An elementary school principal discussed with me an important issue in parenting. The context was her concern with parents who ask their children each year who they would like to have for a teacher next year and then, not only request that teacher, but also put pressure on the administration to see that it happens, rather than letting things take their natural course. We parents have to watch that we don’t let our children take the lead in the relationship. Children get the idea that all they have to do is ask and mom and dad will take care of it for them. It isn’t good for them to always get what they want. Children will encounter a variety of people throughout life and need to learn to get along in whatever situation they find themselves. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to enable our children by not allowing them to work out situations that come up in life. It is a misconception that it is our job to make them happy.
One of my mentors, Dr. Steven A. Maybell, has written a wonderful article on this very subject—“Can We Make Our Children Happy?” I would like to share with you what he says, because it is very pertinent as I see parents in our society misguidedly paving the way for their children. Steve’s writes:
The most important task any of us could have is the task of parenting our children. Yet this is the one task where mandatory education or licensing is not required—and children do not come with an owner’s manual!
How do we learn how to parent? The reality is that we learn from our own parents and from the so-called ‘experts.’ Since the middle of the century, these experts have legitimately been warning us that coercive and punitive approaches to parenting damages a child’s self-esteem and is therefore undesirable. However, they have also educated us to believe that we must not do anything to our children that might make them unhappy or uncomfortable, and that by doing so we diminish the child’s sense of personal worth. Our job, they insist, is to assure that our children are always happy, always comfortable.
Based on my years of experience as a parent, parent educator and family counselor, I am convinced that we have all been deceived. The ‘experts’ formula, that happiness + comfort = self-esteem does not add up.
How is self-esteem developed? Where does it come from? The answer is in the term. Self-esteem can only come from ourselves, from a belief in ourselves and our own ability and competence. The belief in ourselves, our sense of self-sufficiency is only derived by having the opportunity to handle things ourselves. To be given the responsibility to manage a new task, a new territory. The formula above directly subtracts from this process. Parents who see it as their job to make their children happy help foster dependency, which is the exact opposite of self-sufficiency and self-esteem. Parents who strive to make their children comfortable deny their children the opportunity to take on a new challenge, which will naturally be uncomfortable.
For a child with self-esteem, when a new challenge arises he/she thinks, ‘This is a challenge, a problem, and I have a good person to rely upon: me.’ Whereas the dependent child thinks: ‘Where is the person who can solve this problem for me?’
Self-sufficiency and self-esteem can be fostered in very specific ways. For example:
1. Giving a young child the experience of sleeping in his/her own bed.
2. Handing the responsibility for school performance and school problems to our children (while staying interested in the learning process, and making ourselves available as consultants.)
3. Teaching our children to do their own laundry and then handing this task over to them.
4. Giving our children in their early teen years the responsibility of choosing and managing their own bedtime.
An interesting life paradox is that by trying to make our children happy and comfortable, we are sure of adding to their discomfort and misery as they face life as a dependent person. By allowing them the opportunity to take on more and more life responsibilities with every passing year, which will include some unhappiness and discomfort, we are giving them the greatest gift imaginable: the gift of self-esteem.
In my experience, the dependency seems to occur most often with the youngest child in the family. We have to watch that we don’t baby the baby.
In addition, I want also to say that we are each responsible for our own happiness in life, as no other person can make us happy. It’s a myth that our partner or spouse, in particular can do that—as well as parents for their children. I recommend a good book entitled Happiness is an Inside Job by Father John Powell for this kind of inner exploration.
© Copyright 2010 by Jackie Pearson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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