What is the primary responsibility of a parent to a child? Most will agree, at least to a certain degree, that parenting is about making sure that their children are well prepared for the world that they have to face and, to achieve this, to arm them with all of the tools necessary to maximize their chance of success, whatever that path to success may be. This would include things like skills, knowledge, judgment, wisdom, morals, values, integrity, ethics, honor, honesty, among others.
Then, from a child’s perspective, what do they want from their parents? It could be argued love, knowledge, wisdom, guidance, protection, and to some degree, financial aid.
Are most families meeting these criteria? To be completely honest, few, if any families that I’ve interacted with meet these relationship pillars between parents and children. The most obvious outward sign of incongruity is children that won’t listen to their parents, but how do unconditionally loving, cute, innocent children become the adolescent and teenage monsters that some of them become? More interesting to me is then how do they end up reconciling with their parents and, more puzzling, become like their parents?
Not always, but much of the spiraling decline towards a chaotic and discombobulated relationship between parents and children start with inconsistent, ineffective and almost random discipline and lies. But please note that lying is a big part of why discipline fails, so I will choose to concentrate on lying and not discipline in this post.
Many times I’ve encountered parents who bold-face lie to their children: One parent I saw gave his young girl foamed milk and called it a cappuccino, because his daughter wanted to be like an adult and demanded that she get a cappuccino as well; another parent told her daughter that she was a princess at least to him; another parent told her boy what a wonderful dancer he was despite the child not having a coordinated bone in his body; another parent told their child that they couldn’t have candy because it really wasn’t candy, it was medicine; another parent told their child that they have to eat their vegetables, otherwise the vegetable bogeyman/monster was going to get them; and, of course, most parents lie to their children about santa claus, the tooth fairy, the easter bunny, etc.
When confronted with the inconvenient truth that they are lying to their children, all parents will say one of two things: 1) I’m trying to protect their innocents — mostly used when trying to defend their position that telling their children santa claus existed was for the child’s benefit, or 2) it’s a necessary evil to avoid tantrums or “incidents” — this excuse is used pretty much at all other times. The 2nd reason is obviously an out and out lie, but is there a difference between the 1st reason and the 2nd reason, i.e., is there a difference between a white lie and a black lie? All parents that I’ve talked to will say that there is a big difference and the difference boils down to intent. They also agree that the 2nd reason for lying to one’s children is more sinister and less forgivable than the first. When asked why, they inevitably invoke the reason that the 1st reason for lying is: A) a white lie, which is not bad, and B) it is with good intent, i.e., to protect the innocence of their children.
What a load of natural fertilizers! At the end of the day, there is no difference between white lies and other lies. In fact, often, white lies have more of a devastating impact than “regular” or “black” lies. Precisely, because white lies shatter that which it was suppose to protect: A child’s innocence. A child all of a sudden realizes that one or both parents do lie to them and that these lies hurt them, A LOT! Then they begin to think about what else parents lie about. Then, as they grow older, they realize parents lie about a LOT OF THINGS and, specifically, lied and hid the truth about a lot of things in their lives: Wow, that foamed milk wasn’t a cappuccino after all; wow, I guess I’m really not a princess to my dad after all; wow, I actually suck at dancing; wow, what else should I try to eat (drink, inhale, inject, you get the picture) that my parents don’t want me to; wow, there’s no such thing as a bogeyman/monster; and WOW no SANTA?! What the hell?!
How long do you think it takes a child to figure out that they shouldn’t trust everything that a parent tells them, and about when do you think they realize this? I’d say some where around 5th – 7th grade about 11-13 years old, sometimes earlier. Then as their curiosity ripens about a lot of different subjects, who do they turn to for answers? Teachers, other parents, relatives or friends? You got it! So, how good do you think advice and counsel from friends are? Of course, it’s the blind leading the blind. No wonder children often start to stray in their teenage years and are at the height of their rebellion through out their teens. This should not surprise anyone.
