Expecting a child to be all light with no shadow is unrealistic and can breed dangerous habits in a child. The dark side of our personality has much to teach us and can help us cope with difficult traits in others, too. One author writes, “Being properly mature involves a frank, unfrightened relationship with one’s own dark sides, complexities and ambitions.” When we only affirm the aspects of the “good child” that we approve of, without accepting their negative traits, it leaves us at risk of a strained relationship with them right into adulthood.
Put simply, our acceptance of our child must not be conditional on their behaviour.
So how can I avoid being a Cookie Cutter parent?
To keep our “good child” in good mental health, let them know that your acceptance of them is unconditional. It’s time to start accepting them for who they are, not what they do. This means that if they have an angry outburst or refuse to comply at times, we still hold an open invitation to them to be close to us, both physically and emotionally. This doesn’t mean we can’t hold high expectations for them, it just means we accept that they might not always measure up to them.
Sometimes we need to permit and even welcome, their “bad selves” as antidote to all that “good” behaviour that might be putting a strain on their physical and mental health.
As one author put it, “Being a good child is one of the loveliest things in the world. But in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be – by the standards of the good child – fruitfully and bravely “bad”.”
Read below how Nisha’s Mum approached her “good girl” differently this time round, and how it produced a different result.
Nisha came in the door quietly and placed her lunchbox neatly on the bench. Hanging her bag up she then tidily laid out all her homework on the table, ready to complete after she had eaten her afternoon snack.
“Have you had a good day, Nisha?” asked her mother Nalini, as she handed her a samosa and a drink. Nisha nodded silently. She began eating but her eyes began to stray towards the carom board. Watching her mother cautiously out of the corner of her eye, she reached out and began toying with a carom piece, spinning it round and round.
“Nisha!” said her mother sharply. “You know you must not play with the carom board until after dinner!”
Nisha pulled back quickly and her left hand tightened into a fist. She put her samosa down on the plate unfinished, staring angrily out the window.
“Nisha!” said her mother again after a time. “You must finish up your samosa! No homework until you have eaten your snack.”
Suddenly Nisha stood and shoved her plate aggressively across the table, watching it fall and smash onto the floor. “Ma!” she shouted angrily. “I’m sick of you controlling everything! I’m sick of eating! I’m sick of school! I’m NOT doing my homework. I’m going to my room!”
Nalini, taken aback by the fallen plate, watched Nisha leave in surprise. What has gotten into her today? She wondered. She wasn’t used to Nisha speaking back. She considered calling her father to make him come home and discipline her, then she changed her mind and sighed. Sometimes it was not worth the fuss… “Today I’ll try something different”, she thought to herself.
Cleaning up the mess carefully, she spent some time and made another plate of food up for Nisha then knocked quietly on her door.
“Nisha? I’ve brought you another snack in case you’re hungry later.”
Going in she found a silent tear-stained face looking the other way out the window, rocking silently to and fro.
“Nisha… Nisha” said Nalini much more gently and moved to provide a comforting hug. “It felt so hard for you did it?”
Nisha’s back remained stiff upright and she continued to look out the window.
“Nisha, we will talk about this later. It’s not ok to smash plates, but right now you’re upset. You need to take some time to get over it.”
Nisha looked up cautiously at her mother’s face. To her surprise it was inviting and warm.
“I’m looking forward to play carom with you after dinner, Nisha,” Nalini said with a playful question in her eyes.
“I’m still allowed to play?” Nisha asked hesitantly.
“Of course darling,” said Nalini putting an arm round her shoulders. “We’ll talk about all this after, once you’re feeling better. Carom is for everyday no matter how you behave. It’s what we do after dinner together, no matter what.”
Nisha gave a broad smile and hugged her mother back. She wasn’t sure why she had got so angry, but she sure felt a whole lot better about it now.
Adrienne Wood is a presenter, educator, parent consultant and mother to two adolescents of her own. She has a particular interest in children presenting with complex behavioural needs. Drawing on her training with the Neufeld Institute, she seeks to help parents and professionals better understand youth from an attachment-based developmental perspective. To learn more about Adrienne’s work with parents visit www.heartsync.co.nz