Jack C. Westman,M.D.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin-Madison
If a child lives with criticism,
When seen only as presiding over a child's growth, parenting can be frustrating and burdensome. However, when seen as an opportunity for personal growth for adults, parenting is one of the most creative and affirming experiences that life offers. It can be a mutual growth process for both parents and children.
Reinhold Niebuhr said that parents' lives are fulfilled through the realization of integrity in their children.1 This means that the full meaning of parenthood comes in later life. Yet while we are raising our children, parenting gives us chances to improve ourselves and broaden our own personal horizons as we model for our children the qualities we would like to see in them. For some of us, our own children give us a chance to become the parents we wish that we had.
Because each one is born with unique potentials, children develop their own personality styles, temperamental rhythms, moral values, and interests. Still parents exert strong influences on these qualities, as do peers, teachers, and society during the school years.
There was a time when parents raised their children without relying on expert advice. In those days aunts and grandmothers were available to help. But during most of this century families have been increasingly isolated from their extended families. Because childrearing seems to be a baffling and risky experiment, many parents have turned to experts. Unfortunately, that expert advice has been interpreted in the context of prevailing social trends and converted into childrearing fads that later have been cast aside along with the reputations of scapegoated experts whose names have been associated with those childrearing eras.
Early in this century, John B. Watson warned parents against spoiling their children with unnecessary displays of affection and recommended imposing regular habits on them in order to instill self-discipline. The ideas of Sigmund Freud swayed the next era toward reasoning with children to help them become insightful individuals, capable of enjoying leisure as well as work. After World War II, permissiveness with children was inferred from the writings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, who enjoined parents to trust their intuitions as they tried to meet their children's needs.
Now in the wake of the "Spock era," we can choose from a variety of experts. On the "conservative" side are those who encourage firmness and "tough love" with children. On the "liberal" side are those who minimize confrontation and stress negotiating with children. Finally for the "avant-garde" there is a plethora of advice on how to accelerate development in order to qualify children for prestigious nursery schools.
Now parenthood has almost become professionalized so that many parents seek "the best way" to raise their children. Childrearing no longer is something that can be done by tradition, whim, or common sense. There presumably is a "right way" to put a child to bed, to leave a child with a sitter, to get a child started in school, and to have a friend over. Because being a parent is a career, like any career the harder we work at it the more we gain. The result is the general feeling that we cannot do enough for our children. Certainly we should raise our children better than we were raised.
Whereas parents who reared their children in the seventies felt overwhelmed and needed their children to grow up fast to reduce some of the pressures on themselves, parents in the eighties believed that they could give their children a competitive edge that would make them brighter and more able. In our busy lives in the nineties we feel isolated from other parents. There is no time and there are few places for us to exchange ideas and share our experiences.
The psychologist David Elkind concluded that parents in the seventies "hurried" their children to make them more mature, and parents in the eighties "miseducated" their children to make them more intelligent.2 Today's parents continue the hurrying and miseducation trends and are susceptible to commercial oversell and to the fadishness of educational practices.
According to Elkind, young children accept and participate in miseducation, because it pleases those to whom they are attached, not because they find it interesting and enjoyable. Miseducation thus creates internal conflicts between the natural inclinations of children and doing what others expect them to do. Miseducation can be more pernicious than hurrying, because it can lead to more deep-seated problems. Young people who have been hurried can take a year or two off before getting on with their adult lives, but miseducation, especially when combined with hurrying, can leave children with stunted creativity and with conflicts in their own personalities.
Many of us are confused and frustrated, because of our not entirely compatible goals: to have a happy child, to have a brilliant child, and to have a smoothly managed home that does not detract from our careers. This situation was described vividly by Joan Beck, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune :
Once it was assumed that teenagers felt a little awkward with contemporaries of the opposite sex, that it took a few adolescent years to get used to feeling comfortable about asking for dates, going out together and working up to kissing and beyond. There were generally perceived standards of sexual behavior, acknowledged by the media and at least nominally supported by adults. Adolescents who didn't want to go beyond them could say no with social and peer sanction.
But teenagers today are expected -- at least by many counselors, clinics, advertisers, media messages, and each other, if not by parents -- to be sexually active and to work out a moral code of their own for coping with sexuality. They also are considered -- certainly by clinics, counselors, and school-based health centers -- to be mature enough to deal with the disciplines and difficulties of contraception.
We expect kids to have the strength to deal with parents' divorce without emotional damage, to handle life with a single parent without a problem, and to grow up strong without a father-in-residence or even with never having had a father's name.
It used to be assumed that adults owed it to children to protect them from harm before birth and after, to remove foreseeable obstacles from their lives and give them time to mature before they had to face adult dangers. Now, babies die of AIDS in urban hospitals, one infant in every ten is born suffering from cocaine exposure, one child in five lives in poverty and countless numbers of adolescents are turned off by poor schools, pressured into gangs or caught in the webs of crack. "Just say no" is thin armament indeed for the hazards of urban jungles.
The truth is that we are redefining children and childhood to fit adult needs and conveniences and to take a minimum of adult time and attention.
The grandfatherly advice of the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim warned against placing too much pressure on children to achieve, lest a child come to believe that one's performance is more important than being a person.3 He advocated bringing the worlds of children and adults together and described parenting as a process in which parents and children share their lives and grow together.
When seen as a mutual growth process for parent and child, optimal parenting consists not of techniques but of the willingness to assist, and the ability to enjoy, the maturation of a child. Family life then becomes an exchange of ideas, emotions, and power as children and parents learn how to respect and influence each other.
In family living both parents and children can learn about the meaning and purposes of their lives. Both parents and children can discover their true selves by affirming each other in a variety of interactions. For example, a baby and parent interact at different times as a nursing couple, a talking couple, a learning couple, and a playing couple. Interacting with the young can refreshingly help to keep adults young in spirit.
Unfortunately, for many of us and our children family life has been painful. Marital discord and divorce have been the fate of one out of two marriages. Child neglect and child abuse are but the surface manifestations of the suffering experienced in many families. For many of us, both perceived and real financial pressures rob our family lives of time for relaxation and for pleasure. For all of these reasons, family life is stressful for many of us.
In most of these situations, disillusionment in family life has been the result of the unrealistic expectation that our intimates should meet our own needs in a trouble-free environment. There has been a lack of recognition that intimate relationships really are love-hate affairs and that accommodating others is a necessary frustration that we experience in order to have our own needs filled.
Family life inevitably necessitates that we sacrifice personal interests, particularly those related to careers, entertainment, and recreation. It means the loss of privacy, time, and personal freedom of action. It entails emotional, physical, and financial burdens, not the least of which are worries about the health, behavior, and achievement of our children. It means coping with annoying behavior, noise, and distractions. For women it even is a health hazard because of the complications and sequellae of pregnancy and delivery.
Family life has radically changed for many of us. Today's children are the first day-care generation; the first generation defined by computers and television; the first post-sexual revolution generation; the first generation to grow up in desegregated schools; the first generation imbued with postmodern relativism that eschews moral obligations to others; and the first generation in which both parents usually are employed. The combined force of these trends has affected childhood by the expansion of programmed experiences for children and the contraction of informal interactions with adults. As a result, because of their expanded knowledge and wider experiences as children, teenagers think they need adults less. Because children seem to be more world wise than in the past, we are more likely to assume that they can take care of themselves. Consequently many children and adults pass each other in the night, and their home environments become increasingly lonely for both.
For these reasons some adults do not want to have children. Many young adults feel that they are too selfish or are not talented enough to raise children. Others simply do not want to be bothered by the demands of parenting. Some women do not want to endure the physical effects of childbearing and breast feeding. In addition some fear that the sacrifices involved in childrearing will alter their personalities. In each of these instances abortion and placement for adoption are options, but neither may occur, and unplanned parenting then becomes a resented responsibility.
With all of these disadvantages associated with parenting, one wonders why it holds any attraction at all. In fact, parenthood is highly attractive to most of us. For most people both childbirth and child rearing are eminently creative acts that fulfill our biological destinies to reproduce and to be altruistic. In the deepest sense, a biological child extends us into the next generation by fulfilling the species-survival instinct to live on in the next generation through our genes. In addition both biological and adopted children provide growth opportunities for ourselves through reliving our own childhoods and through being nurturing adults.
Unfortunately, many of us do not realize our importance as role models for our children. We believe that it is what we do to our children -- what we punish, praise, and reward -- and not our own behavior that matters. In a more personal sense, a child is a psychological extension of each one of us. As such, children can bring out our true selves as we strive to grow with them and be models for them. Unfortunately, we tend to think of childhood as the time in life when we discover our talents, and we overlook parenthood as a similar time of discovery for us.
