The meaning of children in their parent’s lives has been given attention increasingly, and it is interesting to consider why this might be happening. Perhaps it is related to the current focus on early childhood education and the importance placed on that for children’s development. At the same time the issue of how to provide appropriate child care for large numbers of children is largely unresolved, leaving many working parents stressed and searching for their own solutions.
Some months ago a Pew Research Center report based on an American Time Use Survey, concluded that parents find caring for their children to be much more exhausting than the work they do for pay. Yet they also find much more meaning in the time they spend with their children than in the time they spend at work.
Some of these findings might reflect the fact that many people may be working at jobs that they do not find meaningful because of financial need. But there are certainly many parents as well, who are stressed because they do find their work very meaningful, while also finding caring for their children meaningful, and the needs of the two may conflict.
Aside from the physical care needed by young children, which in itself can be exhausting, emotional interactions with children are both exhausting and meaningful. All relationships entail conflict, and the problem of conflicting needs and desires in human relationships is posed first in the parent-child relationship. Beginning with an infant’s all consuming needs and demands, conflict exists with the needs of parents. Parents may put their own needs aside in deference to the total dependence of infancy. As babies develop, parents are the first people with whom they come into conflict. They are also the first people with whom children experience the frustration both of living in the real world and of others whose needs do not always match their own.
The relationship between parent and child is the prototype not only of human conflict but also of the methods we use in our attempt to resolve it. Much of the stress of parenting comes from trying to address the feeling and behavior aroused in both children and their parents by conflicts between the needs and desires of each. Despite the reality that conflict is a basic condition of human existence – and part of all human experience – we seem to know few methods to deal with it successfully.
The methods used always seem to come down to right or might. In a given conflict, we think that we are right and the other person is wrong and we try to resolve the conflict by persuading the other that our idea is the right one. The other option has been to impose our point of view on another through sheer force. Parents often express this in attempting to “reason” with a child, which means trying to persuade him that the parent is right. When that fails, thoughts may turn to punishment – or to other means to force a child to comply with a parent’s ideas or wishes.
In earlier times, parents were thought to be the authority, and the “rightness” of their point of view was not to be questioned. More recently, the voice of authority seems to have shifted to children, and parents can be intimidated by children’s attempt to impose their will on their parents – often through behavior that parent’s want to stop. Many of us experienced similar ways of resolving conflict when we were children and many of the feelings relating to the parents we had – and the children we were – are aroused by conflicts as parents now with our own children.
It is interesting to see how this plays out in young children’s interactions with others. In observing them, one can see their attempts to resolve the conflicts that arise. Children start to line up at the sink for hand washing after an art project. One child gets there first. A second child, also wanting to be first, solves the problem by standing alongside the first rather than behind her. The first child seems to accept this. Then, a third child arrives and surveying the scene arrives at the same solution by standing alongside the second child. Now it is not the first child who objects but the second, who tries to push the third child out of the way. A teacher comes upon the scene and solves the problem by having the second and third child move into the correct positions on line. The children accept her authority without protest.
Another time, children are playing with an assortment of miniature cars, trucks, and trains on the floor. A child wanting a particular toy that another child has takes it away from him. The “owner” of the toy is angry and tries to take it back. A struggle ensues and neither child lets go of it. Once again, a teacher resolves the conflict by protecting the rights of the first child and finding a similar toy for the other child. Both accept the solution.
In these examples, it was the teacher’s authority that solved the problem. In other situations that cannot be resolved that easily, teachers must deal with the frustration children express when things don’t go their way. In interactions between parents and children, the authority of a parent is not as readily accepted, and parents seemingly are faced with the prospect of “giving in” to a child – or finding a means of imposing their will.
The challenge for both parents and children lies in learning the art of compromise – finding a solution that acknowledges the needs of both. Finding such solutions is part of the art of living, but may also be part of the exhaustion of child-rearing.
Postscript: I asked two ten year olds on vacation why it so exhausting for parents to raise children. One answered, “You want to know why it is so exhausting for parents to raise children. Meanwhile, the parents are the ones sitting around the pool.” Such is the child’s view.