Articles announcing this new book have been bombarding my social media feeds over the last couple days. The support is overwhelming for this physician’s assessment of the abysmal landscape of parenting in America:
According to Dr. Leonard Sax, parents are giving kids too much power. We are letting kids decide if they open their mouths for a strep test; We are letting them drink alcohol at age 14; We are remaining silent when our kids call us names; We allow unsupervised and unrestricted internet access to the detriment of their well-beings; We threaten to deny an aggressive kid his lollipop, but after he throws a chair, we leave the appointment with candy in-hand. We aren’t being parents.
And he is right.
Maybe it’s because parents nowadays are afraid of becoming replicas of their own authoritarian parents (see pendulum pic); Maybe it’s because blogs like this admittedly write way more about validation than accountability; Maybe it’s because parents lack support and courage to sustain their kid temporarily hating them; Maybe we overindulge our kids as a way of assuaging guilt for having to hold down two jobs in our economic climate; Maybe we don’t have a freaking clue about HOW to be parents without resorting to physical punishment and we’d rather play passive than abusive; Maybe we are too damn sensitive to the disapproval of our children because we lack emotional support in our adult relationships; Maybe it’s because our self-images are based on being in a position of inferiority and powerlessness. Blablabla. There are a million reasons why we as parents often fail to set limits and hold kids accountable.
But here is the one reason that underlies them all: We, as humans, SUCK at gray areas. We suck at straddling dichotomies; We suck at acknowledging big pictures. We suck at resisting instincts to categorize and put things and people and behaviors in neat little boxes labeled “good” or “bad.;” We suck at acknowledging that “bad” is always a part of “good,” and at realizing that suppressing all “bad” results in quite the shit storm. (No need to consult a Buddhist psychologist on this truth. Just watch what happens in Star Wars.)
Let’s break-down how the myth of “good” vs. “bad” messes with our parenting:
Situation: Billy rolls his eyes and calls his mom an idiot for being late to pick him up.
Parent’s thinking: Being late is bad. Thinking your own kid is an asshole is bad. I am bad/wrong. He is good/right. I must chose one or the other. You’re right Billy; I suck.
Reality: Mom is both right/good AND wrong/bad. Billy is both right/good AND wrong/bad. There is enough room in the conversation to BOTH validate Billy’s frustration AND take away privileges and teach him about entitlement and empathy. There is enough room in my own mind to acknowledge my anger AND think of a way to be constructive.
Situation: Billy doesn’t want to open his mouth for his strep test.
Parent’s thinking: To use power (stern voice, consequence, etc.) is bad. To empower my child is good. Okay, Billy, that’s fine if you don’t open your mouth.
Reality: Using power is GRAY. In some contexts it’s harmful; In some contexts it is protective. Empowering a child is GRAY. In some contexts it’s healthy and in some contexts it’s inappropriate and dangerous. Guess I’ll tolerate the “mean” that exists inside the “benevolence” of saying open-your-mouth-or-no-video-games-Billy.
Situation: Billy wants a lollipop, but he kicked and whined through the whole appointment.
Parent: I feel his dissapointment, and dissapointment = bad, bad, bad. I want my kid to be happy, not sad. Okay, Billy. Have the lollipop you sweet angel, you.
Reality: Within my “bad” consequence is a “good” act of love. I am not flushing out the good for the sake of avoiding the bad. And even in the “bad” feeling of dissapproval, I can offer a “good” feeling of understanding and support. Billy, bummer that you didnt earn a lollipop. Maybe next time.
Some sticky dichotomies that we are far too uncomfortable with (and that we would rather neatly categorize):
Yes, asserting control can be damaging, but it can also be instructive and protective.
It is possible to acknowledge anger, hate, power-seeking, etc. and yet manage to not harm someone. It is possible to acknowledge a child’s intense feelings while still holding him accountable for respectful behavior.
We are told that empowering our kids is important, but it can also be jarring and deprive a kid of security.
It is possible to love someone and temporarily dislike them.
The loving act of helping/rescuing may also preclude growth.
Making everything better and avoiding pain sometimes enables pain.
It is possible to acknowledge a condemnation of behavior while still imparting care and kindness.
No, intentionally diminishing your kid is not a good thing, but sometimes beneficial feedback makes him feel bad or guilty.
Sometimes the loving thing feels temporarily upsetting to the child (for example, the strep test.).
A child may feel hatred and anger for your limit, while you know you are acting out of love.
Parenting is nothing if not complex. And I do worry that this book and blog posts like this will give parents who skip empathy for the sake of control (and don’t choose their battles) fuel for their dangerous fires. But. In any serious conversation about raising kids, the perils of categorical thinking should be considered.
Just something to think about, says the therapist who says that there is always enough room to offer both support AND accountability, whether it be with your parenting or with your own self-talk…. and also that if the light side of the force practiced tolerating anger/ need for power instead of completely stifling it, the plot of Force Awakens would have been Anakin and Kylo sharing a bucket of Corona over a checkerboard in Cancun.
P.S. Yes. Even distinguishing between “good vs bad” or “healthy vs delusional” is, in itself delusional. But that’s for another subject alltogether. For now, the idea of both forces being valuable is the message.
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