Our children drive us crazy, right?! Or is it the other way around? The onslaught of “No! Don’t! Why did you… If only you would… Can’t you just…” is nonstop. Yes, we are their parents; it’s our job to set them straight. But are we conscious to take into account whether we are pushing them off the path we so desperately desire for them?
We are ignorant to the fact that children are people too. They have real emotions and get annoyed by the same things that annoy us. Imagine someone correcting your every move. “Don’t touch! Why did you do that? How many times have I told you? Why don’t you get it yet? What’s the matter with you…?” Such relationships leave people struggling to breathe under the pressure of scrutiny. It’s no easier for children. There is nothing in their DNA making them impervious to the suffocating dynamic of constant advice and correction. They loathe this behavior just like the rest of us, only we are often the guilty parties in suffocating them.
The question parents always ask me is, “So what should I do? She’s a kid! I can’t just let her do whatever she wants because I’m scared of hurting her feelings or being annoying!” They’re right. It’s quite clear to see when analyzing the opposite extreme of the parenting spectrum. In the last number of decades, a new form of parenting has arisen. “New age” parents can be found coddling children, scared to say no because it may hurt their self-esteem. This ill-informed approach leaves children without boundaries, without direction, and without the sense of safety and security they so desperately desire. These parents are scared of being hated. Always looking for affirmation that their children are thankful to have them as parents. Power is awarded to the child, as they quickly learn that they have control over their parents’ feelings. This backwards power hierarchy leaves the children in charge. But that obviously won’t do!
A few years ago, there was a video circulating on social media relating bringing up children to getting on a rollercoaster.
It’s Chol HaMoed, pre-COVID, and Six Flags is packed. You’ve been waiting in line for an hour and a half for the ride your 10-year-old promises, “is the best in the whole park!” Hesitant, you climb into the car after 16-year-old “Summer Job” allows you past the string and chain, executes a PVC pipe height check on your child, and reminds you to take off your jewelry.
In under a minute the cars are full and Summer Job is walking in your direction to pull the over shoulder bar down to protect your life. As he gets closer, your confidence in your decision to board this upside-down train is beginning to waiver. As he slams the bar over your shoulder and into your lap, you’re past the point of no return. Grasping the bright yellow protective bar with both hands, you push, pull, yank, twist, and heave the bar. Do you want that bar to move? To bend under the pressure? Absolutely not! This act of aggression is to determine your safety.
This is precisely what our children are doing when they test us. When my son was about 18 months old, he discovered the toilet. He had walked over to the bathroom door and pushed it open, toy in hand. I was on a call with a parent from my class as I followed him to the bathroom, still engrossed in my conversation. When I turned the corner, he had propped up the toilet seat ever so slightly, was holding the toy through the gap, and was watching me with a sneaky grin on his gorgeous little face. He waited for me to react. At first, I didn’t say anything, and he waited. I excused myself for a moment, put my phone on mute (because G-d forbid a parent hears their son’s Rebbi having a human parenting moment at home) and said “Hillel no! Don’t drop it in the…”
“Catch me!” and he ran, looking back to make sure I was still playing.
It’s no surprise that toddlers test us. After all, they’re still figuring it all out. But older elementary age children and teenagers are the same in this regard. They’re still trying to “make sense of it all.” They want to know where they stand, know what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do. We mistakenly think we’re not supposed to disappoint them, but we’re wrong. It’s okay if they get upset. Just be strong. Be loving. Be understanding. They will come around, but more importantly, they will feel secure knowing they aren’t in charge.
Our children need us. We are their safety. They are born into a world they don’t understand and look to us to guide them. But they also look to us to believe in them and give them space. What kind of message are we sending our children if we anxiously watch their every move? We must allow our children the privilege of failure. After all, looking back on our own lives, our failures and struggles are what taught us most. Ironically, these failures and struggles happened despite our parents’ anxious efforts to protect us from pain and hardship. We mustn’t let our fear become an obstacle for our children’s healthy development.
As parents we can often feel lost. Advice comes from all angles, often unsolicited. Everyone is an expert, but nobody is confident in their own approach. Struggling to deal with our own issues, while grappling with patience vs self-care.
So, what should we do? As with everything, parenting is a balance. We need to toe the line between setting boundaries and giving space for growth and exploration. The best place to start is with a little soul searching. Which parent are you? Do you find yourself giving in to avoid conflict, scared of upsetting your children? If that’s the case, give boundaries a try. Don’t sweat it if they get upset, they’ll be okay. Just ensure you follow the advice from above: Be strong. Be loving. Be understanding. But then put your foot down and calmly keep it there until things go your way! No ifs ands or buts about it! Empty threats and beating your chest to intimidate are exercises in futility. Composed follow through, however, will get you results.
Be strong: Say what you mean, mean what you say, and follow through so it’s clear that you mean it.
Be loving: Make it clear to your children that even though you are asking them to do something they are unhappy about, you love them unconditionally. This is a topic for a much broader discussion, but the message of unconditional love is sent through your eyes, heart, and body language. Not just words.
Be understanding: There is no rule that children must feel like you enjoy “getting them back” through rules or consequences. On the contrary: Implementation of expectations is more effective when children feel that you do not enjoy making them uncomfortable. Again, a broader discussion, but this too is best communicated through your eyes, heart, and body language.
Or maybe your soul-searching exposes your correcting personality. Does the term controlling feel uncomfortably relevant to your parenting style? In this case, experiment in the opposite direction. See what happens when you back off a little. Do things really turn out as calamitous as you’d predicted? Is the house really a disaster beyond repair if you allow the 8-year-old to serve the ice cream? Or is it as simple as a wet cloth and a shpritz of “Fantastic” to bring you back to tip-top shape?
Whatever the case may be, the key is to search yourself, identify your weaknesses, and be better tomorrow than you were today.