Think of it from your perspective: Who would you turn to for advice and information: The one who doesn’t really know, the one who lies to you, the one who you think knows, but lies to you, or the one who you think knows and doesn’t lie to you, at least not intentionally? This isn’t rocket science, so why would you think that your teenage children would choose any differently than you? What’s even more astonishing is that parents go around talking about how their children don’t listen to them anymore and will ignore, nay, do the opposite of what they are told is the right thing to do! Then they say, I don’t know how, when or why it got that way! WOW! REALLY!?
It isn’t rocket science: You lie to your children and they’ll stop listening to you. You tell them to do something, but you don’t do the same, they’ll stop doing what you tell them. You make excuses not to do the right thing, your children will stop doing the right thing, etc. And, parents who actually say the following are the dumbest and most idiotic of all parents: “Do as I say, not as I do!”
What’s astonishing is that children want to believe their parents, they want their guidance, their help, their advice, but it is the parents that screw it up and all that the child is doing is reacting to that screw up. No matter how much it hurts the child today, the truth is always better than the most elegant of lies, because if they find out that you lied, the trust is lost. How many times have you heard that honor, credibility and respect takes a lifetime to earn and takes only a moment to lose? Why should this be different between parents and their children?
If you want to make sure that children continue to follow your lead, you must do several things: 1) Never, ever lie to your children — lies include omissions as well, 2) always behave in a manner that you would want your children to behave, 3) always talk and reason in the manner that you hope your children will talk and reason as adults, 4) teach them and counsel them for their true best interests, 5) always let them know that you dispense advice with their best interests in mind, but 6) also let them know that your advice and guidance isn’t bulletproof that you are capable of misjudging or making mistakes, but never deliberately or with deception in mind, 7) give them choices, when possible, instead of edicts, but always explain the pros and cons of those choices, 8) let them take risks, calculated risks and let them make mistakes, but let them know that you want them to take risks and see for themselves what the consequences are, and, 9) most importantly, teach them how to recover from their mistakes and how to make proper amends for their mistakes. Of course there are exceptions to every rule: Sex education at 6 is probably not appropriate, while at 11 or 12 is much more appropriate, so each parent must come up with how to tell their children, “you are not ready for that lesson yet, but when the time comes (and be explicit), I will tell you without hesitation.” Also, experimenting with drugs should never be an option for any children. You may think of other examples, but you get the idea that you have to finesse certain things and outline absolute boundaries.
Given that advice from friends are about as useful as an ice maker to an eskimo, children often get lost and confused, and with no where to turn for advice and counsel, children start making bad choices, which lead to even worse situations, which then lead to evermore worse choices, etc. After ramming their heads into brick walls many, many times, most children give up trying to find their way through life and to find truths and this is when they start to become more like their parents. This usually starts to happen in the 20s as children grow up to be “adults” and face the choice of having to start their own family. Since they didn’t come to many useful conclusions, they revert back to what they know, which is how their parents behaved and treated them. This should not be surprising to anyone. One concrete example of this is that adults who were abused as a child are far more likely to abuse their own children than those that grew up in a loving family. However, what can these “adults” do, they don’t know any better. How sad is this?!
Getting back to children, for those of you that have rebellious teens, it isn’t too late, but it will be very, very difficult to earn their trust back, but the first step is to tell them the truth about everything that happened in their past. Then you have to hope that they believe you, and, most importantly, that they trust you. This will not come easy and they will test you in every way imaginable. However, you have to persevere and hope that their distrust for you hasn’t gone so far past irreparable that you cannot reach them. The key is to let them know why you lied, what you hope to have accomplished by lying, apologize for past transgressions, how you plan to change things going forward and ask them for a second chance. Then let them stew on it for a while and let them come to you. But always express your love for them, and start to trust them. If you want their trust then you have to give them your trust first. This is the hardest thing that you can do, but it is vital that you trust them, so that they can trust you.
