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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Where does the 'I' go in 'parenting'? -Thoughts on 'To Train Up a Child' and other misplaced methods

The more I write about young children and how best to care for them, the more I realise that the crux of the matter is not the way you deal with your child, but the way you deal with yourself. It's the 'I' in parenting that is the source of the most trouble; the way that you place yourself into your child's world is crucial to the way they will develop.

For example, there's the 'do as I say' method of parenting which expects unquestioning obedience. The worst and most heartbreaking examples of this method are the exponents of radical and abusive tomes such as 'To Train Up a Child'. At the heart of this mentality is a parent who doesn't identify their child as a human being.  They place the 'I' at the top so it dominates and subdues their child.

The 'I' has made them blind to their child's humanity. They look on bringing up a child as no different to training a servile animal in a third world country; it's your possession to do with as you please, so you can beat it until you break its will and it complies with everything you say. This method gives you absolute power over a helpless creature that depends on you for food and shelter. 'To Train Up a Child' isn't about religion. It's about power and ego.

Most of us are horrified by this type of parenting, yet I see lesser degrees of the 'I' dominating parenting styles everywhere I go. Any parent who allows their own ego to rule their parenting is asking for trouble, and it doesn't have to be a case of extreme physical abuse to create problems. I see abundant examples of too much 'I' influencing parenting decisions within threads on parenting forums around the world, and sadly there's no changing the views of these parents despite their obvious momentum towards a schism with their child- the ego has taken over to the point where these people simply can't view their child through any other frame than their own dominance.

When, for example, you spank your child because you were spanked and it 'didn't do you any harm', you are letting the 'I' dominate. You dare not look outside the frame of your own experience; spanking is easy, relieves your feelings, honours your parents' parenting style and may temporarily stop your child from misbehaving (ie for as long as you're looking at them). 

You won't look at the research that says that spanking actually doesn't change behaviour in the long term, and you probably won't look into your child's eyes to see the trust leaching out of them and the anger and resentment flooding in. You won't deal with the possibility that your parents' behaviour may have been flawed. These things threaten our deepest emotions and beliefs, and it's much easier not to look at them at all.

You will eventually end up posting on a thread in a parenting forum because you've escalated the physical punishment to the max yet it's still not stopping the undesirable behaviour, and now your teenager won't even talk to you. Until you deal with your misplaced 'I' and work on better ways of handling your own frustration, there won't be a solution.

The dominant 'I' can cause you to ignore your child's pleas to study art and force them to take physics, because you want them to have a career in medicine to soothe your own ego. It can cause you to harass them about their homosexuality or to refuse to accept it at all, because you feel it reflects badly on you. It can cause your child to lie to you because they can't or don't want to live up to your expectations. A dominant 'I' will usually result in a grown child who's a rebel or a doormat, and I assure you that neither of those reflect well on one's parenting.

A misplaced 'I' can also cause grief when your children become the sole focus of your world. If you leave the 'I' out of your parenting altogether and start to live for and through your children, you're lining up for multiple griefs. These parents are like tigers when you appear to question their parenting style, no matter how gently or with how much compassion for their situation, because they have nothing else but their parenting style. The rest of their personality has atrophied.

You're effectively querying these parents' entire existence if you suggest, for example, that maybe if they're expressing distress because their sex life is a non-event and their partner is on the verge of leaving, it might be time to rethink co-sleeping with their seven-year-old. The reaction will be volatile and sometimes vicious; a parent who identifies themselves completely through their parenting will not be capable of a calm, patient and polite explanation to others of why this suggestion doesn't fit with their parenting philosophy. They will not be capable of identifying the difference between a concerned, caring intervention and a full-frontal attack, because their frame is completely filled with their child and they can't see anything outside of that.

I met many of these parents while I was teaching music at a school with a highly selective, auditioned music program. Their children's musical gifts were invariably those of a rare prodigy- in the eyes of their parents, that is- and the reaction when I tried to give them some perspective was invariably of nuclear proportions, sometimes becoming physically aggressive. (Note that the children themselves were invariably trying to disappear into the ground in embarrassment.)

In a decade or so these 'I'-less parents will be filling the parenting forums with hysterical posts about their children leaving home to go to college, desperately trying to cling to their reason for living. They've completely neglected their 'I', and their children can't get away from their clutches fast enough. I've met children who've moved to the other side of the world to get away from parents who've lost their 'I', and some of them feel like even that's not far enough- they'd go to the moon if they could. 

So how DO we place the 'I' correctly in parenting?

