, anyway, after they take showers I lay out their school clothes for the next day. And then….”
“Hold on right there,” “How old are your girls again?”
“Um, they’re seven and five,” she answered, being the thirty-something mother of the girls in question. “Why?”
“I guess I need you to explain to me why you’re doing that.”
“You mean laying out their clothes the night before?”
“Yes. Why are you doing that?”
“Well, I, well, if I didn’t, I don’t know, they might pick out something inappropriate.”
“Like what? T-shirts with satanic messages on them?”
(Laughing) “Oh, no, not that! I mean like tops and bottoms that don’t match.”
“Like stripes and polka dots together? Or two shades of orange that clash?”
“Yes, something like that.”
“That’s…you used the word inappropriate…that’s inappropriate? I thought inappropriate was like punching someone in the face for no reason. Wearing stripes and polka dots is inappropriate?”
“Well, I mean, the other kids might laugh at them.”
“Okay, so here’s my very important question: I seriously doubt that kids this age have a developed fashion sense, but that aside, so what if some other kid or kids did laugh?”
(Long pause) “Well, I don’t want my daughters to be made fun of.”
At this point, I had to suppress the almost irrepressible urge to tell this mother that I hadn’t been born yesterday; that I knew the real reason she picked out her daughters’ clothes every evening. The real reason is that with rare exception, today’s moms personalize everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – that happens to their children or that their children do.
So, if a five-year-old managed, somehow, to get by her Designated Micromanager and wore to school an outfit consisting of stripes and polka dots (I’m having memories of when I was a hippie), her DM, when she found out, would be concerned, convinced even, that people might have been talking about and laughing at HER by proxy. Furthermore, even if the child in question came home and did not complain of being mocked, mom would still be certain that someone out there is thinking that she’s one of the Bad Mommies you hear about.
Choosing and laying out a seven-year-old child’s clothes – something my mother must’ve stopped doing for me before my third birthday because I have no memory of it – is emblematic of the current state of motherhood in America. It’s why I often say to audiences hither and yon, “Raising children has become threatening to the mental health of American women.”
I mean, they worry about everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING! Every detail is important, which means, essentially, that in their minds there are no details. Everything and anything that goes wrong is potentially apocalyptic; therefore, everything must be managed. Everything even slightly off the beam is cause for reading yet another book. (Did I actually just say that?)
The mother in question came to me because she was having lots of conflicts with her daughters. Good for them, I told her. They refuse to let you tell them what foot to lead with when they begin walking. We made a list of what was really, truly important parenting stuff to which she absolutely had to attend. It was fairly short, actually.
I heard from her three months later. She’s no longer in near-constant conflict with her daughters; she’s having a much, much happier motherhood; and she’s gone back to college. Yay! I mean, YAY! You go, girl! That’s the way to do it!
What Should Grandparents Do When Children Won’t Listen to Good Advice?
Q: We have ten grandchildren, spread between three of our kids. They all live within an hour’s drive, so we see them often. We want to be involved in their lives and to be good influences. Our problem is with the parents. None of them are receptive to any advice or information we try to give or share. At least four of the grands have major behavior problems, for example (and all of them lack proper manners). It’s obvious to us that the real problem is parents who don’t know how to exercise effective authority, but any suggestions fall on deaf ears. One child has been diagnosed with an “oppositional” disorder. The parents have been told he can’t help behaving the way he does, but he’s no problem at all when he’s with us, even for an extended stay. This is beginning to cause tension (and some conflict) among us. What should grandparents do when children won’t listen to good advice?
A: One option is for you to pack up and move. I’m serious. Your fundamental complaints are echoed by grandparents all over the USA. Now, people don’t ask my advice if everything is hunky-dory, but the number of tales of grandparenting woe I hear as I travel the country strongly suggests that such distress is ubiquitous.
