Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Thoughts On A Parent’s Duty

I believe that is the duty of a parent to raise our children to be responsible people. A parents job is to socialize their children—a point which I agree very strongly with Dr. Phil about; he is adamant about that. One part of socialization is to teach a child how to work with other people, to follow rules and to be able to handle typical life experiences. Additionally along the way, there will be bumps in the road, problems will happen and a child will experience some negative thing at some point, and they must learn to get up after they ‘fall down’ and to dust off their pants and get back on track and move on with life.

Sadly, not all parents help their children overcome the small problems they encounter. Some parents confuse the love they have for their child with an action of trying to shoulder the child’s burdens for them to minimize or prevent their child from feeling any emotional pain or suffering. (Those parents would also take on any physical pain that a child has over a small injury if they could, such as a scraped knee, if they could.) If a little problem happens, the parent may choose to not use that as a ‘teachable moment’. Instead the parent may do one of the following things:
1) parent denies that the problem really is happening; it just didn’t happen or it didn’t happen ‘like that’ or it must have been ‘someone else’ that did it
2) say that the person who brings the problem to their attention is wrong (this applies also if the messenger is a school teacher or even a school principal, a daycare worker, or anyone who has authority for that child)
3) give some excuse for the child’s action and don’t address the situation at hand
4) avoid the issue by changing the situation (i.e. removing a child from a school and finding a new school)

If the parent consistently refuses to place any responsibility on the child, if they refuse to allow the child to have the responsibility they should have in that situation, then the child will be stunted in their development.

The stunting might be an increased reliance on the parent as the rescuer of the problem. The child will not learn to be responsible for their actions or to be able to handle them on their own, they must rely on their parent or they may choose to ignore the problem and just not take responsibility for it.

The child may not grow to be independent and able to move freely in their world (i.e. navigate through the school on their own, or to know how to socialize when in a group of children).

Also the child may learn to always blame some other person for having some problem rather than accepting that they have any participation in the situation or the problem at hand. (Don’t you know adults who still do this? Don’t you know when they are flat-out wrong but they truly can’t see it, as if they are seeing a different reality than we see?)

This could also develop into a victim-mentality mindset. This blame game playing and victim mode of thinking and living is something that can hinder a person’s happiness and/or success in life—and sometimes it can last an entire lifetime (it does not disappear at age 18 or at some other magical point in time). Once a victim mindset is established it seems to me that the burden is on the person themselves to realize they are burdened by it and then to work hard to reverse it. Once a certain mindset, any mindset, a certain attitude or paradigm is deeply entrenched, it is very hard work to change it. (Some seek and use professional therapy for years to do this process!)

The parents do love their children very much, they want the best for their children and don’t want them to feel any pain ---but the actions which they choose to do when a situation is encountered can sometimes be misguided. There is a fork in the road when a problem happens. The parent can step up and be the parent who helps the child by raising their expectations of the child and helping them to learn how to fulfill those expectations (the right thing) or the parent can intervene and try to make the child feel better by doing something that doesn’t help the child take the personal responsibility and grow—that is a hindrance.

It is not easy to see one’s child disappointed, sad, upset, angry with themselves or feeling low-self esteem due to some mistake they made or due to being involved in a negative situation.

The parent should not attempt to protect their own psyche from being hurt by blaming others or refusing to believe or see reality. One example is when a child admits they are bullying others at school, to deny this out of a desire to keep the impression of their child more perfect than it is would be a terrible thing for the bully as well as for the victims. (I saw this on the Dr. Phil show the other day with a grandmother/guardian of a girl who refused to believe what her own bully-granddaughter was admitting to).

I firmly feel that it is a parent’s duty to allow a child to express themselves by allowing them to feel the emotional pain, to acknowledge that feeling, and then to help teach them how to properly express it (verbally not physically acting out). It is a very bad thing to teach a child to suppress and squelch the expressions of negative emotions! Many problems, personality disorders and other socialization problems can be developed (rage, physically or mentally abusing others, depression, co-dependency and so on).

