Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
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Copyright 2019, John K. Rosemond

Maternabling is Destructive to Parent-Child Relationship

“You’ve accused mothers of being in co-dependent relationships with their children,” she (a journalist) said, then asked, “What is co-dependency, exactly, and how does it apply to today’s mothers?”

Great question! One that cuts right to the core of America’s parenting problem. A co-dependent relationship consists of a well-intentioned enabler and a person who is being enabled. They need one another. The enabler needs to do what she is doing in order to feel like she is rising to some external standard (in this case, being a member in good standing of the Good Mommy Club), and the person who is enabled uses the enabler to avoid taking responsibility for a portion (or in some cases, all) of his or her life. The enabler teaches her victim how to manipulate her and the person who is enabled teaches his victim how to properly enable. The latter acts like a victim or helpless or both, thus helping the enabler feel needed. The enabler, however, feels put upon and frequently complains of the heroic lengths she is going to in order to save her victim from the consequences of his own choices.

“He is so darned irresponsible!” complains the enabler, alternatives being “He just can’t do it on his own” and “Without me, he would surely fail.” Thus, enabling masquerades as morally-superior self-sacrifice. The problem is that the enabler herself is fooled by her own masquerade. In addition to being an enabler, she is also, paradoxically, a disabler. The more she enables, the more she disables, and the more convinced she becomes that her enabling is absolutely necessary.

These two people have constructed a drama in which they both play lead roles – a soap opera that automatically renews at the end of every season.

FACT: The more person A enables person B, the more person B behaves as if he/she requires enabling. And around and around they go.

The preceding description nails many, many mother-child relationships. In today’s America, when a woman has her first child, the sucking sound she begins to hear is the Good Mommy Club, an unspoken sisterhood in which maternabling (I made up the word) is celebrated. The Good Mommy is defined as a female parent who does one maternabling thing after another, is always on the lookout for new opportunities to maternable, and nods enthusiastically (and maybe even vents a few tears) when Oprah says that being a mother is the hardest job in the world.

My mother, a member of the so-called Greatest Generation, was as far from being a maternabler as one can get. If anything, she erred on the other side of the coin. Mind you, she caused no damage albeit young JR certainly wanted her to think she was at times. Most of my peers attest to moms who were cut from the same cloth. Proof! Being a maternabler is not historically typical of mothers. Maternabling is yet another highly destructive post-1960s parenting phenomenon – miserably destructive to both parties.

Most moms who seek my help have either reached the bottom of the maternabling well or the end of the maternabling rope, or both. My prescription: STOP! All of it! Now! Today! Without preparation! Without apology! Just do it! And no, don’t tell the child in question what you are doing or going to do. Part of the problem is that the explanations the maternabler gives her live-in tyrant are actually a means of seeking his approval.

Yes, just figure out what you need to stop doing and stop doing it…all at once. “Phasing” it in is excruciating for all concerned and all-but guarantees that the maternabling will continue, picking right up where it half-heartedly left off.

Here’s the good news: NEVER, when I’ve successfully persuaded a maternabler to STOP the maternabling, cold turkey, forever, has the child in question suffered anything more than temporary collapse. “Temporary” may last several months, but when the child figures out that he will henceforth succeed or fail on his own merits, he chooses to succeed.

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Tame Child's Disruptive Behavior at Holiday Get-Togethers

Q: I’m already dreading the holidays. Our eight-year-old is a very excitable child and our family is expected to attend numerous holiday get-togethers at the homes of family members. When he’s included in events where there’s lots of excitement and anticipation in the air, he has a reputation for becoming very impulsive, loud, talkative, bouncy, and generally annoying. He’s also the oldest grandchild and the other, younger kids tend to follow his lead. I do not want to be constantly correcting him, but I don’t know what else to do. People tolerate him because he’s family, but I can tell that his presence and behavior often makes them feel uncomfortable. In addition, I begin to feel like everyone is watching to see how I’m going to deal with him. For me, it’s like being under a microscope. My husband gets equally frustrated, but he doesn’t know what to do either. Help!

A: Hands down, your question is the Number One Question I Am Asked Around the Holidays. I’m glad you don’t want to suffer through another discomforting family get-together. I’m heartened, in fact, to hear that there are actually parents out there, still, who think it’s important that their children learn how to properly conduct themselves in such gatherings. Lots of parents abdicate the responsibility with excuses like, “Oh, c’mon, it’s Christmas, after all!”

What does that mean? That “holiday” means parents can and should take a holiday from teaching children the whys and hows of proper behavior? A holiday from discipline? What a concept! I don’t think so. Learning how to properly behave when in a group, especially a mixed-age group, is important to a child’s overall socialization.

Besides, your son is a ringleader. He’s regarded by the younger kids as the “lead monkey,” which makes it all the more important that he be well-behaved and set a good example at family gatherings.

