The role of parental expectations and demands
From the toddler years onward we need to start introducing our children to some age-appropriate demands and expectations. This is how they gradually awaken to the sense that other people have their own needs and feelings, and thus they begin a journey towards consciousness of the ‘other’, towards respect and empathy. An assertive parent that asks for respect is also the role model showing the child how to be appropriately assertive.
Over the course of the parenting journey you will need to say no a million times to your child, and this is not just a hard reality; it is a gift. Here’s what I mean. Saying ‘no’ is not intrinsically wounding; what makes it hurtful is the feeling and intention with which we say it. Those of us that felt disempowered as children are likely to feel some resentment when our own children ‘get their own way’, and so when we say ‘no’, we can sometimes sound sour and cold. It is the punishing voice, not the word ‘no’ that does the harm.
Otherwise, your ‘no’ is an integral part of how your child gets to know you, your outer boundaries and definition, this is part of how they get to experience you as a whole person. An honest, transparent and non-blaming truth about your limits is actually nourishing. When you are ‘real’, your child feels your essence, your substance, your spirit. This feeds their soul, helps them to know themselves and to grow up.
Saying ‘yes’ when you mean ‘no’ feels confusing to your child, even frustrating. It is permissiveness without presence. Say for instance you are exhausted from a long hard day at work, and your child insists on you playing with her. You could try to be a ‘good parent’, over-extend and get on the floor and play. Your presence risks having an ‘as-if’ quality, you are only half-present, inside you’re wishing you could escape. In this instance you might be giving more to your child by being honest, saying: ‘I really don’t feel like playing right now, I want to rest (or be alone, or sleep, or whatever).
Sometimes, and to some degree, our children want us to be in charge.
Many parents of our generation have tried so hard to reject the old coercive and authoritarian ways, that we have overcompensated and disempowered ourselves. We need new role-models showing us how to be in charge when this is called for, but in ways that actually empower our children. This does not mean dominating our children compulsively, nor insisting on being in charge all the time – children can’t develop self-confidence if we never let go of control. But often there are situations in which, if we refuse to take command, our children will feel lost, insecure, abandoned.
There will never be a perfect guide on how to strike a balance between stepping back, negotiating, and making strong demands of our children. No book can offer certainty on an issue that is only resolved by parents’ willingness to err, to listen intently, to watch for feedback, to acknowledge mistakes with grace, and to say ‘sorry’ when warranted. But a rough guide for non-negotiable areas of parental authority might be: when the child’s health is at risk, or when their behavior risks hurting or disrespecting someone else.
Making ‘contact’ with the child, vs. controlling the child
A new paradigm for parent-child relationships emphasises ‘contact’ instead of ‘control’. ‘Real’ and effective ‘contact’ with our children requires our authentic and responsible self-expression. The idea of authentic ‘contact’ exists outside the paradigm of ‘control’, which forces parents to choose between coercive or permissive styles. In fact, it rejects this polarity altogether. Setting boundaries assertively through authentic ‘contact’, is accomplished mainly by making ‘I’ statements to the child. Respectful boundary setting means a clear statement about you, and about how you feel, as opposed to a negative statement about the child. In this way, it’s OK to occasionally be angry with children, because ‘I’ statements express anger in a responsible and non-hostile manner. An assertive ‘I’ statement gets the child’s attention, it compels them to momentarily look beyond themselves (it is stage-appropriate for little children to be egocentric!), and at least momentarily, see you as a person. The focus is not on hurting, putting down, guilt-tripping nor shocking the child. Instead, the goal is to command the child’s attention, to show yourself in a way that compels him to see you as an ‘other’, with your own separate needs and feelings.
It is through showing yourself – your willingness to be emotionally transparent – that your children gradually come to comprehend the feelings of others. Children benefit from open expression of emotions; from seeing when their parents are angry or vulnerable, as well as when they are happy and loving. There is much value in letting your children see you are annoyed, disappointed and even hurt at something they have done. Children learn best when they can see the kind of impact that their behaviour has on the feelings of others. A study conducted at the Barnard College Toddler Centre in New York confirmed that mothers who openly – but appropriately – expressed anger had children who were more emotionally secure.
This means more than just being gentle when trying to make contact with your child. It means being all of who you are. If you feel angry, look and sound angry. If you feel sad or hurt, look and sound that way. Let your child know what happened that triggered off these feelings for you. This is not about blame, it is about connection, about letting them know you and experience you in a genuine way.
How can children learn to have empathy unless they are faced with a parent who is transparent; emotionally ‘real’? When you play the role of authority, you are not being real, but distant and false. Here is what a real person is: sometimes sad, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes irritated, frustrated, elated, loving, angry, tender, confused, afraid, mistaken and uncertain. In other words, not so in-control. And it is your essential humanness that your children want (and need) to get to know. Your humanness is knowable to your children through your openness about your emotions. In this rich soil, their natural latency for empathy and caring can grow solid as a tree. When children are treated empathically, and when they can know their parents as real persons – that is, with their own needs, limits, and vulnerabilities – they mature emotionally. Ultimately, this is what best helps them to become naturally considerate, responsible and empathic individuals, with a strong self-worth and a keen social awareness.
When we show our feelings authentically and appropriately, this is good role modelling for our children. By seeing how we deal with our feelings, they learn how to deal with their own.
Mutual authenticity is the stuff of intimacy, the cornerstone of loving relationships. In this context, when conflict is embraced and navigated responsibly, it helps your child to mature and will bring you closer together.
The central importance of emotional support
Of course, being ‘real’ with our children is far easier for both child and parent when there are others around for the child to connect to, play with, get a hug from if Mum or Dad are tired or grumpy or wanting to be alone. Support makes all the difference; we are freer to be ourselves when there is enough of it around; boundaries are easier to set and our children listen to us more attentively. We are far more likely to feel able to set boundaries without frustration and annoyance, if our children’s and our own needs for emotional connection are met.