I think a good part of the problem is a lack of respect for one’s elders. Young people today don’t seem to grasp that respect means more than simply being polite; it means honoring the wisdom that usually comes with age. Certainly there are grandparents who don’t qualify, but most people older than 60, myself included, will tell you they’ve acquired more wisdom in the last ten or so years of their lives than they did in all the years prior.
Progressivism – the philosophy as opposed to the political bent, albeit they are related – dominates American thought these days and has since the 1960s. It is anathema to a progressively-minded individual that tradition might trump modernity (at least occasionally), that an old way of doing something might be better than the new way, that a longstanding idea might be more correct than a recently-minted one. These days, parenting progressivism rules. Those of us who represent the old way are often simply tolerated by the young. Often, we are regarded as if we’re all teetering on the brink of dementia.
The example you give of your “disordered” grandchild is emblematic of the problem. Even though the notion that certain childhood behavior problems arise from such things as “biochemical imbalances” and “brain differences” has not been (and I don’t think will ever be) proven, the new explanation trumps the probable truth: to wit, the child in question has not been properly disciplined. The fact that the child is reasonably well-behaved when his parents aren’t around unequivocally disproves the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. Unfortunately, when it comes to children, pseudo-science trumps common sense these days.
So, back to your original question: I hate to be the pessimist – it’s really not my nature – but no grandparents have ever told me that something they said to the parents of their grands caused a lightbulb to come on and that everything’s been just peachy keen ever since. Not being valued for your wisdom is painful, for sure, and the likelihood of the parents in question ever apologizing for their disrespect and beginning to listen to you is slim to none.
You can keep your mouth shut. You can wait patiently, hoping the parents will someday come to you in desperation. You can say something like, “You know, we have some experience raising kids and are more than willing to share our experiences – what worked and what didn’t – with you anytime you feel the need.”
Or, you can pack up, move away, and enjoy to the fullest the years you have remaining. It’s worth considering. You’ve certainly earned the right.
The Children-Need-Lots-Of-Attention Myth
One of the more difficult facts for today’s parents, as a rule, to wrap their heads around is the…I’ll say it again, with emphasis…FACT that children do not need (as a general rule) a lot of attention.
I was there, working as a journeyman psychologist in a community mental health center, when the children-need-lots-of-attention myth had its genesis. The professional consensus at the time (early 1970s) was that any persistent inappropriate behavior was a “cry for attention.” Said another way, the parents of the child in question were depriving him of feeling that the universe had been eagerly anticipating his arrival ever since the Big Bang. The parents in question were irresponsible, neglectful; at best, lazy.
This myth lives on in the form of mommy-guilt. An all-too-typical mom recently told me that if she even sits down for a moment during the day to catch her breath, she almost immediately begins to feel that she’s being selfish, that she should be doing something (anything will do) for her kids – yet another example of how bad parenting advice from mental health professionals has greatly increased the perceived need for mental health professional advice.
Today, the child who seems to need constant attention is interpreted as a “high needs” child, as if he was born that way when the FACT is that the child is an attention-addict. He was not born an attention-addict but became such by virtue of being given entirely too much attention on demand. He demanded and he received, so he demanded more and received more; thus did his sense of well-being become attached to the notion that unless he is the center of attention, something is amiss in his world.
Children need freedom – the freedom to explore, imagine, create, take things apart and put things together. This freedom requires boundaries, of course, but providing them in the context of an environment that encourages exploration, etc., is more important by far than giving lots of attention. Meeting a child’s need for freedom-within-boundaries minimizes the possibility that the child will ever act (in the absence of emergencies or other unusual circumstances) “starved” of attention.
Children need to feel responsible; thus, they need responsibilities. A child’s role in his family – how he “fits” into his family – is defined by responsibilities. “These are your chores” is the same as saying, “These are tangible evidences of how you are important around here.”
Children need to feel safe. They need to feel as if they will be adequately protected and provided for under any and all circumstances; that they have “nothing to worry about.” In order to feel safe, they need adequate supervision, but at a certain point, supervision becomes micromanagement and children need anything but that.