Consequently, many of us are far removed from the mutual growth experience of childrearing and live in households that are little more than way stations for family members who lead separate lives. As financial necessity or the seductions of materialism entice us to pursue personal excellence and material rewards, many of us and our children lose access to each other as sources of pleasure and affirmation. As adults we face the pressures of work, our younger children are cared for by others, and our older children are immersed in extracurricular activities. As a result, the interactions between parents and children often are harried and mutually frustrating.
Furthermore, some of us have difficulty relating to our children because we did not experience our own childhoods as rewarding interchanges with our own parents. We see parenthood as a burden rather than as a means of personal growth for ourselves. As a result we are preoccupied with our own lives, and our children are permitted and expected to assume adult behaviors too fast. Many of our children assume parental responsibilities at the expense of bypassing their own childhoods.
In the light of these complexities, we need to establish priorities for our family lives. The years of childhood pass rapidly, and before we know it, our families will disperse. What priorities to establish are unclear, however, because the current experimental childrearing ethos in the United States lacks direction. In comparison with other cultures, such as the Mexican and Japanese, we are confused, guilty, and conflicted. It seems that each one us must learn how to be a parent anew, as if there were no widely agreed upon childrearing values.
In fact the American society and culture do hold expectations for parents.
There are a number of expectations of parents and children in the United States.4 These expectations are articulated both in legislative statutes that define child abuse and neglect and in the judicial oversight of parent-child relationships by courts in divorce and child abuse and neglect cases. Parents are expected:
At the same time, our society expects children to reciprocate these parental responsibilities. Children need to learn how to respond to the expectations of others in order to interact comfortably and effectively with others. Without this ability, they remain self-centered and insensitive to the expectations of others. Children are expected:
Much of the contemporary stress in families could be relieved by the clear articulation of these expectations of parents and children. If society expects parents to do these things, then society must value parenting. Placing an appropriate value on parenthood would enhance the likelihood of developing business and public policies that support parenting.
A new kind of work force composed of more parents than ever before requires new kinds of workplaces and work schedules. Job requirements, both from the point of view of hours and opportunities, should accommodate child- rearing. There is growing recognition that family leaves, flexible hours, part-time positions, shared jobs, working at home, complementary working hours, and other strategies can allow mothers and fathers to spend more time with their children and can also improve productivity in the workplace.
A number of efforts have been made to describe families in which parents and children meet their societal and cultural responsibilities to each other. When family life is a mutual growth experience for both parents and children, the results are strong families that contribute not only to the development of their members but to the development of their communities and society as well.
A study of strong families revealed mutual respect between family members who have coherent positive views of life expressed through overt displays of affection and open communication between family members.5 In these families individuals are valued explicitly for what they are rather than for their achievements. Realistic expectations are held of family members, so that children learn what is acceptable and what is unacceptable with opportunities for both parents and children to correct their errors. The parents give clear directions and enforce reasonable limits by emphasizing the positives rather than the negatives.
In strong families parents encourage each other's growth both as individuals and as marital partners. They are not totally enmeshed in their children's lives. As a result their children have self-esteem, a sense of autonomy, and well-developed self-concepts. The parents have clear senses of morality that are demonstrated through their words and actions. They respect others and value service to those less fortunate. They have a sense of meaning and purpose in life often related to a spiritual orientation with a trusting, optimistic outlook on life. They treat their children courteously and with respect. Most importantly, they acknowledge their errors and imperfections and the importance of forgiveness.
Strong family members perceive their family to be a worthy group and are proud to be a part of it. They treasure their family legends and traditions. They view themselves as links between the past and the future by honoring their elders and welcoming their babies. They are able to change their power structure, role relationships, and rules in response to changing situations. They are able to share power and decision making among their members. They communicate their feelings, concerns, and interests and listen and respond to what others have to say. Their styles of communication are clear and open, and individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and actions. They spend time together but also value individual privacy and pursue independent interests.
Strong families also belong to community networks and are interested in the world in which they live. They have altruistic attitudes toward each other and toward others outside of their families.
A likely member of a strong family wrote the following letter to Ann Landers signed "Love My Folks:"
So many times while reading your columns these past several years, I have thought about the things I missed from my own parents. Here are a few of the things they did NOT do for me.
They didn't let me do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted -- until I was old enough to handle my life.
They didn't shower me with things, things, and more things. For some reason, they didn't believe it served any useful purpose.
They didn't pass up an opportunity to teach me the value of money and the benefits (both physical and moral) of hard work.
They didn't try to tell me what friends to choose or which career to follow. They decided I was the best judge of that.
They never failed to listen to me when I had a problem, nor did they refuse to give me sound advice when I asked. And when I DIDN'T want advice or help, they didn't offer it.
They didn't try to spare me the pain of making mistakes when I was trying to grow up. At the same time, they left no doubt about their love for me.
So often when I read the sad letters in your column from confused, unhappy, overindulged kids, I end up wishing more parents wouldn't do for their kids what my parent didn't do for me. God bless 'em.
As the foregoing description of strong families suggests, their underlying characteristic is a clear distinction between the roles of parents and children.
The responsibilities of parents to their children in exercising authority are essentially twofold. The first is to recognize that from the time they are born, our children are individuals with valid needs and feelings. The second is to model effective living for our children, who are influenced by what we actually do more than by what we say.
In order to become mature adults with hopeful visions for the future and with desires to contribute to the world in which they live, children need love, limits, and belief systems.
Through the love they receive from their parents children develop a basic trust in others and in themselves. The attachment bonds that develop between parents and children form the foundations for loving relationships with other people in later life. Through the limit setting they receive children develop respect for other persons. They also learn how to postpone gratification and to tolerate frustration. Through beliefs in hopeful visions for the future, children learn how to surmount obstacles in their daily lives. They also gain inspirations for making the world a better place in which to live.
In practical terms, parental authority is exercised through the creative use of power, the practice of morality, the setting of family priorities, affirmation of their children, and a family's participation in its community and society.
Many of us do not like to use the words power and authority because they imply control over others and control of others over us. In fact the word power has come to convey an image of exploiting people. Consequently, there is a general tendency to avoid frank and open discussion of the fact that power is a central aspect of all human relationships, and authority is the essential channel for its use.
In order to realistically analyze parent-child relationships we need to distinguish between the exercise of power through legitimate and necessary authority from the illegitimate exercise of power.
The word power comes from the Latin poder, meaning "to be able." Everyone needs to be able, to be capable, to have a sense of personal power. At the heart of personal power is the sense that we are in charge of our lives. By accepting responsibility for our own selves and for our behavior, we gain personal power.
Democratic parents share power with their children, creating relationships based on mutual empowerment. They empower their children by helping their children find their talents and decide what they want to do with their lives. This legitimate exercise of power is the opposite of mutual victimization that occurs when parents and children struggle to control each other.
When exercised largely in one direction, power becomes control over others. For example, financial wealth is the best known instrument of power in that it permits control over the material aspect of one's life and of other people. Physical force also is a common lever of power. In this regard, Biblical scholars point out that "spare the rod and spoil the child" referred to one of the two tools used by shepherds -- a staff and a rod.6 Contrary to common belief, the rod was not used for hitting; it was used to guide sheep.
Less obvious forms of power are inherent in the daily leader-follower roles of employer-employee and student-teacher relationships. However, power really is never completely unidirectional, because compliance or non-compliance by the follower determines the actual power of a leader.
The coercive power of an institution is inversely related to the alternatives that are available to people. A business firm can make whatever rules it pleases, but if there are alternative employers, there is a way of escape for anyone who finds the rules oppressive. The potential coercive power of parents is great because a child has no alternatives for responding, other than by misbehaving, becoming emotionally disturbed, or by running away.
Because of the historical and present-day fear of coercive power, the society and government of the United States emphasize individual freedom. American culture has moved away from the powerful father image that permeated the old-world order of family, church, and state. The image of the American Revolution as throwing off the authority of a British king has been reflected in extreme sensitivity to the possible abuse of power to the extent that even legitimate parental authority has been undermined in American families.
As a result of this anti-authority ethos, many parents are not aware that freedom is the ability to make choices between alternatives and only has meaning in contrast with the restraint that is necessary so that our freedom does not deprive others of their freedom. If we did not have to take into account the effect of our behavior on the freedom of other people, we would be free to do as we wish. In fact we cannot avoid facing the effects of our freedom on other people.
In recent decades the idea of Constitutionally guaranteed freedom has been equated with the absence of restraints and even the absence of responsibility for making choices. Without recognition of its limitations, freedom has become meaningless and dangerous, particularly for teenagers. For example, by the time many parents have adolescent children, they are undergoing mid-life crises themselves. Their own unresolved conflicts are activated by their offspring from whom they withdraw. The resulting painful silence and detachment of parents gives their teenagers "freedom" in the form of actually unwanted and confusing permission to act in ways that can ruin their lives.