Things you shouldn’t do: 1) Point out how their friends have stirred them wrong in the past, 2) what mistakes that they made and why they should have listened to you instead, 3) what they should do to change their lives immediately. All this will come later, if and when you’ve earned their trust back. Once they start trusting you more, don’t forget, it’s not 100%; like I said before, they will test you. The best thing to do when they come to you for advice is to do way more listening than talking, and let them know that the relationship has changed between the two of you; this is critically important. Let them know that it is no longer a parent-child relationship, i.e., you tell them what to do and they do without thinking. Let them know that it is now a matter of mentor and mentee, counselor and client; perhaps the best way may be to ask them to use you as a reference tool or an encyclopedia. Regardless of the wording, you must mean what you say and you must show them that the relationship between the two of you has matured and will continue to develop and mature. Some of the questions you should be asking are: What are you inclined to do, why? What are your alternate choices and why did you reject them? If they’ve not considered a particular type of option suggest it to them: Have you considered X? Then let them ask you why that choice. Also, it doesn’t hurt or wouldn’t hurt to convey to your children your own personal life experiences when discussing issues/problems with them. This lends credibility to your counsel. However, be mindful of the “that was then this is now,” retort. You should agree that times have indeed changed, but make your point based on principles not on circumstance, because the circumstances do and will change, but principles don’t. No matter what, it will be very difficult to make this transition, but the key is to change the dynamic between you and your children. Don’t forget, they are growing up and trying to become their own person. So, acknowledge this and work with it and let them know that you know that change is a constant in one’s life and that they are now more of a young adult then a child and so both of you have to interact based on this new and evolving paradigm.
At first, some children will test the parent to see if they are really allowed to make mistakes on their own or if they can “get away” with something. When this happens, don’t immediately turn to criticism, this will make things worse. Let them know that you know that they are testing you to map out boundaries and limitations to the new relationship then have a frank discussion about why there are boundaries and limitations, how they should be set, why, how they can be changed over time, why and why it can’t be “sky’s the limit” right off the bat.
The point is, treat them like maturing young adults and give them room to learn, to experiment, to make mistakes, and to recover from those mistakes. However, do so in a controlled fashion and make it clear that there are limitations and boundaries, some of them hard, such as no drugs, no alcohol, no tobacco, no unprotected sex, no violation of laws, rules and regulations of public institutions (i.e., schools, the municipality, state, federal, etc.). After that, agree on reasonable boundaries, priorities, responsibilities, privileges, and accountabilities (i.e., punishments — for lack of a better word). Then talk to them about how these boundaries, priorities, responsibilities, privileges and accountabilities will change over time and why. And, don’t talk about proving things to you; talk more in terms of the child proving things to themselves; make them take the responsibility and be accountable for those responsibilities, and always explain the whys and the wherefores. Don’t ever say, “because I said so!” let alone mean it. Think about it from your perspective: Do you like your boss telling you, “because I said so!” or do you prefer to be treated like an adult and given the reasons, the objective that needs to be reached, why and asked for suggestions and thoughts? No one likes to be treated like a slave or an ignoramus, least of all your own children! So, again, treat them according to who they are: Young adults that are looking for a path to their identity and future in need of support, guidance and learning. You’ll find that the trust can be earned back and your relationship with your children can really become rewarding.
PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM NOT A PSYCHOLOGIST, PSYCHIATRIST, CHILDCARE EXPERT OR AN AUTHORITY ON PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIPS. THE ABOVE IS MERELY BASED ON MY OBSERVATIONS AND EXPERIENCE. THEREFORE, YOU SHOULD TAKE IT FOR WHAT IT IS AND NOT AN ABSOLUTE FORMULA FOR SUCCESS IN RAISING YOUR CHILDREN. ULTIMATELY, YOU HAVE TO FIND YOUR OWN PATH. ALSO, NOTE THAT EACH CASE IS GOING TO BE DIFFERENT AND THEREFORE MUST BE HANDLED DIFFERENTLY AND THE ADVICE PUT FORTH HERE IS ONLY A GENERAL GUIDELINE AND NOT A PANACEA.
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