Holistic Living - Enlightened Parenting
by Ameeta Sanghvi Shah
Do you feel like you are failing if your child does not sleep on time? Are you disappointed with your child because he is not motivated enough? Are you anxious that you are not able to make your child eat healthily and do more exercise? Then the problem could lie in the way you think about your parenting goals.
What do you see as your prime responsibility towards your children? What are your goals as a parent? “I want to make my child happy. I want my child to be successful. I want my child to be well-mannered.”
Since we judge ourselves as good or bad, capable or incapable according to the achievement of our goals, it could be important to discover whether these goals are themselves appropriate or flawed! You may notice that what you see as your goals and responsibilities to your child contribute strongly to your anxiety, stress and behaviour with your child. As you read further, you may realise that your goals even determine your attitude towards parenting, and towards your child. You may be setting yourself up for failure with inappropriate goals. And flawed goals means you would fail, not because of your capabilities but because of your goals themselves! You already know that failure directly threatens one’s self-esteem, and social image, which can mean loss of self-control. As a result your love would transform into anger and frustration when your child does not live up to your expectations. You would then be acting just the opposite of how you would want to act!
Achievable goals can give you a sense of freedom, a lessening of the burden you carry, and much more consistency in your behaviour. Achievable goals are self-maintainable (their success depends on you and not on others) and specific, focussing as much on the kind of ‘process’ used to achieve the end as on the ‘end’. In this way, they have far greater chances of success.
Check Your Goals
If your goals were the ones stated in the first paragraph above, think again! They are unachievable goals that will create problems! Whether you want your child to be successful, happy or a good human being, these terms are abstract. Neither are they self-maintainable (the goals are not in the hands of the person setting the goals). Happiness and success in your child depends not only on you, it also depends on the child himself, as well as the ‘others’ (teachers, friends) in his environment. These goals focus on the ‘end’ (i.e. the child be happy and successful) and tell you nothing about the ‘process’ of achieving those ends (i.e. how you teach and communicate with your child so that he is happy and successful).
Can we transform these goals to more achievable ones, and thereby give ourselves true success as parents? Let us make these words more specific. By successful you would probably mean good grades, the development of some talent, a good job. When you want for your child to be happy, it could mean a child who is smiling, enjoys everything he does, that he has all the comforts, has good friendships, that you protect him from the unpleasant things in life. The well-mannered child would be one who is obedient, quiet, fits in within societal expectations and etiquette, and does not defy your authority inappropriately.
Why are these goals unachievable, and what damage could they do? Not that any of the goals are wrong, except they are a tall order. To handle this heavy burden you will end up making your goals into your expectations from your child, and a yardstick of your worth. How would these goals affect your behaviour? Firstly, they would make you judgmental about your child’s every behaviour that does not fit these expectations. Your child may have inherent difficulties or experiences of his own that do not allow him to live up to your expectations. Suppose your child’s room is messy, you would feel you are failing to make your child disciplined. Instead of being able to understand and help your child with these difficulties, you would feel guilt or a threatened self-esteem, immense disappointment and helplessness. You would blame yourself or your child or your destiny. These goals can make you too punitive or dominating; you only want to ensure that your child remains obedient or successful at all costs. What happens to your child then? Well, he may have a mask of happiness or compliance, but his inner self feels rejected and his inner confidence will be low.
Achieving the ends of bringing up a successful, happy and disciplined child is not easy because you are not shaping a dead lump of clay. Focusing only on the end can damage the relationship, the invisible parts of your child’s personality, and can neglect other factors involved in enabling a child to be successful and happy. We can feel we are ‘good’ parents based on how we teach our children not just to be happy, but also how to manage their sadness, struggles and hurt as well. This allows us to be patient with our child even when he is not yet showing the end results we want. You can then support your child to grow at his pace, and according to his needs and difficulties.
Unachievable goals would make you overprotective of your child. Some of this may be good, but carried to an extreme, your child will find it difficult to face the risks and take on the experiences he needs to learn, or make his own decisions in facing difficult situations. With the goal of making your child happy, you could find yourself catering to your child’s every whim and fancy. This is why many mothers find it so difficult to wean their child off their milk even after the child is more than two years of age. But a dependent child will not grow up feeling the true happiness of being capable and independent. If you rate yourself on the basis of the constancy of your child’s smiles, he will feel rejected when he is sad.