The dilemma many parents face over the issue of the physical exercise of power with children is illustrated by the following excerpt from a syndicated column of William Raspberry:
I've always told people that it was my luck to have had the most wonderful parents a person could hope to have. Not just nice neighbors, pillars of their church, and upstanding citizens,but loving, competent, effective parents.
Well, it's time to confess. My parents, for all their surface warmth and respectability, were into physical cruelty -- child abuse, to put it plainly. You see, they spanked their children. At least I always thought of it as spanking. But according to a report issued by a group of experts, I've been guilty of mislabeling. They said that we must conspire against language which describes punishment as something other than what it is. Assault is what it is. Let's not call it discipline, spanking, a good licking. What the old-fashioned among us agree is child abuse -- the depressingly frequent incidents of child battering -- is for these experts, just another point on a continuum that begins with spanking. Ordinary fanny dusting, to which some parents resort when more intelligent approaches fail, teaches children that violence is an acceptable way of settling disputes. Spanking and brutality, you see, are on the same continuum.
I think these experts are nuts. Theirs is just another manifestation of the fallacy of the false continuum. Sometimes the fallacy is obvious; love-making and rape, for all their surface similarities, are hardly seen as points along the same continuum.
I know parents who brutally -- and it seems, casually -- beat their children; and I know parents who never practice physical discipline but who nonetheless brutalize their children.
The difference between happy, well-adjusted children and their opposites has, in my view, precious little to do with the presence or absence of spanking. It has everything to do with the presence or absence of love.
I wouldn't urge that parents who are capable of exerting discipline in other ways should spank their children because my parents spanked me. I argue only that the denial of love is the ultimate brutality.
Actually parental authority is most appropriately exercised through the gradual relinquishment by parents of their power to their children. The focus of power in parental authority is not control but is creatively sharing power among family members.7
Optimally, the exercise of power is in appropriately-timed shifts from leader to follower roles between parent and child. For example, during early infancy the child actually wields great power and leads the parent by setting the feeding-sleep cycle. Subsequently parental power and leadership is introduced around limit setting and building the child's self-control. During that stage nonverbal communication in the form of physical redirecting is necessary in order to establish a child's respect for the parent's appropriate use of the word "No." Using one's feet and hands instead of one's voice is the most effective way of conveying this message to toddlers.
Research has shown that young children comply with adult's expectations from forty to sixty percent of the time.8 It also has shown that the children of parents who are authoritarian (controlling but detached and not warm) are likely to be discontented, withdrawn, and distrustful. The children of parents who are permissive (noncontrolling, nondemanding but warm) are not likely to be self-reliant, explorative, and self-controlled. In contrast, the children of parents who are authoritative (in charge, reasonable and warm) are likely to be self-reliant, self-controlled, explorative, and content.
Throughout childhood, there are times when a parent influences a child and times when a child influences a parent. Some parents err in the direction of trying to control a child excessively. Others err in permitting a child to control them, so that there are many tyrannical children today. The challenge for parents, then, is learning how to flexibly and appropriately shift back and forth between leader and follower roles with their children. In order to do this, a parent needs to respect and trust a child, and more fundamentally, respect and trust oneself. When they feel respected and trusted by their parents, children can care for themselves. When they do not feel respected and trusted by their parents, children often resort to whining, manipulative behavior.
Under optimal circumstances, teamwork in a family takes place through shifting back and forth between leader and follower roles. In the shifting process, the power issues involve dependency and independence in economic, emotional, and decision-making terms. These issues can be handled by either the creative or exploitative exercise of power. For example, leadership can take place through modeling for others vs trying to remodel others; validating vs distorting others; nurturing vs exploiting others; motivating vs coercing others; guiding vs directing others; facilitating vs blocking others; and advocating for vs ignoring others.
Bruno Bettelheim used an old German adage "stretch according to the cover" as an example of sharing power in families.9 This adage goes back to the time when an entire family slept under one blanket in one bed. In those days children learned from an early age to adjust to living in close proximity to others. If one child pulled the cover too much over to his side, his sibling would wake him up to retrieve his share. If one child kicked, the other would protest. If they wanted to sleep peacefully, children learned the give-and-take that was necessary for successful community living. Bettelheim pointed out that people whose living conditions never forced them to learn to "stretch according to the cover" find it difficult to establish lasting relationships. As adults they have not learned to cope with the frustrating accommodations which intimate living entails.
The two sides of love in childrearing are showing affection and caring enough to help a child learn self-discipline. Although the negativistic behavior of young children is frustrating for all those involved in their care, it is a sign of their growing independence. At the same time, they need reasonable limit setting of their behavior and parental models of self-discipline so that they can learn how to control their impulses and to delay gratification themselves.
Learning how to control one's impulses is learning how to behave civilly and to tolerate the inevitable frustrations of life. Learning how to delay gratification is learning how to schedule the pleasant and the unpleasant in life in such a way as to enhance pleasure by getting the unpleasant over with first. It is the only efficient and effective way to live.
In an effort to allay some of the contemporary confusion about the roles of parents and children in families, Ann Landers published the following Twelve Rules for Raising Children:
- Remember that each child is a gift from God, the richest of all blessings. Each child is an individual and should be permitted to be himself or herself.
- Do not crush a child's spirit when he or she fails. Never compare one child with another.
- Remember that anger and hostility are natural emotions. Help your child find acceptable outlets for these feelings, or they may be turned inward and create physical or emotional problems.
- Discipline your child with firmness and reason. Do not let your anger throw you off balance. Be fair. Even the youngest child has a keen sense injustice.
- Avoid situations in which your child can manipulate one adult against another.
- Do not give your child everything he or she desires. Do not deprive your child of the satisfaction that comes from achievement and from earning something.
- Do not set yourself up as a model of perfection. Children profit from knowing that their parents make mistakes too.
- Do not make unrealistic threats in anger or promises in a generous mood. To a child a parent's word means everything.
- Do not smother your child with gifts and lavish surprises. The purest love expresses itself in day-in, day-out consistency that builds self-confidence, trust, and a strong base for character development.
- Teach your child that there is dignity in hard work, whether it is performed with a shovel or with delicate surgical instruments.
- Do not try to protect your child against every blow and disappointment. Experiencing a few lumps will help your child learn how to handle them.
- Teach your child to love God and to love other people. Do not SEND your child to a place of worship - TAKE your child there. Children learn from example. Faith in God can be your child's strength and light when all else fails.
When thinking about discipline in the home, it is important to bear in mind the original meaning of discipline -- learning and practicing that which is learned, not punishment. The goal of childrearing is helping children acquire self-discipline. The foundations for self-discipline are laid during the second and third years of life when parental limit setting helps children learn how to control their impulses and to take into account the impact of their behavior on others. The consistent application of external controls during the first two years of life is the most effective way of insuring that a child will develop the internal controls involved in self-discipline and that the child will not continue testing limits during later years. The key is developing respect for parents and then for other people as well.
Many parents do not realize how important it is to set limits for toddlers. The easy way is letting them do as they wish and giving in to their demands. At least that quiets them down in the moment. The more difficult but rewarding course is to help them learn the limits of their power. Most toddlers test limits and push for all they can get. It is a natural result of their egocentricity and their pleasure in being the center of attention. They are quick to assert themselves over siblings and peers. They want what they want when they want it. This means that parents are well advised to set clear limits and help toddlers realize that they mean what they say. In order to get this across to toddlers parents need to use their feet and hands rather than their voices.
The goal with toddlers is to achieve their responsiveness to the words and facial expressions of their parents through initial physical interventions. Physical redirection and restraint are necessary in order to show a toddler that a parent's words are to be taken seriously. Verbal commands across a room can be easily ignored and often are not followed up by a parent, leading a toddler to conclude that what a parent says is not to be taken seriously.
In the same vein, the management of whining and temper tantrums needs to get across to toddlers that those behaviors will not get them what they want. If whining or tantruming children are appeased, the message is that those behaviors can be used to manipulate adults. This means that a whining or out-of-control toddler should be placed in a setting that will permit regaining of control without unduly disrupting family life. Removing the child to a room or a play pen gives a parent a breather and conveys to the child that a "time out" is needed so that the child can settle down. Rather than sentencing the child for a period of time, letting the child rejoin the parent when ready to do so conveys to message that regaining self-control is the purpose of the time out, not punishment.
The exercise of parental authority needs to take place within the guidelines of judgments about right and wrong. It may be possible for sophisticated adults to live without thinking in terms of right and wrong, but this is not the case with children.
