I’ve been writing this column for forty-three years and speaking publicly for nearly as long. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that when it comes to my subject matter, you can’t win ‘em all.
What is now called “parenting” has become a highly emotional subject for many, right up there with religion, politics, and pit bulls. Early on in my career, it puzzled me when people became bent completely out of shape, taken over by emotion, over something I said. People storming out of my presentations was common. On three occasions, people stood up in the middle of talks and began shouting at me. Twice, sponsors had to hire security because of threatened group disruptions.
That sort of stuff has long ceased to puzzle me. Besides, it happens very rarely these days, primarily because most of the folks who come to my presentations know what to expect: to wit, psychological heresy. But, “rarely” is the operative word. After a recent talk in California, a woman cornered me and began berating me for putting too much emphasis on the need for proper discipline.
“You need to tell people to love their children!” she nearly shouted, fighting off tears, before marching angrily away. It is relevant and only fair to note that she had identified herself as an abused child. (It is also only fair to note that I had told my audience, as always, that unconditional love is no less important to proper childrearing than unequivocal authority.)
Had she stuck around, and had she been able to hear me with some degree of objectivity, I would have told her that there’s not much point in telling parents to love their children. Let’s face it, a parent is either going to give up his seat in a lifeboat to his child or he is not, and me saying, “You should give up your seat in a lifeboat…” is not going to make any difference. Furthermore, the human capacity for self-deception is pertinent. A person who says (and even believes) he is so willing may, when push comes to shove, leave his child to sink or swim.
The second relevant consideration here is the fact that people who do not love their children are not in my audiences, nor are they likely readers of this column. My sponsors frequently lament that the parents who most need to hear me didn’t show up.
Third, people who don’t possess genuine, self-sacrificial love for their children don’t always know who they are. Their next-door neighbors and next-of-kin may not know who they are either. Some of said folks do the right thing where their kids are concerned, but lack depth of feeling. They’re just going through the motions, for which we should all be grateful.
Fourth, even people who genuinely, self-sacrificially love their children do unloving things. They may have screamed at their children or spanked in a rage. “Unloving things” can and does even include things many if not most other parents are doing. For example, loving parents may drag their children around to one after-school activity after another, depriving their kids of discretionary time (which ought to occupy a significant slice of a child’s life). Or they may defend their kids when they get into trouble in school, undermining their kids’ respect for adults. They may solve every problem their kids encounter, depriving their kids of responsibility and emotional resilience. A loving act is not defined by good intentions.
The converse of loving parents doing unloving things is that loving acts do not necessarily appear to be or feel loving at the time. For example, children do not like being disciplined, but the fact that a child does not like what a parent has done does not define the act as unloving. I’ve said it before, but it can’t be said enough (for today’s parents): Children don’t know what they need; they only know what they want.
Come to think of it, there are no small number (these days) of adults who fit that description.