It is a paradox but by allowing and recognising a person’s pain, anger and sadness, we make them feel comforted and happy in a deeper way.
And more than that, the responsibility of meeting these goals will burden you. You almost take over your child’s responsibility in living his life. Thus we are in a constant state of self-doubt each time our child is unhappy or unsuccessful, which he is going to be many a time. Actually, we only need to be responsible parents, allowing for mistakes in our children and ourselves, and then being able to use these to teach and learn with patience and faith.
A compliant child is not a competent child. He is only obedient without necessarily understanding his own choices, or your reasons for any particular behaviour. A happy child also may not necessarily be competent. Therefore he will in the long run feel frustrated and unhappy as he is faced with situations that he cannot cope with. The goal of competence is one that automatically guarantees that a child will be happy, successful and well-behaved in the real sense.
How does competence create happiness automatically? Happiness comes from two sources, from fun activities, which is a temporary, more superficial happiness. The other type of happiness comes from the development and growth of oneself, the use of one’s talents, and one’s contribution to others. Competence as a goal ensures that you give your child this deeper type of happiness. It means that you do not have to always keep your child happy, and would be free to teach him values and self-control that can make him unhappy when you do not give in to his demands.
One of the essential criteria of any successful goal is that it is self-maintainable, i.e. the achievement of the goal should not depend on others doing or not doing something. Do you see that when our goal is to make our children happy or successful, it is other-maintained i.e. the child has to be happy or get good marks for you to have achieved your goal? Well, to make it self-maintained we simply need to think of our part, how we behave or handle issues with our child. Our goal could be more about how you are when you deal with your child who could be rebellious, sad or even disruptive at times. So do you respond only with force? Do you feel you need to give up on your child? Do you anxiously feel you need to quickly find a way of cheering him up? Could a more achievable goal be to be calm and understanding with his issues? Or to be persuasive and convincing as you talk to him? Consciously examining and then choosing appropriately what you say or do, working to communicate more and more effectively in a way that your child can open up to you, is a more valid parenting goal. Can we communicate in a way that creates a deeper understanding in our child?
It would be better to consider our job is only to make the child reflect and discover ways to keep himself happy or acquire the skills to be able to succeed. We can shift our goal to teach our child to want to discipline himself, rather than actually discipline him. Our goal could be to have a process of helping our child problem-solve when faced with disappointments and setbacks, for he is sure to face them in the course of growing up. Our goal for our child is really the facilitation of competence, rather than compliance or happiness. The crucial difference lies in ‘facilitation’ versus ‘enforcement’ of this competence. The goal shifts from that of shaping the child, to shaping our skills to shape the child, working on our abilities to teach, love and understand our child in relation to his needs, feelings and temperament. Are we ready to train ourselves in these skills and abilities? For they constitute the true goals of parenting.
We need to humbly realise that we are not the creators of our child’s potential, nor can we play at being ‘gods’. We are only facilitators of their potential. And even that is an extremely powerful and vital role to play. Dr. David Lewis, psychologist and author, questions, “Why is it that when bright babies are the rule, brilliant children are very much an exception?” The answer lies in how and what we teach them about themselves and the problems they face.
And principles are universal values that just seem to be unquestionably right like ‘natural laws’ as Dr. Stephen Covey points out. Guiding our choice of interventions needs to be with principles such as honesty, integrity (i.e. doing what you say – meaning that when you tell your child not to hit someone, you do not do that to him or anyone else), fairness, equality, courtesy, and non-violence. As we guide, talk and interact with our child, we can learn the skills to ‘be’ the kind of person we ‘want to be’, not justifying any loss of control of our behaviour to the faults of our child or our circumstance. We can aim for ‘responsibility’ (persevering in introspecting and problem-solving any difficulties our child presents us with – our ability to respond to our child’s issues based on principles and effectiveness) and not ‘perfection’ in our actions or results. The net result will be a more relaxed and joyous parent-child bond, and the simple ability to enjoy your child.
Ameeta Sanghavi Shahi s a
psychotherapist (familytherapy) and training consultant for personal and Interpersonal effectiveness
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