The ideas of power and authority make some people uncomfortable. Many of us prefer to think that we are nonjudgmental and try to avoid using the words "right" and "wrong" and "bad" and "good". We also would like to believe that there are no "bad" people -- just "bad" behavior.
Whether we like it or not, however, "good" and "bad" are real polarities in life. They are the only terms that have meaning to young children. The most useful meaning of "bad" is malevolence toward others. For this reason, "bad" is not an accurate word to use when children do not comply with parental desires or expectations. A child may be exercising will or independence through noncompliance. "Bad" should be reserved for mean, unjust behavior toward others. "Bad" and "good" can be dealt with most usefully by facing issues of "right" and "wrong" in the family.
In the current era there is a tug-of-war in the moral arena. On the one side are "absolutists" who insist that children need moral indoctrination. On the other side are "free thinkers" who insist that it is up to children to find their own values. The former believe that there are absolute moral truths. The latter believe that moral principles are only personal preferences.
Both sides have valid points if we distinguish between the times when absolute and relative levels of moral judgment are appropriate.10 For example, murder is a violation of an absolute moral value, whereas honesty is relative and may not always be the "best policy". Children do need to learn how to distinguish between times in which absolute judgments or relative judgments are more applicable.
When we get right down to it, the issue of right and wrong in family living is the source of much dissension. This is because right and wrong depends on the perspective of the one making the judgment. The ancient Greeks pondered this question as illustrated by Plato's observation that killing lambs was right for human beings but wrong for wolves.
The fact is that subject to individual differences and to the influence of their upbringing, children do have the inherent capacities to distinguish right from wrong and to be generous, compassionate, and altruistic. They have biologically-based predispositions to attend to and to respond to others' emotional states that are evident by the age of one to two years.11 These predispositions wither or are reinforced by subsequent life experiences in the form of parental modeling. Children also acquire prosocial or antisocial values from their peers, teachers, religion, movies, literature, and television.
The question of distinguishing right from wrong in family life is made easier by drawing upon the concepts of good and bad. This places interactions between parents and children on moral grounds rather than on arbitrary definitions of right and wrong based on the convenience or desires of parents. It also introduces justice into the handling of children rather than the simple exercise of parental power. For example, children can be expected to be courteous at the dinner table because respecting other people's rights is a moral good rather than because failing to do so annoys the parents.
In this way the foundations for moral development are laid in the home by learning how to cope with our impulses to be deceptive and to be destructive toward others -- learning how to cope with our own bad impulses. If marital and parent-child relationships are to flourish, their good-bad, love-hate natures need to be openly recognized. How children learn to cope with their bad impulses is shaped by the degree to which our actions as parents correspond to our statements about morality.
Those of us who model morality at home do not have to be concerned about every book, class, film, activity, idea, or peer influence to which our children are exposed. Children learn to choose their values and to accept their own imperfections from us. Those of us who do not model morality or who avoid our responsibility to deal with moral issues abdicate our children's moral development to the influence of others, often their peers.
The struggle that is inherent in life between good and bad can be broken down into manageable pieces. Good revolves around the truth (reality-trust) and love (giving to others). The core issues for the good are emotional honesty (accepting responsibility for one's feelings and actions) and the creative use of power (influencing others constructively). Bad essentially is deception (altering reality-mistrust) and hurting others (blaming-hating). Most family conflicts involve parents and children deceiving or hurting each other and, therefore, are opportunities for learning how to honestly accept responsibility for one's feelings and actions and for learning how to constructively manage impulses to hurt others.
All intimate relationships contain tension between good and bad impulses. In fact, the durability of a marriage bond is measured by its capacity to absorb hate and deception. The stability of a marriage is determined less by love and more by the acceptance and forgiveness of bad behavior by one's spouse. Because the marital relationship can be altered legally, the intolerance of bad behavior by a spouse can lead to a divorce that perpetuates the idea that the other spouse is the bad one, not me. Parental deception and hurting of a child also is based on the belief that the other person, in this case the child, is the bad one. Because a child cannot escape from the parent-child relationship, that child suffers varying degrees of emotional and personality damage.
Marital problems ensue and conflicts occur with our children when we cannot confidently express our own feelings of love to each other and to our children. Some of us are reluctant to show tenderness toward our children because of the fear of spoiling them. Others of us cannot bear to frustrate our children because of the fear of losing our children's love.
Rapport between parents and children is facilitated when we openly express our own authentic feelings of love and hate and when we accept our children's authentic affection and hate while setting limits on the actual expression of anger by our children. Curbing the readiness of children to use anger to get their way is vital in helping them to learn more appropriate ways of gratifying their wishes.
Those of us who are uncertain about our own feelings and judgments depend excessively upon childrearing rules. Because we do not trust our own intuitive judgments, we cannot adjust to the ups and downs of our children's needs and feelings. We actually can learn much about our own internal struggles with good and bad (love and hate) by remembering that we are the experienced adults when conflicts arise between ourselves and our children. Then we can listen to our children and together find reasonable solutions to the problems at hand.
A strong family is one in which there is mutual respect and in which no individual's personal needs or desires dominate. But families cannot always be just communities. Rules about telling the truth or about not interrupting when others are speaking tend to be unequally enforced for parents and children. As parents, we expect a degree of privacy that we do not accord our children. Often one family member is expected to do most of the compromising or another tends to be unjustly accused of starting squabbles among siblings. The best efforts to establish justice in a family cannot succeed completely because the family is a flawed institution composed of imperfect creatures. Consequently, family life, as is all of life, is a struggle between right and wrong. It is in the family that childen learn how to respect and advance the "common good".
In a world that appears so devoid of the kind of conscience that enables mutually reliable community life, in a world with too many people dominated by biting, accusing consciences that continually cramp and destroy them and others, healthy conscience development is a major concern in human development everywhere.
The development of a healthy, reliable conscience does not come from clarifying values, internalizing parents' do's and don'ts, memorizing platitudes, doing verbal exercises in moral reasoning, or having one's behavior rewarded or corrected. Healthy conscience development comes from understanding oneself and other people. Therefore, developing self-esteem, becoming personally competent, forming an accurate picture of the world, understanding and appreciating the needs of others, and learning skills in communication and problem solving facilitate healthy conscience development.
All of these qualities make it possible for a child to feel anchored in humanity because the child is contributing to the welfare of groups whether in the family, the school, or the community. A healthy conscience is reflected in caring for others because they too have feelings, intentions, and desires.
The development of a healthy conscience advances through stages of increasing capacities to understand moral principles, such as described for boys by Lawrence Kohlberg 12 and for girls by Carol Gilligan.13
Although children do spontaneously care about others and are receptive to ethical principles, they cannot be expected to master each stage of moral development without adult guidance, especially during the early years of life.
Before the age of two, children have no real concepts of rules. At first, we help our babies develop a sense of basic trust in the world by fulfilling their needs. Next we help our toddlers learn how to cope with limit setting, so that the child's impulses and reality are not in continual conflict. During that stage, the child needs to learn respect for the reasonable use of the word "No." This provides a foundation for legitimate authority and for coping with the unpleasant realities of life.
In fact the child's corresponding use of the word "No" performs a useful developmental function by defining the child's will as distinct from the wills of others. Children who do not learn to respect and to appropriately use the word "No" during the second and third years of life are more easily frustrated and less responsive to legitimate authority in later life than those who do.
We can help our children gain satisfaction from adhering to limits and from tolerating frustration. We can help our children learn that crying and tantrums are not means of getting their own ways. The time, patience, and energy needed to help children accommodate their impulses to reality during the second and third years of life are demanding, but high yielding, investments of parenting. Simply indulging the wishes of children at that age is easier, but in the long range regretted.
From about two to seven, children desire to follow rules by imitating older persons. At first, they have a punishment-obedience orientation in which the consequences of an action determine its goodness or badness. Gradually, they realize that right and wrong are determined by what is good or bad for oneself and others, rather than whether or not one is caught and punished. When a child finds pleasure in pleasing us, that child learns that the best times are when both child and parent are happy. Unhappy times are when a child has done something that engenders unhappiness in a parent.
Between seven and eleven, children can see rules as the products of mutual consent, rather than as handed down by authorities. At that time children are able to understand and to deal with moral gray zones. After the age of twelve, rules can be seen as reflecting abstract laws apart from authority figures. Later moral judgments can be seen as widely shared opinions, and laws can be seen as efforts to solve human problems. Next is the stage in which humanistic ethical principles of justice and dignity can be seen as transcending social utility. The seldom attained last stage is an altruistic commitment to being a caregiver to the human family and a caretaker of the Earth.
Family life plays a critical role in the nurturing of morality. Faith in money, status, popularity, or religion are daily affirmed or challenged by how we live with one another. Being questioned and challenged by children compels parents to clarify their own moral values.
