Raising Human Beings
- Chapter 1 - ROLE CONFUSION
It seems like it’s always been this way. Adults telling kids what to do and making them do it. Might makes right. Father knows best. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Do as I say, not as I do. Children should be seen and not heard.
And yet, along with some other historically subjugated groups—women, people of color—children have come a long way. Not so long ago, children were brought into the world to ensure the survival of the species, to help out on the farm, to generate some income, or simply because birth control wasn’t yet in vogue or reliable. Nowadays, with the species more populous than ever and with most kids off the hook (in the Western world, anyway) for tending the flock or contributing income, kids have choices. They’re real people. They matter. And they know it.
Some observers of Western society are not especially enthusiastic about the rise in kids’ status, pointing with alarm at what they perceive as the disrespectful, irreverent character of the modern child (Aristotle, of course, complained about the same thing). They lament the “adultification” of children and look with disdain upon
parents who aren’t sufficiently in charge. They long for the good old days, when roles were clear, kids knew their place, and administering a well-deserved thrashing wouldn’t get you reported to the authorities.
On the other hand, there are those who aren’t quite convinced that the good old days were as marvelous as advertised. They’ve come to realize that might and right don’t overlap seamlessly, and that father didn’t always know best. They now recognize that the rod was an unnecessary and even counterproductive teaching tool, that thrashings were a pretty extreme way to make a point, and that there’s more to raising a kid than carrots and sticks. They believe that allowing children to have a voice in their own affairs might actually be good preparation for The Real World.
So, as it relates to how to raise kids, a lot of parents are a little confused about how to proceed these days. They’re mired in that muddy territory that lies between permissiveness and authoritarianism. They want their kid to be independent, but not if he’s going to make bad choices. They want to avoid being harsh and rigid, but not if the result is a noncompliant, disrespectful kid. They want to avoid being too pushy and overbearing, but not if an unmotivated, apathetic kid is what they have to show for it. They want to have a good relationship with their kid, but not if that means being a pushover. They don’t want to scream, but they do want to be heard.
It’s all about balance, but the balance sometimes seems so precarious, so difficult to achieve.
Fortunately, it’s not mud that lies between the Dictatorial Kingdom and the Pushover Provinces. It’s a partnership, and one in which collaboration, rather than power, is the key ingredient. A
partnership that will help you and your kid work together as allies—as teammates—rather than as adversaries. A partnership that will help you forge a relationship that works for both of you, that gives you both room to grow, that provides your child with the solid foundation he needs to someday spread his wings and fly.
We seem to be moving pretty fast here. A collaborative partnership? With my kid? For real?
For real. You may not be aware of it, but you started collaborating with your kid the instant he came into this world. When he cried, you tried to figure out what was the matter. Then you tried to do something about it. Then, based on his feedback, if it became apparent that your intuition or your intervention wasn’t spot-on, you adjusted. So you’ve had a collaborative partnership with your kid for quite some time.
Will I still be an authority figure in a collaborative partnership?
Yes, very much so. Not an “old school” authority figure, but an authority figure nonetheless.
It turns out that what you’re mostly looking for, as a parent, is influence. Not control. And there is more than one way to get that influence. One path involves power and coercion, but there’s another path, one that enhances communication, improves relationships, and better prepares kids for a lot of what actually lies ahead in The Real World. This book, as you might have guessed, is about the second path.
The good news is that, by mere virtue of your position as parent, you already have influence. The bad news is that you don’t have as much influence as you thought and that if you use your influence in the wrong way, you’ll have even less.
Now some more good news: your child wants influence too.
That’s good news?
very good news. For your child to do well in The Real World, he’ll need to know what he wants. Of course, it wouldn’t be ideal for you to give him everything he wants just because he wants it. So he’ll also need to know how to pursue what he wants adaptively and in a way that takes others’ needs and concerns into account. As a pretty influential guy named Hillel once wrote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” The problem, of course, is that Hillel didn’t give us the recipe for balancing those two considerations. Nonetheless, you’re on the hook for helping your child do it.