In metaphorical terms, first of all you need a long piece of elastic and a pair of scissors. Tie one end to your child, tie one end to yourself and then give your child the scissors. What you want to create is an atmosphere where your child will move away from you and spring back to your side of his own free will. He feels completely secure, but the means to separate are in his hands, not yours. The timing is up to him- he'll do it when he's ready.

Meanwhile he'll do some uncomfortable pulling while he tests how far he can go; be honest when he's hurting you, and help him find how far this elastic will stretch before it breaks. That means talking to him as a human being- one with less experience than you, one with a lot to learn, but one with much to offer you of himself if you'll sit and listen.

Your 'I' will also need a mirror, and either some good friends to talk to or a counsellor. Look at yourself, know yourself, identify where your beliefs about parenting have come from. Look at your faults honestly. Why do you do that thing that drives others mad? Why do you do that thing that drives YOU mad? How can you help your child not to fall into those traps?

For example, I identify in myself a tendency (when things annoy me) to let it go, and let it go, and let it go, and then SNAP with a reaction that's out of proportion to the irritation. This is probably based around a long-standing desire to please my wonderful mother (and so to be very agreeable and loving and not make waves) combined with a hair-trigger temper inherited from my father. It wasn't a very desirable quality in a parent, and I wish someone had pointed that out to me at the time!! I'm still fighting it as a partner. It's HARD to express my needs before it becomes a crisis. But that's the sort of thing that good parents do- they draw the line well before they lose their temper.

And what's the opposite of your irritating behaviours and habits- what lies at the other extreme? How can you help your child tread the middle ground?  For example, if you were poor in childhood and had limited toys yourself, as I did, your 'I' will be screaming to give your child everything you never had. At the opposite end of that lies an indulged child who expects material possessions as her right. Finding the middle ground is going to be one of your challenges, because you'll be fighting your 'I' all the way.

Before you start working on your child's behaviour, work on your own, so you understand what's really going on here. Successful parenting is about nudging, not forcing; it's about gradually separating, not insisting on over-attaching. It's about catching yourself before you repeat your parents' mistakes. It's about examining your instincts as well as responding to them. It's about giving yourself time and space to nurture your 'I' so that you can be the best person you can be for your child.

You can still make 'I' statements- it's not a dirty word. Here are some great 'I' statements.

'I love you whatever you decide.'

'I need some time because I'm upset and I don't want to take it out on you.'

'I don't understand why you did that- can you talk to me about it?'

'I feel hurt when you do that.'

'I'd like to hear your thoughts on this, and then I'll tell you mine.'

'I feel sad today. It's not your fault.'

'I'm so happy that you helped me do that.'

'I'm sorry I hurt your feelings.'

Do you see?


  1. I've put these I statements on my fridge to help remind me :) so so glad I found this, just what I needed because I'm struggling when my patience suddenly snaps. Thankyou.

  2. Holly, that's great! I really identify with what you say about your patience snapping. Glad I could help you. :)

  3. I love this Annie. You've really put into words so coherently what i've half-thought over the years. I know my weaknesses as a parent so well, despite repeating what Kahlil Gibran said to myself over and over. "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself... You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. ...You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. "

  4. I love that quote... I read it a long time ago but I remember it now- thank you! "Their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow." Wonderful.

  5. Ahhh, this parenting gig is so hard!!! Those are all wonderful thing to reflect on. I'm only about 3.5 years into parenting my 2 boys. I've tried to be reflective. I know I can swing both ways-- demanding that they do certain things just because it works for ME or giving up every little piece of me to be the absolute perfect mother for them... I am constantly trying to find balance- this was encouraging though, in that journey!

  6. Wow! So well put. Thanks so much. Carolyn

  7. Jackie, that's what we do- swing like a pendulum seeking the right point of balance. Keep reading, keep reflecting- if you've recognised that perfection is not the goal, you're halfway there.

    And Carolyn- thank you. Blogging sometimes feels like sending your heart out into space. It's so reassuring to get messages of appreciation.

  8. It's always worth reading things like this even if just as a reminder of how easy it is to slip into behaviours that we as parents would actively try to discourage. Your "I" statements at the end are a list that all parents should have.
    I remember as a teacher havign a little note at my desk that said "smile." Just a tiny little cue to stop and have a look and make sure I am still smiling :)
    Thanks, debs

    1. Thanks, Deb. It's just as effective to think like this as a teacher. Authoritarianism might appear to give control, for example, but is anyone actually learning anything- or are they just trying to please you so they don't get into trouble? Children are people in the classroom, too.


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