No other task in the world is so complicated and challenging as that of raising children. Yet a career spent with youngsters and their problems has led me to this haunting conclusion: each set of new parents approaches the formidable assignment of raising humans with the least imaginable training and preparation. For the relatively simple roles of doctor, lawyer, pilot, plumber, it is taken for granted that years of preparation will be necessary to attain even mediocrity. But one is apparently assumed to come to the job of being a parent divinely endowed with knowledge and experience. And when we stumble along the path, and the resulting product is less than perfect, the world feels free to point an accusing finger at us.
How, then, does the perplexed parent avoid stumbling? What guidelines will help make him a “good” parent?
To me, the good parent is simply one who ‘more than half the time’ does the right thing instead of the wrong. He knows that thousands of factors contribute to and shape the final personality of a growing human being. But he realizes that in the long run only three basic needs are absolutely essential: love, discipline, independence.
LOVE. Of the three fundamental requirements, the first– love–is the most important. And it is unique in that there can never be too much. An excess of discipline, or too much independence, can be harmful. But of love, the more the merrier.
The type of love a child needs is the kind that says, “I love you, Joe, not for what you do or don’t do, but just because you’re you.” This is the uncritical kind of love that builds self-confidence, creates a strong self-image, leads to a willingness to try without fear of the consequences of failing. There is no doubt that most parents feel this sort of affection for their children, but don’t know how to express it effectively. Three precepts may prove helpful:
- Disapprove of what a child does, not of who he is. There is no inconsistency in paddling a child for misbehavior, and then putting your arms around him and telling him what a fine boy he is and how much you love him. Indeed, you bother to discipline only because you love–a concept that children readily perceive.
- Praise a child more for being than for doing. Parents generally react favorably to a good report card or to a thoughtful act on a child’s part. This is all well and good–as long as these accomplishments are not the child’s major or sole source of praise and love. In fact, a child should receive a greater share of cuddling or praise when he is producing nothing, is daydreaming, or in fact has recently done something that had to be criticized.
- Communicate your love. It is not enough to feel love; you must make a recipient aware of your feeling. This can be done by a thousand little acts and gestures:
Tucking a child into bed at night, while forbearing to review his misdeeds of the day.
Offering a comforting arm or a lap even though he’s not hurt badly.
Being visibly proud of him when he has given you no earthly reason even to admit that he’s yours.
Perhaps the most elegant way of all to communicate your love is to praise a child out loud to strangers, to relatives, to your mate, in the child’s presence.
DISCIPLINE. Discipline is important simply because we live in an organized society where, if you have not learned life’s requirements at an early age, you will be taught them later, not by those whose love tempers the lesson but by strangers who couldn’t care less about the harm they do to your personality.
“Discipline” and “punishment” are not synonymous. Punishment suggests hurting, paying someone back for a wrong committed. Discipline implies an action directed toward a goal. You discipline with the intention of helping the recipient to improve himself.
The basic rules of discipline apply equally to any teaching situation.
Establish authority. The first step in the discipline of a child must be the lesson that his parents are correct, and are to be trusted and obeyed at all times.
Now, don’t panic, Mom and Dad. Though you may know very well that you are not absolute authorities, you must assume the ‘disguise’ of authority. Here is the key: an authority is only a fellow who knows more about a subject than the person he is addressing. Therefore, until the pupil’s confidence in the discipliner is established, the subject must always be chosen so that the teacher can prove his point if challenged. The child is not scolded, not reasoned with, not nagged, not punished. He is simply ‘made’ to comply! The spoken command coincides with physical enforcement. The creeper headed for the lamp cord is called back only as he is being bodily carried back. The toddler is summoned to lunch only as his mother grasps his hand and leads him to the table.
Thus, by concentrating early discipline on lessons which can be promptly backed up by physical means, the parent begins to establish infallibility as an authority. And the converse must also be observed: Avoid disciplining in matters which you cannot enforce. For example, it is unwise to instruct a young child to “Eat your food,” “Go to sleep,” “Stop that crying,” because you cannot possibly enforce the lesson.
Be consistent. Unpredictable discipline on the part of a single parent, or inconsistency between parents, produces a sense of confusion and panic within the child, so that he ultimately says, “The heck with it,” and gives up trying to follow ‘any’ teaching. Thus parents who constantly disagree about how to teach their children had best compromise their differences–or match their child’s college fund with a child-psychiatrist fund. The same is true of “well-meaning” outside persons– grandparents, older siblings, servants–who are equally capable of disrupting discipline. Parents must decide early whether their first allegiance is to the child or to the outsider, however closely related.
Criticize the action, not the child. There is a mountain of difference between “You are a bad boy for kicking me in the shins,” and “Kicking me in the shins is bad, and I won’t tolerate it.” If this seems like hairsplitting, let me emphasize that this difference represents one of the major mistakes that parents make in raising children. It is relatively harmless to attack another person’s actions; after all, these he can always learn to change. But it is disastrous to attack his self-esteem.
Don’t explain or bribe. Much nonsense has gone into the myth that one should explain to a child as one disciplines. The familiar refrain–“Anita, come in for dinner.” “Why?” “Because I say to.”–may seem hard for the child to accept. But–“Anita, come in for dinner.” “Why?” “Because I want to get dinner over with and go to a show.”–is terrifying. It thrusts upon Anita the burden of deciding whether it is more important to play or to consider the happiness of her mother. And she does not yet have the knowledge to make a valid decision. Such “explanations” should come only after Anita has long since mastered the fact that when Mother calls her, she had better come.
Bribery is equally dangerous. When you say, “Bob, I am proud of the way you behaved in front of Aunt Agatha today,” you are rewarding Bob. When you say, “Bob, ‘if’ you behave well in front of Aunt Agatha today, I’ll be proud of you,” you are offering a bribe. The first is legitimate; the latter, destructive. For a bribe, like an explanation, thrusts upon the child the necessity of choosing.
INDEPENDENCE. The third factor indispensable to the development of the normal personality is the emergence of independence. The nature of independence is such that:
- It cannot be forced. A child will automatically learn to make decisions on his own when he is ready, provided that the opportunity to do so is not kept from him. It is not possible to push him into acting independently before he feels ready without making him fearful of the consequences, desirous of clinging to the nest. Thus, an infant will feed himself when he is capable of doing so, if given the opportunity, and not because he is urged or forced.
- It should not be smothered. Its emergence should be tolerated in all permissible forms. Minor hurts, physical and mental, are pretty much essential to the development of independence. The toddler must stumble and fall a number of times before he masters walking. The first-grader must suffer the scorn of his colleagues when he chooses to dress inappropriately for school.
- In an area that would result in permanent, serious harm to the child, it must be prohibited. Allowing a child to make decisions of thought or action ‘before’ he is capable of understanding the consequences, if the consequences could be dangerous, is not realistic. For example, the need for the development of independence should not lead to the toddler falling down the cellar stairs. Perhaps the best way to put it is that the child should be permitted to make minor errors of judgment–but not allowed to exterminate himself.
So there it is: the triad of requirements necessary for the development of emotional health. Give away your love to your children, and you will receive back more love than you can encompass. Discipline your children to recognize reality, and in the doing you will enrich your own understanding. Welcome their evolving independence, and you will be supported by the strength you have helped them attain.