Do Mothers Take the Brunt?

In a recent conversation with a mother of a teen-ager, she reported that her son was complaining to her about the disrespectful way some of his peers talked to each other.   She pointed out to him that some of his examples sounded a lot like the way he talks to her at times.  His response was, “That’s different – you’re my mother.”  The implication was that talking to mom meant being able to say anything you please.

I have heard complaints from many parents that their children do not treat them with respect.  Is this a gender issue or has it to do with the nature of the relationship between mother and child?  Mothers generally say children listen better to, and are less likely to  defy their fathers.  On the other hand, many fathers also complain about lack of respect from their children.  Also, much has been noted about differences between mother/son and mother/daughter relationships.

Significant social changes have also had an impact on parent/child relationships.  Many mothers work full time and are not the primary caregivers for their children.  More than ever before, fathers are primary caregivers or much more involved with the care of their children than in earlier times.  Nevertheless, for the most part, mothers carry their babies in their bodies and experience a close connection to them, especially if they are nursing.

There has been ongoing discussion and often disagreement about the role of biology in the mother/child relationship.  To whatever degree biology plays a role, the early bond is strong.  Beyond that, mother is most often both the first gratifier of needs and source of frustration.  They very much wish to fulfill the needs of their babies but the reality is that life in the real world instead of the womb imposes some frustration.  Little by little babies face expectations that differ from the wish for total gratification.  Both gratification and frustration get attached to mother.

Numerous theorists have speculated that this dual role played by the mother in infancy and early childhood is the source of hostility or ambivalence to women generally.  Be that as it may, mothers are often seen as more in touch with children’s needs and wishes while fathers are thought to be more demanding, setting higher expectations – a generalization, to be sure.  The tie between mother and child is often an ambivalent one, presenting challenges to both in achieving separation.  The many jokes about this relationship are testimony to its universality.  

The feeling that you can talk to your mother any way you wish may be due to the idea of unconditional love connected to the “good mother” ideal.  For some children, provocative or disrespectful language or behavior may actually be a way of testing whether or not they are loved unconditionally.  Some mothers feel they should accept such behavior to demonstrate to a child that he or she is loved in that way.

Part of the problem lies in the difficulty for many of us in distinguishing between feelings and behavior.  When children encounter disapproval for their behavior they are known to hurl the accusation that parents don’t love them.  Mothers tend to be particularly vulnerable to the expression of such feelings.  In part that is because of the strong feelings they do have for their children but it is also a misguided idea of being a “good” mother.

Part of our role as parents is to teach children to behave appropriately.  To fill that role a mother – or father – should be prepared to accept a child’s hostility as well as love.  Children don’t like being corrected – most adults don’t either.  So we may strive to teach and correct in a way that enables our children to hear us.  Speaking to parents disrespectfully is not acceptable.  The same is true of the way we, as parents, talk to our children.  We need to monitor ourselves as we correct our children.

Neither mothers – nor fathers – should get the brunt of the unacceptable expression of feelings by their children.  We can respect the feelings while rejecting the disrespect.