I’d be willing to bet that you’re waiting too long to do something about his misbehavior. By the time you act, the proverbial snowball has already rolled considerably downhill. It’s gained a lot of momentum and mass. If you’re going to do something, which I think is important, you need to put the brakes on the snowball before it makes one full turn.

As soon as you see tell-tale signs of disruptive behavior, you need to take him to the garage, car, outside (your choice, largely dependent on the weather) – a quiet, private place. Tell him that you are going to stand or sit with him until he calms down, but regardless, he’s not going back into the group for at least fifteen minutes.

At the end of the fifteen minutes, assuming he’s got both feet on the ground, take him back in and try again. But before you do, tell him that if you remove him again, it will be for at least thirty minutes. And if you need to remove him and third time, you’ll just go home where he will spend the rest of the day in his room.

The key ingredient in this recipe is “right away.” Don’t let his behavior escalate to the point where it’s disruptive. Quarantine it before it becomes discomforting to you and others.

You might say that my “solution” punishes you, too. In a sense, it does, but there’s a price to be paid for everything.

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In Today's Parenting, Feelings Trump the Truth

Okay, it’s time to set the record straight, confront the gorilla in the proverbial room, call a spade a spade, and so on and so forth.

I recently published a column on “The Portal” – the black hole in academic cyberspace that has trapped many a mother – in which I used the female pronoun almost exclusively.

I am told by a sixty-year-old grandmother who agrees, she says, with “most” of what I write (which is about all I can ever hope for) that I offended women by implying that the female parent is the parent most likely to become obsessed by and enslaved to The Portal. According to my accuser, my “1950s prejudice” was showing.

I counter the assertion with the prevailing Twenty-First Century prejudice: One should not tell the truth if the truth disrupts someone else's view of themselves. This prejudice is why so many teens are cutting themselves, on medication for depression and various anxieties and phobias, and running for the shelter of “safe spaces” on college campuses all over America.

In contemporary America, feelings trump the truth, which is why child mental health has so precipitously dropped since the 1950s. Feelings trump the truth also explains why and how this thing we now call “parenting” has been transformed from something once done straightforwardly and matter-of-factly into the most difficult, stressful thing a woman will ever do in her adult life.

When children were simply raised up to adulthood by adults who possessed a practical understanding of what that responsibility necessitated, child mental health was about as good as it’s going to get (at least ten times better than it is today) and mothers did not agonize about childrearing micro-details. Then the collective “we” bought into the bogus notion that people with impressive capital letters after their names – psychologists and other mental health professionals mostly – knew more about raising children than the average grandparent.

Mental health people stress the importance of feelings, so the primary concern became that of making children FEEL good about themselves. (That, by the way, defines the salient difference between childrearing and “parenting.”) And since women are vastly superior to men at relating to feelings, women began to believe that if the rearing of children was going to be done in proper accord with the new psychological parenting (feelings-based) prescription, they were going to have to take charge.

And they did. Today, the female parent is the default parenting decider. The male parent is the “parenting aide,” there to follow instructions and fill in when the decider has “had it.” Yes, there are exceptions, but no person who’s been paying attention of late to something other than his or her smartphone would deny the general rule. (Note the use of both pronouns in the previous sentence! I am enlightened!)

Today’s mothers tend to believe that if parenting is successful (the child gets into a top-flight college, makes the Olympic curling team, and leaves home by age thirty), it will be because of their unilateral dedication, doing, and devotion. The weight of that imagined responsibility, which my mother and mothers of her era and before never allowed on their shoulders, has turned the all-too typical mother into a micromanaging bundle of raw and constantly inflamed nerves. Her feeling-challenged husband self-medicates by memorizing football statistics while his wife darts from task to task like a plate-spinner. (Note: The reference to plate-spinners is another example of my inability to move past the 1950s.)

So, to the issue: Which parent is much, much more likely to be enslaved by The Portal? Why, the mother, of course! That would require, then, female pronouns. And to whomever that offends, you’re letting your Twenty-First Century prejudice show through.

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Children Need Love and Discipline to Thrive

The myth of the first three years has it that whatever habits, traits, dysfunctions and so on that a child develops during this admittedly formative period are going to stay with him for life. That is not necessarily so. For example, Romanian orphans that had suffered severe emotional and physical neglect during infancy and toddlerhood recovered fully after being placed with American families. When put in play groups with American-born kids who were living with biological parents, they could not be identified reliably. The adoption-babblers have a difficult time explaining that, by the way.

Nonetheless, the third birthday is a parenting “hump” of sorts. Pre-1960s parents understood that the so-called “terrible twos” were just that: to wit, an eighteen-month developmental period (roughly between eighteen and thirty-six months) marked by tantrums, defiance, violent outbursts and other anti-social behaviors. During this same period, it is essential that effective disciplinary precedents be set such that the terrible twos do not become the terrifying threes, frightful fours, fearsome fives, shocking sixes and so on (the nauseating nineteens?).