Because parents can wield oppressive power over children, right and wrong can easily be defined by what pleases or by what irritates the parents. For this reason families need objective moral principles to guide behavior both at home and elsewhere.
Most religions provide these guidelines. The underlying theme is expressed in the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you. This simple guideline is essential for the survival of groups of all kinds ranging from families to societies. Whether it be in parent-child relationships or in international relations, the basis for cooperation is empathy not exploitation. In both families and in international affairs, cooperation involves sharing and taking turns.
At the same time, religious principles can be misused by parents in the moral development of their children. For example, it has been considered admirable in the authoritarian tradition for children to tell the truth, to be grateful for their parent's intentions, to overlook the cruelty of their parent's actions, to accept their parent's ideas, and to not be difficult when it comes to doing what is expected of them.14 In order to teach children these values some adults believe they must resort to deceiving, punishing, and humiliating children. The leaders of the Third Reich in Germany advocated that kind of strict upbringing.
However, children are sensitive to moral hypocrisy. Corruption, dishonesty, and cynicism in other people are noticed by children even at the ages of five and six.15 Still, many adults discourage the idealism of children, because they do not want naive moral sensibilities getting in their way.
The challenge for us is to cultivate our children's moral inclinations by modeling practical ways of handling the human struggle between right and wrong. This means openly accepting our own bad impulses and coping with them in ways that permit the good to prevail. Religious concepts and parables are helpful in making judgments about and coping with right and wrong, particularly those that emphasize forgiveness.
All of these principles are summarized in the vivid description of the ways in which they thought their parents had failed them during their childhood years given by delinquent boys interviewed by Reverend C. Galea at the Guelph Correctional Center in Ontario, Canada. Their advice was reported as a "get tough" code for parents who experience difficulties in their relationships with their children in an Ann Landers column:
- Keep cool. Don't fly off the handle. Kids need to see how much better things turn out when people keep their tempers under control.
- Don't get strung out from too much booze or too many pills. When we see our parents reaching for those crutches, we get the idea that it's perfectly OK to reach for a bottle or a capsule when things get heavy.
- Be strict. Show us who's boss. We need to know we've got some strong supports under us. When you cave in we get scared.
- Don't blow your class. Don't try to dress, dance, or talk like your kids. You embarrass us, and you look ridiculous.
- Show us the way. Tell us God is not dead, or sleeping, or on vacation. We need to believe in something bigger and stronger than ourselves.
- If you catch us lying, stealing, or being cruel, get tough. Let us know WHY what we did was wrong. Impress on us the importance of not repeating such behavior.
- When we need punishment, dish it out. But let us know you still love us, even though we have let you down.
- Make it clear you mean what you say. Don't compromise. And don't be intimidated by our threats to drop out of school or leave home. Stand up to us and we'll respect you. Kids don't want everything they ask for.
- Be honest. Tell us the truth no matter what. We can take it. Lukewarm answers make us uneasy.
- Praise us when we deserve it. Give us a few compliments once in a while, and we will be able to accept criticism a lot easier. The bottom line is that we want you to tell it like it is.
The essence of moral development in family life is for children and parents to learn how to convert their passions into compassion. It is a process of imbuing intense, primitive, sensual emotions and impulses with the civilized sensuous experiences that truly distinguish human beings from other forms of life. It is discovering and revealing the altruism of family members through empathic interactions.
Specific ways in which passions can be expressed in sensuous compassion are in the conversion of anger into active problem solving, of fear into respect, and of conditional lust into unconditional love. This can be done through learning how to put oneself in the position of others -- by learning how to empathize with others.
The first step in shifting from the exploitative attitude of the young child to a more mature empathic attitude toward others is acknowledging the potentially bad outcomes of our sensual appetites and emotions. This acceptance is confession in religious terms. Then a commitment to cultivate personal qualities that offer the sensuous satisfactions of altruistic human relationships can be made. This is repentance in religious terms. The common good of the family then supersedes the exploitation of parents by children and the exploitation of children by parents. The prevailing atmosphere of the home can then be converted from one of tension and frustration to one of pleasure and satisfaction.
The family is the ideal proving ground for coping with human frailties, such as by being slow to lose patience and quick to be gracious; by being understanding, even when provoked; by trying not to impress others with one's own importance; by thinking the best, not the worst, of others; and by not gloating over the faults and failures of others. Most mistakes in family life are harmless omissions and errors in judgment resulting from selfishness and jealousy rather than bad actions or omissions.
Still, because family emotional bonds are so intense, family members' faults can be the most difficult to forgive. At the same time, because it is impossible to hide human imperfections in a family, it is the place in which forgiveness is the most needed and appreciated.
Parental authority also involves setting family priorities for mothering, fathering, homemaking, and careers; for managing stress; and for arranging family routines.
In the first four decades after World War II, as incomes increased, Americans had larger amounts of money available for nonessential consumer goods. As they accumulated more wealth, they became more credit worthy, both to lenders and in their own eyes. The result has been the social acceptance of financial debt.
Certain kinds of debt may be appropriate. Most people need to borrow money to be able to buy a home and to buy a car. But credit often is used to buy essential goods and luxuries, leaving little to show for it except the bills. Many people try to buy more -- and more often -- than they need. To the consumer's peril, businesses encourage credit buying.
At the present time payments on mortgage and consumer debts absorb excessive amounts of the average annual income after taxes. The catch is that debts have to be paid, and until they are paid, high interest accrues. The result is that these debts reduce the future standards of living of families.
Benjamin Friedman, the Harvard economist, commented: 16
We have enjoyed what appears to be a higher and more stable standard of living by selling our and our children's economic birthright. We have violated the basic moral principle that had bound each generation of Americans to the next...that men and women should work and eat, earn and spend...so that their children and their children's children would inherit a better world.
Because parenthood involves costs that are not borne by adults without children, parents must plan for the financial consequences that increase as their children grow up. In the past wealthy parents employed others to raise their children for reasons of personal convenience and status. Currently many parents employ others to care for their children because of competing careers and a preference for working away from home, although the cost of purchasing quality child care may substantially reduce the financial benefits of employment.
Still many parents do their own parenting with consequent financial sacrifices. Wise parents have clear agreement about their homemaking responsibilities. For some the mother may be the primary homemaker. For others, it is the father. For increasing numbers both parents share homemaking roles.
In any case, an appropriate balance needs to be found between childrearing, financial, and career objectives.17 Seldom can they all be met completely at one time in life. The prudent management of family income and time based on family values and goals is an increasingly urgent issue. It involves at least: 1) family financial planning; 2) care in purchasing to assure value received; 3) ongoing maintenance of a residence and personal needs; 4) planned use of time for personal, family, and community opportunities and obligations; and 5) adequate nutrition and health care.
Stress in families can be minimized by programming family time for relaxation, recreation, and play. This includes time away from children for parents. Otherwise, busy schedules and preoccupation with television leave few informal moments for parents and children to enjoy each other.
The challenge for parents is to find a balance between their working schedules, tolerable separation from their young children, and child care. From a three-year-old's point of view, several hours of nursery school every other day is sufficient social experience. This is far from spending eight to twelve hours a day for five or six days a week in day care necessitated by the parent's employment, not the interests of the child.
For harried parents who really are unable to devote as much time as they would like to their young children, Dr. Berry Brazelton has offered the following practical advice:18
- Investigate all of the options available at your workplace -- on site or nearby day care, shared job options, flexible-time arrangements, and sick leave for when your child is ill.
- Learn to compartmentalize. When you work, be there. When you are at home, be there.
- Prepare yourself for accompanying your child to the caregiver and for separating each day.
- Allow yourself to grieve and feel guilty about leaving your baby. It will help you find the best substitute care.
- Find others to share your stress -- peer or family resource groups.
- Include your spouse in the work of the family.
- Face the realities of working and childrearing: no "supermom" or "superbaby" fantasies.
- Learn to save up energy in the workplace to be ready for homecoming.
- Plan for children to fall apart when you arrive home after work.
- Gather the entire family when you walk in. Sit in a big chair until everyone is close again. When the children squirm to get down, you can turn to chores and housework.
- Take children along as you do chores and teach them to help with the housework.
- Do not let yourself be overwhelmed by stress. Instead, enjoy the pleasures of solving problems together and working as a team.
As is evident from the nature of his advice, Dr. Brazelton is attempting to help parents cope with less than desirable situations. Whenever possible, opportunities to live a family-oriented life should be taken by carefully setting life priorities and, if necessary, by changing one's life style. This often can be done by adjusting financial goals by setting a lower priority on material things and a higher priority on family time. There are few parents who in later years do not wish that they had spent more time with their children.
Phyllis Moen described five kinds of dilemmas faced by couples employed away from home.19 The first is overload which can involve social-psychological strain as well as time pressures.
