Parenting is hard. That’s probably the understatement of the year. Parenting is so hard that there is an entire industry built around it to try and support parents. This can be confusing though, as there are philosophies that directly contradict one another. And this isn’t just a cloth vs. disposable diaper sort of decision. It’s so much bigger than that. This is a decision about how you will bring up a kid in the world. It’s a decision about how your child will interact with the world for next couple decades. It’s high stakes.
I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical home. We weren't the extreme family. We didn’t have family devotions or homeschool or boycott Halloween. But we were faithful and we listened to the teachings around us. In our church, the predominant message I received was that we were to do the “right” thing and our parents knew what was best; further, we were full of sin and shame so we had no right to complain. Jesus would save us and we would be fine in the end. Never mind today, soon you will be in paradise (where you will be dead). At least that’s how my child mind processed it.
Now that I am the parent I have become incredibly uncomfortable with this model. The problem is it's disrespectful (to me or the kids). It doesn’t allow for personal growth or problem solving, and it doesn’t show dignity to my children. While we were with extended family this summer (on both sides) I repeatedly found myself in conversations and occasions where the kids were not given autonomy in simple tasks, nor given the respect of allowing them to feel their feelings and voice their frustrations. It was hard for me to know what to do in the midst of it, because my approach is different.
In the culture I grew up in, we tend to treat kids like Pavlov’s dog. Do something enough times and they will get in line. But this approach isn’t very humane. Do we want our kids to just become conditioned to do something? Or do we want them to choose the right thing, even if they have never encountered this particular decision before? When we simply condition our kids we rob them of the opportunity for personal growth. We take away their autonomy. Why do so many of us choose the Pavlovian way? I think it’s because we are afraid. There are real consequences for making bad decisions. Failure is hard to endure. We pretend that good people don’t fail. But failure is what success looks like before it’s deemed success. When we take that opportunity from our kids, it simply delays that failure for a time when we are not there to guide them through it. And that denial is so much worse than actually walking through failure while you are young with a trusted adult or two to help you.
Kids are constantly learning, and they need instruction. Adults are too. And when it comes to instructing adults we are kind and careful and sensitive to their frustrations (at least we try to be). But when it comes to kids, shouting, hitting and generally shutting down their emotions is quite common – even encouraged. It’s confusing to me that we would treat people in this manner, especially when we are trying to teach them how to engage with the world, how to be good people. Kids are humans too. It seems ridiculous to have to say it, but it needs to be said. And kids need to be treated as humans.
So I find myself in a strange place right now, where it may look like I'm allowing my kids to run roughshod over me, but where I know what is actually happening: I am asking them to respectfully voice their frustrations while I try to validate what is real for them. AND in the midst of that, I am ever so slowly guiding them through the decision making process that will allow them to make better and more purposeful decisions. It’s exhausting work. It's slow and takes repeated effort. But it’s the job of the parent to do it.
My version of parenting often looks too permissive for my extended family. I want to scream at the top of my voice that I am doing the work, sitting with my kids, helping them to be beautiful, respectful humans, that they aren’t finished becoming just yet! But then that would be me focusing on me. And really, that’s not at all the point of this thing called parenting, is it? The point is to set aside what others see, and to focus on the very real work of helping these people become who they truly are so they can navigate a world that is hard and frustrating. That’s my job.
And I know that’s what’s really happening.