Creating a collaborative partnership with a child is unfamiliar territory for many parents, and we adults often aren’t very enthusiastic about treading into unfamiliar territory. If we’re going to err, it’s often going to be in the direction of authoritarianism and rigidity, and we can easily find support for this position, perhaps from parenting experts (depending on who we follow), perhaps in scripture (if we’re selective about where we look). But working toward a collaborative partnership has the potential to make parenting far more rewarding and to have you someday looking in the rearview mirror with great satisfaction.
We humans have come so far in so many realms. We have electricity and iPods and smartphones and the Internet. We can communicate instantaneously with people anywhere in the world. We’ve mastered flight. We’ve landed people on the moon and explored planets. We can transplant hearts and livers and faces and replace limbs. We can prevent and cure diseases. We can make babies without need of intercourse . . . and help them survive if they’re born many months before term.
still overreliant on power and control to solve problems. In that very important respect, we haven’t come far enough. And it begins with how we raise our children.
Completing the quote from Hillel, “If not now, when?”
• • • • •
As you read in the introduction, there are several stories that run throughout the book. Each focuses on a different family. These families’ situations will help elucidate the themes and strategies you’ll learn about. Let’s meet our first family now.
Denise was in her early-morning single-mom frazzle. Three kids to get out the door to school, a job to get to (preferably on time), and a boss who tried to be understanding but didn’t take kindly to late-arriving employees.
“Hank, get down here and eat your breakfast! Nick, stop doing your homework and go get dressed for school—you should’ve finished it last night, anyway! Charlotte, please turn off the TV and get your backpack ready. You’re going to miss the bus! I’ve told you a million times not to watch TV in the morning before school! And the dog still hasn’t been fed!”
Charlotte, the youngest of Denise’s kids, meandered into the kitchen. “Can’t somebody else be the one who feeds the dog in the morning? There’s too much for me to do.”
“Fine, I’ll feed the dog,” said Denise, pouring milk into a bowl of cereal for Hank. “Just get out of here so you don’t miss your bus! I don’t have time to drive you to school again!”
“I like when you drive me to school,” said Charlotte, sitting down on a kitchen chair.
“Charlotte, don’t sit down!” said Denise. “I like driving you to school, too, but not when I’m this late. Go!”
Charlotte got up from the chair, just in time for her older brother, Hank, to flick her ear as he sat down for breakfast.
“Hank, leave her be!” hissed Denise. “What did I tell you was going to happen to your Xbox if you keep torturing your sister?”
“What’s for breakfast?” mumbled Hank, still half asleep.
Denise placed the bowl of cereal in front of Hank.
“I don’t want cereal,” grumbled Hank.
“It’s all I have time for today.”
“Then I won’t eat breakfast.”
“There are some frozen waffles in the freezer,” offered Denise. “Does that work?”
“I don’t want breakfast.”
“I don’t want you going to school without breakfast,” said Denise, opening a can of dog food.
“Yeah, well, I’m not hungry. You never have time to make pancakes except on the weekend.”
Hank got up from the table and left the kitchen.
“I can’t make pancakes every day!” called Denise. “And nobody else likes pancakes, anyway. Nick, stop with the homework. Do you want the cereal Hank isn’t eating?”
“Hank probably got his spit in it already,” said Nick.
“That’s right, loser,” called Hank from the hallway. “?’Cuz losers eat my spit.”
“I’m not eating it,” announced Nick.
Denise sighed and dumped the cereal in the sink and poured a new bowl of cereal for Nick.
“I’m not using the same bowl he spit in!”
“Fine. I’ll give you a new bowl.” Denise poured fresh cereal and milk into a different bowl and set the dog food in front of Nick.
“This is disgusting!”
Nick protested before Denise noticed her error.
“Oh geez!” Denise replaced the dog food with the bowl of cereal.
“Don’t spill it on my homework!” Nick warned.
“Bye,” Charlotte called from the front hallway.
“Bye, sweetie; I love you!” called Denise.
A minute later, Denise heard Hank leave without saying good-bye. Then she noticed that Nick hadn’t touched his cereal.
“Nick, enough with the freaking homework!”
When Nick had left and Denise was finally on her way to work, a few minutes late as usual, she wondered why every morning had to be just like the last. Would it ever get easier?