Because they are not fundamentally oriented to do the right thing – but rather, the self-serving thing – children need unconditional love. If love was conditional, lots of children would receive very little. Children need to know that no matter how badly they behave, they are cherished.
Because of what I said in the preceding paragraph, children need unequivocal authority as much as they need unconditional love. The Beatles were wrong: love is not enough.
And yes, children need attention, but like most things that begin as needs (e.g. water and food), the giving of attention involves a point of diminishing returns at which the attention being given becomes detrimental, even toxic. It becomes equated, in the child’s mind, with love. At that point, the child begins to feel “safe” only when he is the center of attention, which he begins to seek in increasingly inappropriate ways.
Indeed, this can quickly become a mental health problem, but beware involving mental health professionals.
Out With 'Parenting,' in With Child-Rearing
There is “parenting” and then there is bringing up, rearing, or raising children. The difference is night and day; so are the outcomes, short- and long-term, to all concerned, meaning every single one of us.
Parenting is what the vast majority of American parents have been doing since the early 1970s. It is constituted of putting children center-stage; paying them inordinate, often fawning attention; being in near-constant child-oriented activity; and generally behaving as if the world revolves not only around but also because of them. Parenting is arranging playdates beginning in early toddlerhood; throwing lavish birthday parties every twelve months (beginning at twelve months); asking children what they want to eat, where they want to sit, and what they want to do next; talking to them incessantly and for no apparent reason other than to talk to them; dispensing effusive praise for every little thing they do; being a playmate-on-demand; helping them with their homework; driving them from one supposedly enriching activity to another; and going to great lengths to ensure they do not experience frustration, hardship, defeat, failure, insult, rejection, unhappiness or anything else that goes along with living an authentic life.
Parenting is the vain attempt to emancipate a child who is unburdened by any problems, deficits, weaknesses, shortcomings, faults and (needless to say) is guaranteed to never make any big mistakes. Parenting is hiring tutors, elite coaches and private instructors to remediate, accelerate, and cultivate. Adults who “parent” occupy the roles of mommy and daddy nearly 24/7 until their children leave home (the when of which is anyone’s best guess).
By contrast, to raise, rear, or bring up a child is to lift said youngster out of childhood into genuine adulthood; to focus on character rather than achievement; to instill respect for others and love of neighbor (as opposed to self-esteem); to mold the emotionally-driven young child into a rational, responsible, emotionally-resilient, self-controlled adult. Parents who raise children allow their kids to experience controlled doses of frustration, hardship, etc. The parents in question also prioritize the roles of husband and wife. They are macro-managers. Their approach to child rearing is minimalistic, which is why they truly enjoy it (as do their kids).
In recent weeks, I’ve seen signs – as small as they may be – that parenting may be running its course. I’ve talked with several young parents, for example, who are patiently teaching their toddlers to walk alongside them (usually holding their hands) and not reach out and attempt to handle everything and anything that attracts their attention. This as opposed to rolling children as old as five through public places in portable thrones.
And then, lo and behold, I saw a 20-month-old child drinking out of an open cup that he was holding on his own, as 20-month-olds are perfectly capable of doing (and, therefore, should be doing). And to top it off, he was drinking water as opposed to sweetened, turquoise-colored junk. WATER! What a concept! And to top that off, he did not spill a drop because, as his proud mother told me, he’s been drinking from open cups since he was 15 months old. At the onset, he spilled, but water doesn’t stain and through trial-and-error he quickly mastered the skill. “So-called training cups train nothing but carelessness,” she said, displaying wisdom beyond her years.
The Great American Parenting Experiment has been ongoing for some fifty years now, to the benefit of no one. Child mental health is in the loo, mothers are anxious and stressed, the American marriage is but a shadow of its pre-parenting self, and many teachers spend more time dealing with entitlement-related behavior problems than teaching.
Parenting has come at a high cost to all of us. It’s time to Make Childrearing Great Again!