In the second category are value dilemmas, brought about by discrepancies between your own life-style and the life styles valued by society. For example, a mother who remains at home with her children may feel that she is not attending sufficiently to her own career.
Identity dilemmas represent discontinuities between stereotypes about the roles of men and women and the actual responsibilities of two-income couples. For example, a husband may feel that his wife is responsible for the housework, even though she is employed away from home.
Social-network dilemmas reflect the inability of employed couples to meet the expectations of, and obligations to, their families and friends. There is little time on weekends and in the evenings for socializing when both spouses have full-time jobs.
Finally, there are life-cycle dilemmas involving decisions that must be made about starting families and about the timing of major career decisions. Family and job events frequently conflict so that attention needs to be devoted to integrating childbearing and childrearing with careers.
An example of the kinds of administrative problems confronted by parents employed away from home is the management of time when older children are at home alone.20 It is helpful to recognize that these children have something special available to them in the afternoons: time. There are many opportunities for young people who feel comfortable being home alone to use this time to special advantage. Unstructured hours have a large measure of freedom. There is time for reading, for music, for art, for hobbies, for games, for sports, for pets and for exploring other interests.
Although many young people say they like time by themselves after school, they also often feel at loose ends. They have not discovered the advantages of free time for creative activities. They can be helped to better cope with free time by designing a schedule of activities geared to their individual interests, abilities, and available community resources. Here are some examples:
There is a Wednesday book club for kids at the library. It's pretty neat. The librarian tells us about all the new books that come in. My friend and I take out different books.
Tony, age ll
As soon as I come home, I turn on my stereo as loud as I want. I like to be alone. No one tells me to turn it down.
Keith, age 13
When I come home from school, I have to practice the piano. It sometimes gets boring, but I kind of like it. I'm getting pretty good at it.
Sharon, age 12
I have lots of art supplies - markers, colored pencils, pastels, paints. Sometimes when I'm by myself, I draw or paint. It all depends on my mood.
Rose, age 14
My friends and I collect baseball cards. A few afternoons a week, Jonas and Tyler come to my house and we trade. The other day, I traded a Willie Mays for a Ted Williams. I have a Lou Gehrig, and a Warren Spahn. I really want a Babe Ruth.
Buzzy, age 11
Chess is exciting. My grandfather taught me how to play. I play with Melissa, the girl down the street. We talk about a lot of things. Sometimes she wins and sometimes I do. That's okay. We're both pretty good now.
Carolyn, age 12
After school my friend Cory and I go to the play ground and play some basketball. He's really good. He can get jump shots like you wouldn't believe. I'm a better blocker. We really work up a sweat.
Roberto, age 11
When I open the door and see my dog, I'm not afraid any more.
Carlos, age 13
Family administration includes planning activities that can be programmed, such as traditions, celebrations, and routines. Traditions are celebrations of the past and have a long history, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Celebrations are special events that accentuate the present, such as anniversaries and birthdays. Routines are regular daily and weekly activities.
A study of strong families across the United States revealed that traditions enhance a family's well-being.21 Celebrations are important, but their occasional nature renders them symbolic rather than contributing much to building family attachments. Family routines prove to be the most important factors in family satisfactions, because they are periods of time invested in the family as a unit.
Even busy families can share experiences and solidify family relationships through regular activities, such as:
These kinds of activities provide chances for parents and children to appreciate each other's values and to keep abreast of each others' lives. Unless an effort is made to schedule them, they do not happen.
A successful family today is a source of mutual support and enjoyment, not one in which a slave-mother cherishes her privileged husband and children and sacrifices her own life while subtly taking over theirs.22 Responsible adults do not come from homes in which parents misguidedly devote themselves to doing everything for their children and gratifying their wishes.
A useful principle for guiding family routines is that each member of the family is responsible for contributing to the common good of the family. At the same time circumstances and age govern how household chores are divided between family members.
There is no better family life for children than for their parents to be available as much as possible when the children are at home.23 As more opportunities appear for home-based employment, this will be possible for more families.
The more impersonal our society becomes, the more people need intimate relationships through which they can discover their true selves and develop their self-esteem. The family is the prime group for this. The family as a social unit desperately needs support from communities and from our society. At the same time the family can be the generating source of commitment to developing communities and to conserving the environment.
Through identification with us, children acquire the beliefs, values, and relationships that prepare them to be contributing members of the human family. Through being protected and nurtured by loving parents, children learn how to be protective, nurturing parents themselves.
Internalized mental images of our parents and other influential persons are central components of our personalities. In fact the continuity of our personalities is primarily due to the persistence of these mental images, which are imprinted in us by our family relationships during childhood.
The images of attachment figures early in life and the related mental images of our selves usually develop so as to be complementary and mutually confirming. Each of us grows up carrying an assortment of good and bad internalized images that carry past family interactions with our fathers, mothers, and siblings into our present lives. These images constitute the "internal family" that stays with each one of us throughout our lives. These internal images "look over our shoulders" in present interactions and influence them. They can cause us to react inappropriately when unresolved conflicts from our childhoods are activated. In turn as parents we become images in our children's internalized families.
At any one moment, parents tend to perceive children in the same way that they did some time in the past in spite of the fact that the children show signs of behavior appropriate to the current level of development. Parents often feel this inconsistency and want to respond to the current abilities of their children but are hesitant to take the risk when their children are still testing limits as if they did at an earlier stage in life. As a result, we can be drawn into reenacting earlier times and thereby underestimate our children's capacities to assume more responsibility in the present. This prevents helping our children learn how to handle responsibility by actually having responsibility in a particular area for the first time and by making inevitable mistakes.
For this reason, young people legitimately raise the question, "How can I show you what I can do if your don't give me a chance?" This means that the inevitable expansion of children's responsibilities can take place most effectively by adding new responsibilities on a trial basis so that they can see how they handle it. This is more growth producing for children than the model in which children seek to be granted responsibilities by pleasing or manipulating us rather than by demonstrating their actual abilities. The issue really is not one of parents granting privileges as rewards. The issue is when children are ready to handle new responsibilities.
For these reasons, children need to have their maturity affirmed by parents who expect and respect the highest level of maturity of which their children are capable. From the beginning, children need affirmation of their individuality and of their competence. We in turn are affirmed when our children become competent and responsible persons in later life.
Affirmation in family relationships relies upon open communication, so that parents and children understand each other's ideas, emotions, and needs. That communication depends upon listening, upon expressing ideas and feelings, and upon reaching mutual understanding. Unfortunately this kind of two-way communication is in short supply in most families today.
Our children especially need to learn from us how to find words to communicate their feelings to others. Their inclinations are to act out their feelings rather than use words to express them. We can model communication by verbally expressing our feelings instead of simply acting upon them. For example, your explanation that you have a headache helps your child understand and accept that your irritable mood more than do your angry words.
It is difficult for children to put their emotional states into words. They are more inclined to have an emotional outburst than to say, "I'm mad at you," and to explain why. When we help them learn to use words instead of actions to communicate their feelings effectively, our children gain confidence in themselves. When we do not, our children ineffectively relieve their tensions in emotional outbursts and frustrate both us and themselves. Misunderstandings because of faulty verbal communication lie behind most family conflicts.
Another important part of parental modeling of communication is taking responsibility for our own emotions and actions. We commonly believe that other people cause our feelings. They do not. Our emotions and actions may be reactions to, but are not caused by, what other people say and do. They are caused by our own attitudes and moods, and they are subject to our own analysis and control. For example, the hostile words of another person can hurt our feelings and evoke anger in us, but the intensity of that anger and how we express it is caused by our own attitude or mood. If you are in good mood, the words and actions of other people may not affect you. If you are in a bad mood, even small things may upset you. Your moods cause your feelings. Other people simply trigger them.
Because they do not distinguish between the emotions and actions of others and their own emotions and actions, young children readily assume that other persons cause their behavior. "He made me do it," is a frequent allegation by a sibling. Children need help in separating the acts of other person from their own emotional reactions to those acts and from their own subsequent behavior.
In addition to the blurring of self-other boundaries in young children, both children and adults attempt to expel unacceptable feelings or thoughts that contradict their own self-images by attributing them to other people.24 We perceive our own undesirable qualities in other people and react emotionally to them. For example, we often strongly dislike other people who seek attention, because we want to be the center of attention ourselves. We also overreact to the mistakes of others because we do not like to admit that we make mistakes ourselves.
How we handle our emotional reactions to other people is our personal responsibility. We can counterattack in an emotional way, or we can use words to express our feelings. The most useful response when others hurt our feelings is to honestly say that our feelings are hurt. We are better served by verbally communicating our feelings to others, rather than by blindly acting upon them.