It is a parent’s duty to teach a child that it is safe and a good thing to verbally communicate to the parent or others who care for that child (a teacher, for example) what is going on. A child has to learn how to properly communicate their emotions (in our family this starts in toddler-hood when that stage where they throw or hit when they are not happy with something trivial starts but that same lesson has to be taught). Look at all the adults who are hard to be around, live with or work with who never learned to communicate effectively with others, especially about problems or misunderstandings. Wrapped into this is the ridiculous notion that boys should not show emotions or that they should suppress hurt feelings or tears just because they are male. Mothers who encourage their boys to squelch their emotions may wonder why so many adult men are unable to express their emotions to others with words (loving or hurt feelings). I feel that allowing a young boy to cry as part of a release of negative emotions is good, then to move them on to learn to express their emotions verbally. If a boy can recognize their emotions, allow themselves to feel them, deal with them and let them out in a good way then perhaps they won’t instead channel that to the use of verbally harmful words (verbal abuse), perhaps they will avoid suppressed rage (road rage for one thing) and lastly, avoid the use of physically lashing out (physical abuse) of other people.

Back to children—
It is the parent’s duty to help the child learn to heal from emotional pain. The parent can help the child identify their feelings and let them feel those feelings, to cry and talk about it, to let it out. Then the parent can help the child get over it and not to wallow in it (that is an important follow-up step.) The parent should help the child not be too hard on themselves for any part they played in the situation but to address it for what it was, then to move on. This will also help the child not develop a negative self-esteem due to an over-exaggerated view of themselves or their situation. The goal is to not raise a drama-queen or a drama-king.

The child should be taught that others also don’t worry about things as much as that person, what I mean is that often others have moved on from a situation while the person themselves may hold onto the negative emotions longer than anyone else is. For example if someone made fun of the child for a piece of clothing they wore the child who was laughed at may think that in the future, others are always remembering that and thinking about it every time they see them but in reality the others may have long forgotten it. The child should be taught to not overly-focus on that and taught to not become paranoid or neurotic! The child should know that while they think about themselves every day, every other person in the world is not thinking about them every day—that is just impossible and it is unreal (yet some people think that way).

It is the parent’s duty to help shine light on the situation as it is seen from an outside party, to give another perspective. I think that as adults we all realize by now that when we are in a situation we see it from one perspective but someone on the outside may see it in another very different way—but children seldom realize this---they have to have this explained to them, and the sooner the better, I think. This should continue right through the teen years and into adulthood even! A parent doesn’t stop being a parent when their offspring turns 18 (or some other age)!

(One mother told me when she returned to full time work when her oldest was five that ‘she did her five years of mothering and she is done’—note there was a three year old too plus she was working part-time for those other years.)

(Another parent told me that by the time the child is in 7th grade, the parenting is done, that all they can hope for is they did a good job of parenting up to that point, that the parenting is DONE by then. We were talking about children drinking alcohol and smoking pot and dealing pot on school grounds during the school day which was happening in both of our towns (in different states). I asked what he would do if that was his child who was dealing pot in school, and he said hat it was not his responsibility to parent the children about those situations as he was ‘done parenting’ by that age.)

Back to more simple matters that starts with the younger kids---
It is the parent’s duty to teach the child to rise up from those low places, to do what has to be done to get past that specific situation (apologize, make amends, finish that homework, remember to bring that book to class, whatever). The parent should teach the child that once something is over, it is over, to move on and to learn from any mistakes or problems, to help them become wiser and to try to teach them to not make the same mistake twice. It is the parent’s duty to continue to love that child unconditionally despite the problems that occurred.

The parent must accept that no child is perfect; to expect perfection of a child actually burdens the child (high expectations are good but expecting perfection is going too far). And it is the parent’s duty to see their child as imperfect and to therefore accept what is being told about their child by persons of authority. A parent who puts blinders on and refuses to hear or acknowledge anything negative about their child, even when the one reporting it is an adult or a teacher or Nanny, or any other person who takes care of that child in place of the parent is heading for disaster.

