My attention was called to an article suggesting that children have become their parents’ bullies. The theme was that at one time children were scared of their parents and now parents seem scared of their kids. An example given was one familiar to all parents: a child has a tantrum in a store about a toy he wants when they are there to buy a birthday present for a friend, but – mom gives in and buys the toy.
This theme of over-indulgent parents leading to “spoiled” and self-centered children is a criticism that turns up repeatedly in material written for and about parents. What is added here is the idea that parents today are “scared” of their children and have turned over to children their own rightful place as “captains of the ship.” Perhaps another way of thinking about this is that parents seem to have difficulty staying in charge.
Parents at times do feel bullied by their children who can be unrelenting when they want something. But are parents “scared” of their children? My own view is that parents are not so much scared by their children as they are by misconceptions – or confusions – they have about children generally. Many things have given rise to such confusions.
Parents have fewer children today than in past times which means a greater ability to attend to them individually. This also leads to a greater investment both emotionally and financially in each of them. Beyond that is a concern that fewer opportunities are open to our children than there were in recent history. This has put a greater emphasis on what may be needed for success and the competition with others. These factors compound ideas that have taken hold about children’s needs and how they are to be met.
Many young parents no longer live near their parents or other older family members and are very much on their own in terms of child care and child-rearing guidance. We live in the age of science and technology where there are always new inventions and new ideas about how to do many things – including raising children. Parents can and do turn to books, magazine articles and the Internet whenever questions – or concerns – arise.
Child-rearing information and advice based on the latest research, or the newest psychological theories have little to do with the development of any individual child and can, therefore, be very misleading to a parent. Moreover, this moves the focus away from parents’ own ideas, values and most important, their knowledge of their own child. More troublesome yet, is the implication that you may not be doing the best for your child or worse, even damaging your child by not following the latest body of information.
Much development information focuses on children’s needs but becomes very difficult to apply in specific situations. Trying to differentiate between what children need and what they want can be very confusing, particularly when they act as though they need what they want – and sometimes they do. Children’s emotions are very intense and it is understandable if a parent begins to feel uncertain in the face of what appears to be great upset, whether expressed in anger, tears or unhappiness.
Tantrums and meltdowns in public places cause parents to feel embarrassed or humiliated which leads to the “giving in” as in the example above. Often such episodes are the end result of earlier similar situations that created parental uncertainty. When children become very upset they act – and may feel – as though it is the end of the world. But it is not. And parents need to feel secure in that knowledge. That knowledge makes for self-confidence, which in turn enables a parent not only to ride out the storm but also importantly, able to reassure the child that he or she will feel better. Children often don’t know that themselves when they are upset.
Another culprit in parental confusion is children’s anger. Children’s anger can be even harder to tolerate than their upsets. When children say, “I hate you,” or “You are so mean,” it taps into all the questions a parent may have about whether he or she is doing the right thing. It can also tap into all the feelings we may remember having about our own parents. This is fine if it helps us identify with our child, as long as we stay rooted in being the parent and recognize that those are transient feelings rather than an accurate reflection of a parent.
Children’s emotional reactions to what we do are usually not the best way to judge our own requests or decisions as parents. Difficult or not, we have to trust our own ideas about what is best for our children, knowing we may make mistakes. Parents are not “scared” of their children. But they can be misled by children’s reactions to what they do appropriately as parents.