Nowhere is the need for this more evident than in sibling relationships.25 The indistinct self-boundaries and the projection of feelings and attitudes between siblings has the power to cause intense pain between brothers and sisters from earliest childhood on. Yet there is a magnetic pull that brings siblings, however wounded, back together again to try to heal themselves and each other.
Sibling rivalry is based upon the wish to be the first or the best or to have more or the most. Security lies in having all of Mommy, all of Daddy, all of the toys, all of the food, or all of the space. In addition squabbling can be a way of maintaining a safe distance from sexual feelings, a way of displacing anger at oneself to a sibling, or a way of gaining revenge. Some useful principles for parents in handling sibling fights are as follows:
The ways that we handle their own arguments provide models for our children. When parents disagree, we model well for our children when we:
In spite of the emphasis usually placed on the rivalries between siblings, most sibling relationships are congenial over the years. Siblings usually are not as close to each other as friends during adolescence or as spouses and children in later life, but they do feel a sense of loyalty and duty toward each other and see themselves as "good" rather than as "best" friends.
Special problems are encountered between stepparents and stepchildren. Because divorces are difficult for children, they often transfer their negative feelings toward their own parents to stepparents who then become scapegoats. Conversely, stepparents frequently are uncomfortable about assuming responsibilities for other persons' children.
When we and our children are able to verbally communicate our feelings and needs to each other, not only are blind emotional outbursts minimized, but we are able to affirm our respective talents and our contributions to each other's welfare.
Our affirmation of each child's individuality facilitates developing that child's self-esteem. In turn the evidence of self-esteem in a child enhances our own self-esteem.
Edmund Burke saw human reason as limited and frail, biased toward the short run, and easily overpowered by animalistic urges. He held that we rise above the animal level and become moral beings not by reason but by our need for the approval of others. He overlooked the importance of affirmation preceding approval.
Affirmation differs from approval because seeking approval can lead children to conform to our expectations and to squelch their own individuality, whereas our affirmation of them enhances their individuality. The aim of parental affirmation is to encourage a sense of worthwhile individuality and, thereby, to build a child's self-esteem. On this foundation of affirmation, there is an additional need for our approval and disapproval, so that children can learn to recognize and regulate the impact of their behavior on others.
Self-esteem evolves through the quality of the relationships between children and those who are important in their lives. As is the case with us, children cannot see themselves directly. However, they can recognize how others react and respond to them. They do know when they are taken seriously and listened to and when they are respected and enjoyed. When they are respected and treated with esteem, they develop self-respect and self-esteem. When they are mistreated or abused, they are likely to conclude that they deserve no better.26
We foster the self-esteem of members of our families l) by unconditionally valuing and advancing their basic worth as human beings and their unique gifts; 2) by helping them develop their social skills; and 3) by respecting each child's expression of femininity or masculinity. These approaches in a climate of warmth, trust, and acceptance offer needed correctives to the extremes of past emphases on the conformity of children to the wishes of their parents or on the license of children to do as they please.
Our affirmation of a child begins with our mirroring of a child's innate sense of vigor during infancy through eye contact and mimicking sounds. This reinforcement of an infant's spontaneous expressions fosters development of the child's true self. When we do not respond to our infant's gestures, but instead substitute our own, we encourage imitation rather than individuality. In the same vein, we later affirm when we touch, kiss, hold, wrestle, and play with our children. Younger children who are not touched in these ways may regard themselves as unattractive and ultimately unlovable.
The differences between the sexes have been maximized in the distant past and minimized in the recent past. Some people still hold strong feelings about whether the differences between boys and girls are due to nature or nurture. The fact is that they are due to both. The fact also is that the differences are statistical and do not explain the personality and behavior of a particular individual. There are boys who are more like girls in their temperaments and behavior, and there are girls who are more like boys in those ways as well. One wonders why we even need to make these distinctions, but most of us do and are interested in the current state of knowledge about gender differences.
There are fundamental differences between males and females that affect health and life span considerations.27 Those differences are due to the interplay of hormones and prewired male and female brains. Differences between the sexes appear as early as six weeks after conception. At first the embryo has the equipment needed to become either sex. The only clue to its destiny is buried deep in the genetic code in the 23rd chromosome pair.
In the sixth week of pregnancy, if the embryo has inherited a Y chromosome from its father, a gene signals the start of male development. In both sexes, hormones begin to prepare the brain for the changes of puberty that will come years later. At birth the bone patterns of girls are slightly more mature than those of boys. Baby girls, not boys, can distinguish between another infant's cry and noise at the same volume. Some studies suggest that newborn girls are more responsive to touch and that infant boys spend more time awake. There also is evidence that male infants respond somewhat earlier to visual stimuli and that girls respond earlier to sounds and smells. Boys gain and pass girls in skeletal maturity by the end of the first year.
At the age of two boys begin to show signs of greater aggressiveness. At three an early female edge in verbal ability appears and is more evident by ten or eleven. Boys tend to play with things, and girls tend to chat. Boys begin to show superiority in visual-spatial skills at the age of eight or so, and at ten or eleven they start outperforming girls in mathematics and surpass them in body strength. Girls tend to be more attracted to people, and boys tend to be more attracted to objects; boys tend to have shorter attention spans than girls. During adolescence girls tend to attach more value to aesthetics, sociability, and religion; boys tend to attach more value to athletics, economics, and politics.
What all of this means is that females tend to be more sensitive than males to sound, smell, taste, and touch. They pick up nuances of voice and music more readily, and acquire the skills of language, fluency, and memory earlier than males. They also are more sensitive to social and personal context, are more adept at tuning into peripheral information contained in expression and gesture, and process sensory and verbal information faster. They are less rule-bound than males who need rules, for without them they would be unable to tell where they stand in a hierarchy. Males are better at skills that require spatial ability and are more aggressive, competitive, and self-assertive.
All of these differences between boys and girls can be exaggerated by an overemphasis on societal stereotypes of masculinity or femininity. Once again, these differences are derived from the statistical analysis of groups of boys and girls and, therefore, cannot be expected to be apply to a particular girl or boy.
In addition to affirming a child's individuality, our affirmation of a child's personal competence also builds that child's self-esteem.
Happiness really is not a series of isolated pleasures. It is a feeling that the self and the world are in harmony. It is reflected in self-esteem that derives from the early childhood experiences of mastering one's body at will and of being effective in the world. Self-esteem is an inner measurement of personal competence.
Self-esteem is enhanced by the effective use of language as a medium of thought and communication, of effective problem solving, of learning from the consequences of one's actions, of rewarding relationships with others, and of benefiting from long-range planning.28 Thus, there need be no conflict between our basic drives and our self-esteem. Self-esteem and personal competence are not so much the result of suppressing our innate drives as integrating them into the pursuit of our legitimate interests.
In order to foster self-esteem, we need to insure that our children know that our love for them is not contingent on their behavior. Therefore, it is better to see children as doing desirable and undesirable things rather than as being bad or good; to help children avoid making the same mistake again rather than criticizing them when they make a mistake; to accept children as they are rather than to compare them with other children; to avoid talking in front of children as if they were not there; and to be aware of children's sensitivity about their physical appearance and to avoid pet names.
In order to help them develop personal competence, we can model competence by setting reasonable limits for our children and thereby showing that we can be depended upon to be in charge of our families. When we routinely and matter-of-factly enforce reasonable limits, our children learn to tolerate frustration and to postpone gratification -- the two most important foundations for acquiring personal competence.
Because of their initial egocentricity young children regard themselves as superior to all others. When our limit setting is effective, that egocentric self gradually shifts into a more realistic self that is willing to share and take turns with other people. A focal point for this transition is between the ages of four and six when a child's grandiosity and ambition are expressed in the form of imagining overthrowing the parent of the same sex and possessing the parent of the opposite sex. These fantasies become a buried source of conflict if parents overreact by squelching them rather than by helping the child to channel them into realistic competition and affection. The ability to compete and to risk being disappointed by losing and the ability to risk love not being reciprocated are the best assurances that their will be times when our self-esteem will be reinforced by others. Conversely, the fear of losing and the fear that affection will not be returned deprive us of opportunities to actually gain the respect and affection of others.
Children need firm limits, but how limits are handled determines what they will learn. For example, when children's behavior is unacceptable, they first can be asked if they understand why their behavior was not acceptable. Then they can be asked what would help them avoid that behavior in the future. This places the responsibility for self-control with the child. When a parent expresses confidence in a child's ability to do better, that child's self-esteem is enhanced.
