The mom and dad are, if nothing else, shockingly candid. They tell me the three family therapists before me have each been wiled by their daughter ‘s combination of intelligence and “Sweet Lil ‘Ol’ Me” persona. That the three family therapists before me have all turned on them – the parents – and suggested they are the problem.
They tell me I have no idea how awful the daughter is to them. How contemptuous. How contrary. How defiant. How ungrateful. That I have no idea what they suffer at her hands. How often they’ve begged and pleaded. Argued and fought. Then, the Magic Words: “We’ve tried everything. “
Except hanging out with me. Which is what they are trying now.
Well, I guess I‘ve got my marching orders! If I should suggest that there are some things Mom and Dad should/could take a look at, then I‘ll be “just like those other therapists.” I smile inwardly and imagine an alligator pit in my office, over which we could tie and dangle the daughter in session. She could scream and struggle while we talk. Just to show the parents whose side I’m on.
So, I start slowly. Gently. I tell them I‘ve witnessed Sweet Lil ‘Ol’ Me with my own eyes and ears. I tell them I think the daughter’s persona is, at once, reflective of the girl’s genuine character and a ploy — like all personas. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m not particularly reactive to personas. Not hers. Not theirs. Which, by the way, goes something like, “Oy vey! Our lot is to raise the devil ‘s daughter!”
I suggest that, effective immediately, they stop begging, pleading, arguing and fighting. Not because it’s wrong to do those things, but because it’s worse than ineffective. These strategies actually concede the war to the daughter. Besides, she likes it.
I tell Mom and Dad I want them to become better chess players. I tell them I want them to learn to enjoy chess. “Playing chess” is my abiding metaphor for effective child rearing. Chess masters don’t beg, plead, fight or argue. They think. They breathe. They strategize. Then they act.
Here’s the new paradigm:
Thou shalt not be emotionally reactive.
Your children, from the moment they are born, will regularly provoke powerful emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. This is unavoidable. Your children will make your heart soar. Then they will break your heart. They will crown you. Then crucify you. I would never ask a parent to stop feeling. What I observe is that effective parents do not react out of their feelings.
Thou shalt not allow thy ego to engage.
All parents have egos. I would never ask a parent not to have an ego. What I want is for parents to have stronger egos – strong enough that parents can set ego aside when mobilizing child rearing strategies. An ego so strong that there is no need – ever – to defend oneself. Or justify. Or even particularly to explain. Strong enough to communicate to our children, in effect, “In this moment, I don’t have any particular investment in your relative affection for me, or your keenly reasoned conclusions (born of your many years of life experience) regarding my intelligence, competence and moral character. Feel free to think and feel about me any way you’d like.”
It’s a paradox: Our children will provoke both our emotions and our ego, but we simply can’t afford to react out of these places.
In a culture absent effective rites of passage into adulthood, modern adolescents find themselves defaulting to contempt, disdain and defiance as their only available strategies for growing up. This, for them, seems the only way to forge healthy separateness from parents. It seems the only way to mobilize their own ego strength so they might gather the necessary power and momentum of selfhood. Trouble is, these strategies won’t serve them anywhere in the real world. All the more important, then, that loving parents always proceed in such a way as to make certain these strategies don’t work.
It is my job, at the end of the day, to bequeath to my children responsibility for their own lives. To say, in effect, “I love you, but, in the end, if ‘Will Work For Food’ is the life you want, I will, can and do give you the freedom to choose it.”
Would that break my heart? Yes. But loving, effective child rearing is not about protecting my heart. Effective child rearing is about shaping children into competent adults.
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, an author and an Episcopal priest. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)