Behavior problems not resolved by the third birthday (or thereabouts) are going to be increasingly challenging for both parents and child. The parents are now behind the curve concerning the discipline of the child, and the further behind the curve they fall, the more difficult it will be for them to establish their authority. For the child, the further and faster the proverbial snowball of his misbehavior rolls downhill, the more havoc it plays with his emotional health. Good research confirms what common sense verifies: Disobedient kids are not happy campers.

Parents who come to me for help saying, “My kid is driving me crazy” want me to fix the problem for their benefit, to prevent them further emotional toll. But the emotional toll of the problem is being visited primarily upon the child. He’s being denied the right to a happy childhood by parents who love him deeply but don’t understand that – to employ a paraphrase – children do not thrive on love alone. Children need authority. They benefit greatly from having to accept that what their parents tell them to do, they must do, not because of reward or punishment, but simply because the Big People say so.

“Does that mean, John,” a mother recently asked, “that I shouldn’t give my teenager reasons for my decisions and instructions?”

A child’s age does not determine when it’s time for parents to begin explaining themselves. The prerequisite to explanation is obedience. You cannot explain a child into obedience, but once obedience has taken root and is flourishing, you can venture the occasional explanation. I say occasional because obedient children do not generally ask for explanations. They are content without them; besides, they’re usually able to figure them out on their own.

A parent’s love should be BIG and unconditional, but if it isn’t balanced with equally BIG, unambiguous authority, it’s most accurately termed enabling codependence. Likewise, if authority is BIG but love is weak and small, authority isn’t authority at all; it’s abuse of one form or another.

The “trick” of this is letting the monster-in-the-making know, early on, when the monster first makes its appearance, that he will not be allowed to let his dark side rule either himself or the people he lives with. The formula can be expressed this simply: The child NEVER gets anything even close to what he wants when he misbehaves; rather, when he lets his monster off the leash, he loses things he doesn’t want to lose for memorable stretches of time. A child’s covetous nature can be used to everyone’s advantage.

Some children get it quickly. Others, not so much. Which is why a sense of humor always helps.

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Children Are Impulsive

Q: Our 7-year-old son recently stole two small model cars from a playmate while he was at the playmate’s house. Apparently, he wanted to trade one of his toys for the two cars, but the playmate refused, so he stole them. When we found them, he claimed his friend had given them to him. We absolutely know that’s not true, but it’s been over a week and our son refuses to admit to the theft. He’s changed his story, then changed it back, so we know he’s lying, but still he refuses to budge. Nothing like this has ever happened before and we’re at a loss. We called an acquaintance of ours who’s also a therapist. She said that children who steal are often compensating for some insecurity and that punishing him could make matters worse. We have no idea what insecurity our son is dealing with or what to do about the theft and his lies.

A: With all due respect for the therapist you consulted, I know of no research that connects childhood stealing with insecurity. Her suggestion is purely speculative, as are almost all psychological theories of human behavior. It amounts to what I call a “psychological boogeyman” – an unprovable hypothesis that does nothing but cause parents to think their child’s misbehavior is the result of some ongoing parenting sin.

The fact is, children are notorious for doing odd, inexplicable things. A random misbehavior is generally the result of a sudden impulse as opposed to some psycho-emotional deficiency. The most brilliantly insightful explanation I’ve ever come up with for these occasional anti-social impulses is “children are impulsive.” Kidding aside, asking a child to explain a lie, theft, or any other sneaky behavior is almost always unproductive. The most likely answer is “I don’t know,” which is usually the truth.

This episode is probably nothing more than a “one-off.” The problem is that a drama has now developed around the incident. Such dramas increase the possibility that the misbehavior in question will happen again.

With that in mind, my first recommendation to you is that you stop talking to your son about this. Stop asking him to explain himself. Stop pressuring him to admit to what you already know is true. Stop holding mini-seminars on interpersonal ethics.

Simply tell your son that you know he stole the toys from his friend (at this point, completely ignore any denials) and that until he admits to the theft and apologizes to his friend, he is confined to his room, which you must strip beforehand of any “entertainment value.” He can come out of his room to attend school, church, family meals, do chores, and accompany one or both of you when you leave the home. During his confinement, put him to bed, lights out, immediately after dinner. The purpose is to establish a permanent memory, one that will cause him to think at least twice the next time he wants something that belongs to someone else.

If my experience serves me well, he will spill the beans within a week. If he’s more than typically stubborn, it might be two. Regardless, this experience will give him a new appreciation for the property rights of others. (And contrary to what a therapist might tell you, confining a child this age to a nice but boring room will not leave psychological scars. During the time your son is so confined, he will still lead a better life than at least fifty percent of the world’s children.)
When he admits and apologizes, put the matter to rest. Let him out of his room, restore it to its former glory, and move on.

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