An Essay on Parenting


As a graduate student in psychology, I paid my dues in the Animal Research Lab, observing rats pressing bars for food pellets and pigeons pecking keys to receive pieces of grain. I learned how to vary the schedule that controlled when food was delivered in order to examine the effect on an animal's behavior. The first thing I found out was that, contrary to my expectations, it was the rats that were pleasant to handle, while the pigeons were vicious. The second thing I learned was that by varying the food delivery, I could produce exactly the behavior I wanted. I was in control!

Motherhood has taught me a wider perspective. Gone are the days when I had the luxury of focusing on a single behavior while ignoring the well-being of the whole individual. Involved in the broader task of preparing children to face life on their own, I have had to develop an appreciation for the big picture. Along the way, I have learned that maintaining complete control is not always the best alternative.

My children have managed to teach me a great deal. My education began at the moment of my daughter's birth. I realized right away that key-pecking and bar-pressing were definitely out!

Obviously, I could not engineer her behavior to suit my convenience. Her overall well-being, both physical and psychological, was number one on my list of priorities. My “convenience” had not even made the top ten list! Sometimes, however, I found myself wondering uneasily just who was in control. Shouldn't I be shaping the experiences of my child in a deliberate and systematic way in order to produce the paragon of virtue I was determined she would one day become? As a newborn baby she seemed to be the proverbial “blank slate” upon which I, as her one and only mother, would have the primary responsibility of writing. As luck would have it, she was not an easy baby. Rather than being in control, I sometimes felt like a helpless puppet in the clutches of a tiny, merciless dictator.

I found out soon enough that babies' wants are their needs. Rather than manipulating me, she was simply communicating. Because I allowed her a measure of control, we began the dance of give and take that is the foundation for any healthy relationship. I learned that it made sense to meet her needs before my own.  As an adult, I could be far more flexible and resourceful than a young baby who as yet knew nothing about delaying gratification, and whose only real means of finding comfort was through me.

My daughter is now eleven and my son eight. Every new stage in their development has brought different challenges.  Sometimes I find it a struggle to maintain that tricky balance between freedom and structure that will allow my children to develop according to their own character and timetable. I have come to realize that they were not born as blank slates, but with a unique way of responding to the world that must be respected in order for me to nurture them in the best way. It often seems that the key to maintaining a positive relationship lies in how I communicate with them. Our rapport remains intact as long as I speak to them in a way that makes it obvious that I respect their abilities as problem-solving creatures. They provide me with ample demonstrations of how spectacularly I can fail when I try to issue direct orders!

Often I can enlist their cooperation when I describe a problem situation and allow them to draw their own conclusions about how to respond. Instead of demanding that my daughter to clean up a mess she has made, I have found that it works better to call her attention to it by saying something like this: “Annie, the sewing things are still on the table.” Then she has the opportunity of deciding how she will take action on that information, and she will be happier about cleaning up the mess if she is in charge. Earlier this evening I said to my son, “Caleb! Get out of that room or you'll wake your sister!” No response. Then I took a deep breath and tried again. This time I gave him information rather than an order. “Caleb, your sister is sleeping, and if you're in another room you won't be able to wake her.” Instantly, he sprang up and raced out of the room. Children do not like to feel powerless, and being forced to do something because they are obeying an order can take the fun out of activities that could be a pleasure if done under their own volition. Work and effort are not necessarily unpleasant, but no one enjoys being forced to do something.

No one would ever prevent a teen from learning driving skills and then one day hand him the car keys and wish him luck. Yet that may be similar to what happens when a child is not given responsibility for making his own decisions until he finally leaves home for good. In both cases, many accidents might occur before safe driving (living) habits are formed! Maintaining rigid control of children would hardly prepare them for the life they must live as autonomous adults. It is essential that they begin at an early age to practice formulating thoughtful solutions to dilemmas they encounter.

When very young, children may only be able to handle the question of how to get the blocks back in the toy box. As they mature they can move on to figuring out how to share that last brownie with a sibling, or the best way to spend their allowance. We can provide them with a safe environment in which to experiment with responsibility, while we manage the challenges they do not as yet have the skills to handle (how to pay the mortgage or what to do about the termites). We can be rewarded for our flexibility by watching them develop new skills and competencies from which comes great confidence! After succeeding with a single task, they sometimes seem to bloom right before our eyes, suddenly behaving with more maturity in many areas. Conversely, when we treat them as irresponsible, they are diminished, and begin to behave with greater immaturity!

I am not suggesting that we perpetually talk to our children in some stilted, artificial way, nor must we always communicate perfectly in order to avoid damaging our fragile offspring. Children are remarkably resilient. Parents are remarkably imperfect. We can try to be mindful of what we say to our children most of the time, especially during those interactions that are likely to lead to conflict. If we usually speak to them in a thoughtful way, those times when we can't help but issue a direct order (“Get out of the road! There's a car coming!”) Will at least be an exception, rather than the rule. If you are like me, you will occasionally find yourself saying something unforgivable before you have a chance to bite your tongue. Think of those times as a perfect opportunity to model the important social skill of sincere apology. Chances are, our children may be as fallible as we are. They will benefit from the fine example we set by asking forgiveness when we are wrong. 

Dana Clark