Susan C. Stone's Practical Parenting Blog dotcom

The Gift of Being Parental

Posted on: April 8, 2011


Parents today seem to be confused about their role with their children – they want to be “pals” with their kids. What is this trend all about?

First, it seems to be that today’s parents identify with being youthful and feel that acting “grown-up” or “in charge” will morph them into stuffy, gray-haired, wrinkled, dorky versions of their former selves. Feeling on a par with their children means they’re still hip, relevant and ageless.

Second, parents have misgivings, and even fears, about being overbearing dictators who stomp the joy out of their children. They don’t want to appear heavy-handed or overly restrictive.

Third, and most peculiar, is a deep fear that if they set limits and boundaries for their children they won’t be loved by them! I’m seeing a generation of parents who are intimidated by the displeasure of people who are three feet tall!

Tell me, do you think your parents had these concerns? If you say “yes”, I’d really like to meet them because they are a rare breed, indeed! Parents of previous generations didn’t consider being “grown-up” to be a negative. They didn’t live in a world that worshipped a youth culture, plastic surgery, or perfect-fitting jeans. They knew they had a job to do as a parent – to socialize their children and they didn’t much like being bossed around by short people. They pretty much did what was expedient to achieve these goals.

Now, I like a pair of great jeans as much as the next person and wrinkles are not welcomed into my house. But, as a Marriage and Family Therapist for over 30 years, I see every day in my practice, the fall-out from parents not being parental. I see children who feel scared that there is no big person around to take care of them because everyone has the same degree of power and decision-making. I see children who feel unloved because, from their point of view, their parents don’t seem to care what they do. And I see children who suffer because they are growing up without internal boundaries and the ability to delay gratification and control their impulses that help them grow into responsible, non-impulsive, hard-working and caring adults who can be successful in their relationships and endeavors.

So, what does it mean to be parental? It doesn’t mean being harsh, punitive, grumpy and frumpy. It means recognizing that a family is not a democracy – it’s a benign dictatorship! It means that you’re in charge, and rightly so – to guide and protect your children who are inexperienced in this world and don’t understand health concerns, danger and safety, long-term versus short-term outcomes and much more.

It means that both you and your child understand that there are adult decisions and there are children’s decisions and that the balance of these slowly shifts from infancy to college as your children learn, in a gradual way, to make all or most of their own decisions and deal with and learn from the outcomes.

Have this talk with your child today: “Do you understand that there are grown-up decisions and children’s decisions? When you were an infant you got to make very few decisions – when you were going to sleep, eat and poop! Now you’re 3 or 6 or 12 or older, and you get to make many more decisions (of which you can name many). But we, the parents, still make the grown-up ones.”  Oddly, children find this to be a very reasonable arrangement! It often makes them more inclined to adhere to your directives if they see that certain decisions are theirs to make.

Being parental also means really knowing the difference between pleasing your child and loving your child. Simply put, pleasing is easy but harmful; loving is difficult but beneficial. If your child wants ice cream for breakfast, it will certainly please them if you agree. However, saying “that isn’t a healthy choice” is loving but likely to be met with at least a pout, maybe an argument, a slammed door or even your child packing a suitcase and announcing they’re moving down the street where the parents are nicer!

If you’re intimidated by your child’s reaction and give in, if you use your child’s face as a barometer of whether you’re doing the right thing, not only are you dead in the water as a protector and guide, but your child is deprived of the sense of being loved and valued.

It’s worth a few extra words to describe my experience with a family I saw years ago which consisted of a single mother and an 8-year-old boy. The mom had no idea how to parent and the boy was going to school if and when he felt like it. He would often stay up all night watching TV and eating junk food which he demanded she buy. However, they didn’t seek my help until the boy began cutting up the furniture with scissors. You might first think, “This unfortunate boy was a bit demented”, not to mention his mother. In truth, he was simply pushing the limits to see at what point his mother would take a stand. Well, with not too much intervention, just a little parent coaching, the mother learned to set limits and the boy was becoming compliant. The important part of this story is that the boy came in one day, plopped down on my couch and said, “I don’t know what you’re saying to my mom, but I think she’s starting to love me.”

Need I say more?

So, hitch up those jeans and become the adult in the house. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with your child and be playful, but being in charge, being parental, is the best gift you can give your child. And, I promise you, they will love you for it.

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1 Response to "The Gift of Being Parental"

Very true and well said.

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