Sunday, March 9, 2014

Parents Who Appreciate and Respect Get What They Deserve: Love

Claire put me onto an article on Facebook the other day written by a mom who (explicitly) bashed parents who ask their kids to do things, rather than tell them to do things.  No caveats, no exceptions, no special circumstances; her rationale was that, if you ask your kids to do things, you're being a passive parent, and you are [expletive] irresponsible.

As a developmentalist, my head began spinning with reasoning like: cultural differences, shared meaning of an interaction, mutual regulation, and authoritarian vs. authoritative parenting, as a few possible starters.  And yet, for all that, in talking about it with Claire, I feel like my most potent lessons in this matter don't come from book learning or theoretical foundations; they've come from the simple act and cumulative experience of being a parent myself.

As most of you know, our oldest is about two-and-a-half.  She's a gregarious little thing, always smiling, running around, and saying "hello" to just about anything that moves.  Honestly, she's one of the most social little people I've ever known.  Also, one of the kindest.  At two-and-a-half, she uses, unprompted, "please", "thank you", "no thank you", "excuse me", and most recently, even "you're welcome".  She offers to share food and other things that she's enjoying with us.  She seeks out the baby's pacifier and brings it to us when she's crying, saying, "baby cwying?"  There was an instance just the other day when I was just sitting on the edge of my bed, looking out the window and thinking, and she came in, saw me, and asked, "Daddy, y'okay?"  She could see, just from my nonverbal cues, that something was off from my normal demeanor.  This is a toddler.  Now, I don't mean to say that she acts this way all of the time; she still has the occasional emotional tantrum over something seemingly unimportant or easily fixable.  This is still a toddler.  But she certainly has those capacities, and they become more pronounced and prominent every day through practice and repetition.

I think she's so much this way, because of the way that we try to be with her.  We try to model correct behavior and interactions with others, yes.  But, there's an additional layer of richness in what we try to do; we try to acknowledge, respect, and assist her with her emotional experience.  There's a whole body of work on this topic.  One researcher, Peter Fonagy, refers to it as mentalization.  Simply put, it's the capacity of one individual to imagine, respect, and interact with the mental and emotional experience of another.  As an example: consider the richness and complexity of something as simple as the exchange between a toddler who selects her own pajamas to wear and brings them to her parent, who then says, "thank you."  If we were robots, this would simply be the checking of the box at the completion of a task.  All the warm fuzziness of 0's and 1's.  Unfortunately, this does seem to be the way it goes sometimes; busy schedules and a society focused entirely on outcomes work constantly and unceasingly to make us this way.  But, if we were to exercise a little bit of mindfulness, and slow down this interaction, this is what we would see:

The toddler, at two-and-a-half, is incredibly busy.  Just getting her to sit still is a remarkable feat; forget the idea of getting her to actively do what you want her to do.  At this point in her life, she is more or less consumed by two contradictory passions.  First, her desire to be an independent, active agent in her environment, exploring whatever comes into her head, whenever it does so.  Second, her love for and fear of losing the love of you, her mom or dad.  It doesn't take much to imagine the fireworks that happen when these two come into conflict: cue the tantrum.  Except that, in the scenario given above, the toddler has put on pause her own desires to please you.  Chew on that.  Because she loves you, she's just done something that leads her one step closer to the hated bed, because you asked her to.  If that's not love, I don't know what is.  And yet, what do we often do as parents?  It's all too easy to get so caught up in the task (get her in bed), that we miss the subtlety of what just took place (I hate bed because it takes me away from you; but I'll do it, because I love you, Daddy, and you asked me to).  What an incredible disservice we do our children when we fail to acknowledge that act for what it is!  Instead, we take it for granted when our children do what we ask (or tell, as some choose to do), because we think that we somehow deserve it; that we are entitled to their obedience simply by virtue of our position as their parent.  In a way that's true: they love us because we are their parents.  But make no mistake: that love is given, and at relative high cost and effort for a toddler.

The parent's responsibility, in this scenario, is to graciously receive.  The toddler has given perhaps her most precious gift (her compliance), to her most loved person (you), at the eventual cost, in this particular instance, of separation from you for an entire night.  I think, upon viewing the situation like this, that they deserve a bit more gratitude than a perfunctory grunt of approval.

We need to slow down.  As a society, and as individuals, we are becoming so focused on outcomes, products, and results, that we rarely stop to consider processes.  As we take the time to look at what it costs our children, particularly young children, to choose to be obedient, I think that we will naturally begin to be a bit more sincere in our words of appreciation, our words of encouragement, and the confirmation and assurance of our love for them, rather than the continued, incessant, and insatiable demand for compliance.

Back to the article in question: do I think the mother is wrong?  Well, I think she made some good points; sometimes, in certain situations, young children do require a bit more guidance, assistance, and even intervention to do what's right or safe.  On the other hand, do I think she's right?  Not by a long shot.  Only ever telling leaves no opportunity for them to choose to tell you that they love you.  I don't think that respecting the emotional experience of another human being, showing appreciation and sincere gratitude for the gift of their love (by obedience) is coddling.  I call that decency.

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