Children internalize images of their parents' approval and disapproval. Those internal images form a child's conscience. On the positive side, reasonable, internalized disapproval is experienced as guilt that allows children to control themselves without needing external interventions. However, the internal image of unreasonable disapproval can become a paralyzing guilty fixation on one's weaknesses. The internalization of reasonable or unreasonable guilt depends on whether mistakes are accepted or deplored. Because errors inevitably happen in life, particularly for growing, experimenting young people, the modeling by parents of accepting their own mistakes and seeking forgiveness is important. If we do not acknowledge our own errors, we cannot expect our children to do so.
A sense of competence is fostered when we encourage our children to take risks by giving them responsibilities instead of overprotecting them. We then affirm our children for trying new things and expecting failures. This encourages our children to master risks rather than to avoid them.29 There is a point of convergence where fear is met, confronted, and used as a source of both caution and energy. Daring our children to accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions has far more to teach about risk taking than any outward-bound wilderness trip.
Learning to cope with failure is the essence of learning to take risks. For teenagers, schoolwork and after-school risk-taking activities, like sports, may be better self-esteem builders than paid work in itself. 30 Earning money for its own sake can build a sense of responsibility for adolescents, but it also can foster self-centered materialism.
Fathers and mothers who support independence in their older children tend to foster high self-esteem and intellectual flexibility in their children as young adults. In contrast a father's coldness and overprotection by either parent is associated with later depression and personality problems.31
Although the consequences of low self-esteem are clearly seen in depressed children, they also are seen in bored children who lack creativity and in fearful, lonely children. In the absence of an environment conducive to building self-esteem, continual unhappiness and the lack of hope for the future also can breed impulsive living for the moment and indifference to the rights of others. The lack of self-esteem results in aggression and hostility with a lashing out at others who are perceived as uncaring and unfair. The lack of respect for oneself is converted into the bitter attitude: "No one likes me. I'm treated unfairly. So it doesn't matter what I do for myself or to others."
In order to value themselves as competent persons, children need to develop a clear sense of their own assets and liabilities. They need to learn how to tolerate frustration and to postpone gratification. Then they will be valued by others.
Families are strengthened by involvement in their communities and in social and environmental issues. In fact families are the basic units of their communities and of society. They are parts of the ecosystem in which we all live.
The responsibility of human beings to care for the Earth and for the human family can be a central theme in family life.32 Family discussions and activities can be focused on participating in community, national, and global issues related to peace and the conservation of the Earth. In this way the family can be a source of support for creative, reconciling community life. This helps to relieve the anxieties young people have about the future.
In particular the knowledge of the growing threat to life on Earth is having a negative effect on the attitudes and goals of young people.33 Many of them seek gratification now, because the future seems out of control. Many others are discouraged when they see how far behind we are in efforts to save the planet from pollution.
Families also can play key roles in advocating the abandonment of violence as a way of solving problems. In so doing they can become involved in movements that oppose injustice and that seek peace. Children can be helped to see that poverty and oppression make people feel helpless and desperate and thereby breed violence. They can be helped to relate the violence they encounter in their own lives to the violence in the world. They can be inspired to be peacemakers in their own realms and thereby develop a peacemaking stance in the broader world.
For both parents and children, the most important thing is achieving peace within ourselves. If we feel good about ourselves, we do not need to put others down in order to build ourselves up. Awareness of our own imperfections enables us to accept the imperfections of others. In this way power over others through wealth, physical strength, and weapons can be replaced by empowering individuals to affirm each other.
We live in curious times. We need watch what we say when we talk about human relationships, especially in families. It is so easy to unintentionally offend someone.
This is because so many of the words we use to describe people are fraught with emotional baggage, much of which derives from stereotypes that we all hold. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we talk about motherhood and fatherhood. The preferred term now is the gender neutral word parenting that merges both, but even that is too specific for some who speak of "caregiving" that conveys an even more neutral image.
Without question the stereotypes of the father as the breadwinner for a family and the mother as a homemaker are no longer dominant. In fact the economic functions of the family really never have had much to do with what it really means to be a father or a mother to children. Fatherhood and motherhood actually refer to relationships between parents and children, not who pays the bills. From the emotional and material points of view motherhood and fatherhood are virtually interchangeable. Both relationships are nurturant and supportive.
If all of this is true, why do we distinguish between mothers and fathers? Why have a Mother's Day and a Father's Day? Wouldn't a Parents' Day do just as well?
The answer obviously is a resounding No! Apart from the biological reality that males and females transmit different genes, there is the undeniable fact that each parent brings a different temperament, a different personality, and a different outlook to each of their children.
From a child's point of view the need to have a mother and a father is so strong that children make up their own images of a mother or a father if they do not have one in their lives. Scientists explain this on the basis of an inborn readiness to form different kinds of attachment bonds to mothers, to fathers, and even to siblings. Mental health professionals also know that mothers and fathers have different impacts on their children.
Most importantly there is no single image of an ideal mother or of an ideal father. The differences between mothers and between fathers are legion. More than that my mother and my father are uniquely different for me. Each one has had a special influence on me. They are not the same people to me. They are not "just" parents -- and certainly not "just" caregivers to me.
It is through the eyes of children that we can see the importance of mothers and fathers most clearly.
Childrearing is a mutual growth process for both parents and children. For parents it is balancing their needs and wishes with the needs and wishes of their children.
When both parents and children grow together, the resulting intimacy in family life fulfills the yearnings of all family members for loving and aggressive exchanges, for sharing pleasures, and for learning values. This kind of empathic family is the source of the knowledge and the skills needed for citizenship, work, friendships, and later parenthood. It is exceedingly valuable for society.
Being a conscientious parent today also means working to preserve and protect our society and the planet -- now before it is too late. When the future itself is in danger, it is no longer enough to love, feed, clothe, and educate a child.
The vital issues in family life revolve around intimacy, identification, influence, irrationality, and industry. The expression of these "I"s makes it possible to fulfill the "we" of family life.
Intimacy in the family develops emotional bonds that integrate ambivalent love-hate emotions and that balance personal needs for interaction and privacy.
Identification is the process in which parents, children, and siblings reciprocally absorb each other's qualities and vicariously share experiences.
Family members influence each other through the exercise of power in their relationships and their moral values. That influence is the most constructive when leader-follower roles alternate appropriately between family members and when moral values are modeled by the parents.
Irrationality is tolerated in families when the expression of irrational fantasies, emotions, and behavior is identified and then is channeled into realistic outlets. Irrationality is constructive when family members can relax, "let their hair down," and refuel for meeting the both rational and irrational demands on them of the world away from home.
Industry in families is developing the coping abilities of family members through planning, resolving conflicts, the allocation of responsibilites in the family, acquiring tangible and intangible resources, and adapting to change.
Children become persons in their families by learning how to be responsible for themselves and for their actions, by learning how to tolerate frustration, by learning how to postpone gratification, by learning how to control their impulses, by learning how to solve problems, and by learning how to work. Children develop self-esteem by identifying with competent parents and by being affirmed as competent, unique individuals in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.
Children need to learn that being responsible for themselves and for others is the source of meaning and purpose that brings happiness in life. Helping them do so is the satisfaction that parents gain from growing with their children.
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21 McCubbin, Hamilton, et al (l988) Family Types and Strengths: Life Cycle and Ecological Assessments. Edina, MN: Burgess International.
22 Dally, Ann (l983) Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal. New York: Schocken Books, p334.
23 Fallows, Deborah (l986) A Mother's Work. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.
24 Halpern, J. and Halpern, I. (l983) Projections: The World of Imaginary Relationships. New York: Seaview/Putnam.
25 Faber, Adele & Mazlish, Elaine (l987) Siblings without Rivalry. New York: W. W. Norton, pp 206-207, p 15, p 153.
26 Hart, Louise (l987) The Winning Family: Increasing Self-esteem in Your Children and Yourself. New York: Dodd Mead.
27 Moir, Anne and Jessel, David (1991) Brain Sex, the Real Difference Between Men and Women. New York: Dell Publishing.
28 Shure, Myrna B. & Spivack, George (l987) Competence-Building as an Approach to Prevention of Dysfunction: The ICPS Model. In Steinberg, Jane A. & Silverman, Morton M. (Eds.) Preventing Mental Disorders. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.
29 Keyes, Ralph (l986) Chancing It: Why We Take Risks. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, p 273, p 276, p 281.
30 Greenberger, E. & Steinberg, L. (l986) When Teenager's Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment. New York: Basic Books.
31 Richman, Judith & Flaherty, Joseph (l988) Adult Psychosocial Assets and Depressive Mood over Time. Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases. l75: 703-7l2.
32 Westman, Jack C. (1997) Born to Belong: Becoming Who I Am. Lima, OH: CSS Publishers.
33 Weaver, Sonia K. (l987) Three Steps My Family and I Can Take Now to Encourage Peace. Santa Barbara, CA: Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
Copyright © 1998 Jack C. Westman.For technical assistance: