METHODS OF UPBRINGING
In Scandinavia we discussed methods of child rearing with great confidence right up to the middle of the 1970s. We believed that children were asocial and potentially animal-like; therefore adults had to associate with them and use “methods” that would ensure children’s individual and social development. The methods varied along ideological lines, but the notion that it was necessary to use a “method” went unchallenged until very recently.
Now that we know that children are real people from birth, it is absurd to speak of “methods.” Think for a moment about how we would sound if we applied this concept to adult relationships. Imagine, for example, a man saying to a friend, or to his therapist, “I’m in love with a tall, black-haired woman from Portugal, but I have many problems with her. Can you give me a method so that she will be less difficult to live with?” Clearly, no adult would think of approaching another adult with this idea in mind. But this is how we have approached our relationships with children since the beginning of the eighteenth century.
When children are born, they are fully human—that is, they are social, responsive, and empathic. These qualities are not taught, but are inborn. Yet for these qualities to develop, children need to be with adults who behave in ways that respect and model social, human behavior. To use a method—any method—is not just superfluous but also destructive because it reduces children to objects in relation to those who are nearest and dearest to them. It’s time, according to both clinicians and researchers, to change how we relate to children—to move from a subject-object relationship to a subject-subject relationship.
THE AGE OF DEFIANCE
Around the age of two, children gradually begin to free themselves from their total dependence on their parents. Suddenly they discover their autonomy – a discovery that they literally celebrate by saying “no” to everything you say or ask. With a delighted smile on their faces they say “no” and the message is, “Look, I’m not you anymore! I’m ME – isn’t that wonderful?” They don’t say no to oppose their parents. They want to be able to think, feel, and act on their own. There’s never any doubt as to when this independent age begins. One morning, as you dress your two-year-old daughter, she tugs at your arm and says, “Me can!” or “Me do it!” And how do most parents respond? They say, “Stop it! You can’t do it. I have to. We haven’t got time to play games!” In other words, when children become independent, many parents become defiant!
Yet this brief anecdote also illustrates how clever children are at cooperating! If a parent meets his two-year-old’s burgeoning independence with reluctance and defiance, the child will, in the space of a few weeks, become either defiant herself—meeting defiance with defiance—or lose her initiative entirely and become even more dependent.
Young children necessarily become increasingly independent and self-reliant—it’s part of their development. Only a totalitarian system would view the natural and progressive development of a child’s unique personality as a problem. Describing children as “defiant” is a typical ploy of those in power; it’s intended to keep the children subordinate.
In this age your child is taking his or her first steps toward their individuality and if you as a parent enter into a power struggle with your child a lot of valuable energy is wasted and you might be installing a experience in your child, that will become evident when he reaches puberty.
Within a power structure it is necessary to have law and order; therefore, in the past, limits were set to govern children’s physical, mental, and emotional pursuits. These limits—what children could and couldn’t and should and shouldn’t do—were enforced as if the family was a policing unit.
This system led adults to assert that certain limits were healthy and good for children—a proposition many people accepted, although there is no evidence to support it. Let me elaborate: It is true that children develop in harmonious and healthy ways when the adults of the family set some limits. But, as I will explain later, it is important that both children and adults set their own limits. The question of setting limits for others is first and foremost an expression of power.
The question of limits inevitably arises whenever parents discuss children’s upbringing. We tend to think that only our generation has difficulty setting limits, that our parents accomplished this task with more ease. In fact, setting limits has always been difficult. Parents have always asked experts for advice about how to get children to “respond” or “obey,” as they used to call it. For as long as families sought to uphold the power structure, parents were advised to think about setting limits in terms of four elements: unity, firmness, consequences, and fairness. Let’s explore each of these in turn.
“Unity is strength,” as the saying goes, and that was precisely the reasoning behind one of the family’s most important credos: “It is important that parents agree about how to bring up children.” I have met countless couples who sacrificed their marriages in order to live up to this ideal, and who suffered from overwhelming guilt because they did not succeed. They believed, as many parents do, that children feel the most secure when their parents agree, and that they were harming their children when they failed to agree. A certain amount of disunity was tolerated—but only if it was expressed after the children had gone to bed. When children were present, nothing less than unconditional unity was demanded. Yet this article of faith is true only if we insist on thinking of the family as a political unit. When those in power have to enforce law and order, it is to their advantage to agree, so that they can face their children as a united front.
Parents also perceived that disunity would allow children to play one parent off against the other—to drive a wedge into the family’s leadership. Yet in practice parents seldom agree. For example, in many families dads dole out discipline only to have moms intervene for more leniency. In this situation, mom is viewed not as a disloyal soldier but rather as the family’s first-aid dispenser whose job it is to tend to the wounded. Yet even as they performed this role, many women never questioned the necessity of setting limits, or thought to examine the confines under which they themselves lived.
To me, it is not important whether parents agree about upbringing or not. In principle, they need only agree about one thing, namely, that it is acceptable to disagree. Only when their parents experience each others differences as wrong and undesirable do children become insecure.
Firmness, which is related to unity, is also believed to be necessary to keep the power structure intact. When members of a family voice different opinions, the discord is experienced as hostile op-position, and creates conflict. What does it mean for adults to be firm? They have to be able to say, in unison, “NO!” when children disobey.
The healthy alternative to this power play is open, personal dialogue that takes into account the desires, dreams, and needs of children as well as those of the adults. To act in this way is to display true leadership.
Suppose children still did not obey, even after both parents spoke with a united and firm voice. What next? Regardless of the particular conflict, parents usually select one of two consequences: either they resort to physical violence, or they limit children’s personal freedom. Neither of these consequences is easy to carry out. Most of us cannot physically hurt our children or restrict their personal or social freedom with a clear conscience. That’s why we resort to these familiar justifications:
• “It’s for your own good!”
• “You’ll understand when you grow up!”
• “You must learn to adapt yourself!”
• “It hurts me more than it hurts you!”
• “If you won’t listen, we’ll have to knock it into you!”
• When a parent says, “I make the decisions here!” children learn to submit or rebel
When a parent says, “Children should be seen and not heard!”. Children learn that they have no freedom of speech, and that they need to censor themselves.
Interestingly, after punishing their children, many parents begin to worry that they have harmed their relationship with them. Typically, parents then express this fear as a demand—“Give your dad a hug now, and let’s forget all about it”—or, more indirectly, as a question—“Are we friends again?” Ironically, this is what adults often say to each other when breaking off a loving relationship: “Can’t we still be friends?”
These feelings of awkwardness and doubt are justified. By dealing in consequences and punishment, parents gradually destroy their relationship with their children. They decline all responsibility for the conflict that has arisen and turn the child into the guilty party. This pattern of treatment erodes not only the child’s confidence in his parents, but also his own self-esteem.
The term “consequence” has become a softer synonym for punishment and the explanation usually is that it is necessary or even healthy that children learn that their actions and behavior has consequences. In my experience punishment is neither necessary nor healthy and therefore it is a good idea to distinguish between punishment and what we might call natural consequences .
“If you cannot sit still at the table you will not get any desert!” That is a punishment
“If you eat any more ice cream you will probably get a stomach ace”. That is a natural consequence
For many parents, a large part of child rearing was concerned with criticizing and correcting children when they acted incorrectly. Children, then, needed to admit to having done something wrong, or demonstrate genuine remorse. According to this model, adults are responsible for making children recognize that they were truly and seriously in the wrong. Only after they admit that they were wrong can children begin to improve themselves. This way of thinking gave rise to such well-known expressions as
• “Shame on you!”
• “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
• “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Under this system of child rearing, in which any conflict between parents and children can be explained by the lack or failure of a child’s upbringing, the concept of fairness was introduced as a guideline for those in power. Practically, it allowed adults to ascertain that the child was truly guilty before the punishment was carried out. Thus parents didn’t focus as much on the violence they would mete out, but on the unfairness that would ensue if they punished a child who was in fact innocent.
Paradoxically, because their parents operated on this concept of fairness, children often only remembered (and protested against) those episodes for which they had been punished for something they had not actually done. The more general—and deeply unjust—experience of being “wrong” was repressed, because it was normal—that is, it was the normal state of mind for children raised under a system in which criticism was considered the cornerstone of their education and upbringing.
The concept of fairness also surfaced in those families in which parents made a great effort not to treat their children “differently.” According to this way of thinking, children—regardless of how different they were—should receive the same gifts at holiday time, the same rewards, the same punishment, and the same upbringing. As a result, some children received what they really needed and some didn’t—it was a toss-up. But parents could rest assured in the knowledge that they had been “fair.”
The set of values I have described, emanating from an antiquated understanding of the nature of children, is still widely practiced in many parts of the world. Regardless of what one may think of this system of upbringing, we have to admit that the methods are highly correlated with success, or at least they used to be. Yet the goal—to raise children who behave—is insidious. It’s summed up in a warning my friends and I heard innumerable times when we were growing up: “Now remember to behave yourself so that other people can see that you’ve been brought up properly!”
Our parents’ priorities were based on this external value—that children learned how to “get on,” “behave nicely,” “fit in,” “speak properly”; and that they say “Thank you,” “How do you do?” and “Thank you for having me.” Children were not supposed to be themselves. They were expected to “act,” precisely as one acts in a play. And just like actors, they were expected to learn their lines.
Years later, knowing so much more about children than our parents did, it is easy for us to be wise. We need to remind our¬selves that those parents who still cling to the notion of the family as a power structure do so because they honestly believe that it is best for their children. They do not experience this system of up¬bringing primarily as an expression of power.