My friend who is a PTA President tells me that the teachers and school administrators are starting to give up on the parents. Faced with children who are rude, have no respect for authority and who are disruptive in the classroom (not to mention the more serious matter of the bullies), the teachers and school administrators are facing denial by the parents of these ‘problem children’. She was told that simply calling the parents and asking them to teach their children to not do X or to do Y is not working, so the school must do more in-house disciplinary measures, such as a new four-step punishment process. Additionally, she tells me that the problem is not just one or two children in a classroom, but it is many children in the classroom. She reports that some teachers say that to just get through the day is sometimes a challenge and it sometimes leaves little room for real teaching or learning. One thing they’ve had to do is hire a teacher’s aid to help out just because of the unruly and undisciplined children, to deal with the behavior issues or to help try to get children to follow rules, such as to sit down and be quiet and listen to what the teacher is trying to say (let alone to actually listen and do work and to let the teacher teach something). Much time can be wasted (and the top priority is) in trying to contain the problem children (some from physically and verbally abusing other children) that teaching the behaving children is the second and lower priority of the teacher. And parents wonder why children seem to be learning less yet public education costs more than ever.

For some time the schools have been blamed. People want certain results out of the students and taxpayers want certain results for the educational system they are paying for. I know it is not good to just play the blame game. But the source of the problem must be identified correctly in order to fix the problem at the source. I have thought long and hard about this and I blame the parents. I know, you think I sound like the school teachers and administrators now! But from what I hear from my friends with children in schools and from what I hear from the teachers I know, I am really beginning to think it really is the parents. Of course, none of the parents who say this thing it is THEIR children or THEIR parenting that is causing the problem.

So who are the parents causing the problem? I think sometimes parents and also teachers (especially child-less teachers) assume that the parents of the problem kids or those parents who refuse to address a situation are the ‘neglectful’ or ‘uncaring’ or ‘indifferent’ ones. Or they may think the child is being abused at home, or is a child of divorce, or some other problem (alcoholic parent). I think by now we all know that the problem is not income level or drug addiction or ‘parent in jail’ as these problems with lower academic standards and less learned and behavior problems and suicides and drug use is happening also in middle income and wealthy communities and it is with white people not only with various minority populations. It is happening in towns full of ‘good families’ and in families with college educated parents and parents with respectable white collar jobs.

So, while a number of parents may be indifferent or truly neglectful, I think in reality most love their children very much and want only the best for them. In a quest to be a very good parent they put a lot of love, time and energy into parenting, they expect that the product of their hard work (the child) will be perfect or nearly perfect. Anything they hear that contradicts or harms this picture-perfect image they desire is sometimes denied outright, dismissed as erroneous, or dismissed as being a mistake. They can’t believe that if they taught the child to behave like X that they would actually behave like Y. (Yes I have this with my own children, too and it is heart-wrenching to accept this the first time the realization dawned on me.)

The ‘blaming of the messenger’ has to stop and the parent should truly address the issue. The problem is not what happens in the school but what is taught at home and how a situation is handled once a parent is made aware of it.

It seems to me that with fellow parents of my generation, we have a problem much worse than the former generation; we are dealing with a very different experience of parenting. The women of my generation (Generation X) were raised after women’s liberation, and we were told that we can do it all: be smart, have ‘equal opportunity’, get a college education, have a professional and highly successful career, and then only after, and optionally, get married and have children. It seems to me that so many mothers are leaving childbearing until not just their late 20s but their 30s. It used to be early 30s, but now more than ever, it seems to me that women over aged 35 and now also over 40 are trying to have their first baby (or second or more). If a successful career was left behind to raise children, boy it had better be worth it, that child had better turn out well for all the hard work and sacrifice that the mother took. I think this is what is contributing to the drive to make "superbabies" and to have high success expectations for children (such as to get them into accelerated preschools, even when the highly educated mother is at home with the child and can provide an educationally rich and loving environment for the preschool years). And when that child is in school and if problems occur, the mother (and father) may not want to accept it.

As parents we have to remind ourselves of what our job is, and it is to parent our children. It is not always fun or easy to be the parent and at time our children may be angry or upset with us for doing our duty (they will get over it and in time they will see we were doing our job and they will thank us for it). We should remember that most of us came into parenting intentionally and desiring this experience. Many of us put a lot of time and energy into it (perhaps more than we think former generations did). Sometimes dealing with problems that our children have in their lives is not easy but it is our job to be the parent and do deal with it (not to deny it or ignore it). Our children are relying on us to guide them and to give them the tools they will need not just now when they are children but when they are adults as well. Teaching our children personal responsibility, how to communicate verbally, how to see a situation for what it truly is, and how to follow-through to finish or conclude that problem is our duty to teach.

As parents we have to have high expectations for our children. Children will rise to meet an expectation they are given and so as parents we should not set the bar too low or even at a very easy level—the bar must be raised. It does not matter if we think some other family has lower expectations—we should set our expectations at the level we think is right not based on what we think our neighbors and friends are doing. We find out what we think is right through trial and error, through thinking about it and for some, through prayer.

We need to be cautious that we don’t teach our children to think they are victims or to blame others instead of bearing the responsibility that is ours to bear. Living in denial or choosing to not address a situation, or taking extreme measures to have a child avoid a situation rather than to teach them to deal with it is a very bad idea; we should use every teachable moment to our advantage as it is the perfect way to teach our children to deal with situations that are real and are happening to them and that is when they need to learn it. Teachable moments usually come up at unexpected times when we may not want to handle it, and it may be unpleasant and maybe even painful, but as parents it is our duty to address it at that time and to teach our children in the process.

Teaching and guiding our children through life is our duty as parents. Unconditional love is a treasure and a gift we can give to our children that can exist while we deal with life’s problems; the two are not mutually exclusive.

(Personal Note: My children are not perfect nor am I a perfect parent. I am writing this from the perspective of a parent who realizes how hard it is to actively parent a child. I also see how sometimes a parent can teach a child to act in a certain way but they may not choose to act that way when with us or apart from us. I have seen the ‘pack mentality’ take over with children when they are in groups, also, with other kids and with my own children, too.

I homeschool my children and so I don’t have to deal with some of the things that my friends whose children are in school deal with (thank goodness!).

As a taxpayer and citizen of America I am funding the public education system and so I have an interest in how money is spent. And no, if you are wondering, I don’t get any financial assistance, rebates or materials on my taxes paid just because we homeschool and don’t use the public schools. Since it seems to me that money is being spent on issues resulting from unsocialized or undisciplined children, to the point where teacher’s aids have to be hired to act as additional supervisors or babysitters, then you can see why I have an interest in these children’s behavior issues at school.

I also don’t know if at some point in the future my own children will be enrolled in the public school system along with these ‘problem kids’.

As an American citizen who will be living in a world with these younger people in charge someday I hope and wish they are educated and able to function in society. I do worry that people blame the schools for lowering test scores, what seems to be less learning happening in school, lowered standards and ‘dumbed down’ expectations and curriculum being used with the current public schools. I ask why anyone would lower standards, it makes no sense. A new reason seems to be surfacing, if the children can’t be controlled in the classroom to learn harder topic A then they dumb it down to a more do-able task to teach B.

All of this is also relevant to the issue that if the problem is with the parents raising unruly children who can’t function in a simple elementary school classroom then blaming the schools and asking for changes in the curriculum or with the teachers is not addressing the problem at the core of the problem. If the problem is with the parenting then our nation needs to address that and our nation needs to stop blaming the educational system.

We can't look to educational reform to fix a problem that may not be rooted in the schools themselves.

I keep asking myself what is different now then it was when I was in elementary school 30 years ago, what is different now with our high school graduates then when I graduated 20 years ago? Even the parents in my same generation with these younger children are admitting the children are different now (at very young ages such as upon Kindergarten enrollment which is when some get to see so many other children in action, especially those parents who volunteer in the classrooms). Why are the kids different now? It is the parenting that is different. When children who are just five years old are a problem you can’t blame peers or teenage peer pressure—as they are not even teenagers yet. These kids are entering the classroom acting in a certain way and the teachers are having a hard time dealing with them to get them to act in ways that are conducive to teaching and learning. Some children are so disruptive that they impede the other children’s ability to learn. We have to look at ourselves and at other parents and examine what is being done right and what is being done wrong? What parenting advice were we taught that is turning out the ‘good kids’ and which has turned out the ‘rotten apples’?

If you have the answer to that, let me know. Is there a simple one thing that can be attributed to this or is it a set of factors or a layering effect of many factors? I am curious.)

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