As we watch our children grow, we become accustomed to their abilities, no longer impressed by the simple things they learn to do over the years. Their once impressive feats formerly resulted in parents flaunting, “Isn’t she advanced?!” Now, their achievements have transformed into expectations that are to be met at all times. As they mature as individuals, our forecast for their behavior becomes more nuanced, complex, and rigid.
It seems our younger children can get away with just about anything. We use compassion to rise above frustration and parent with composure. We use compassion to validate and understand them. We use compassion to sit on the floor and play tirelessly boring games of “push the train in a circle around the track again.” Our compassion is a G-d-given gift to our children. Compassion changes diapers at 2, 3, and 4 in the morning. Compassion keeps putting noodles on the high-chair in hopes that one will make it to the mouth and not the floor. Compassion engages in deep-breathing, while spraying carpet-cleaner into the couch, and using a hard-bristle brush to rub out orange marker.
How does this core ingredient gradually vanish? Wouldn’t it follow that as children’s lives complicate, their margin for error should increase, not decrease? Why then does our composure, our patience, seem to dwindle as they grow up.
The first step to answering this question is acknowledging the loss of control a parent experiences when their child’s life complicates. As a child travels the psycho-social stages of development, a parent’s sense of safety is challenged, as they come to terms with the subtleties that now govern their role as parents.
It’s scary to parent toddlers, and more so to parent elementary school children. Teenagers are infamous for being difficult to parent, and balancing parenting vs. freedom for young adults is possibly the hardest stage of all. At each stage, numerous times a day, parents may be left wondering if they’re doing the right thing - or if there even is a right thing. Is there any way to parent that guarantees a child’s success? We don’t know of one, yet we plague ourselves with stress and self-judgment.
So, what happens to our compassion? It gets displaced, rerouted, and attempts to intervene in our children’s lives and assist us as parenting becomes more difficult.
We are nervous for our children. We are worried about their futures. We fear how their circumstances will impact their lives. Our compassion wants to help, but we ignore their current need for support, validation, unwavering love, and understanding, to replace it with something else. We replace compassion with compassionate insistence. We insist that they improve their behavior, lest they ruin their chances at a successful future. Then we repeat ourselves again, and again, and again, never pausing to recognize the hurdles our children are struggling to negotiate.
We insist they improve their grades, but maybe they’re trying their hardest. We insist they try harder, but maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they don’t understand why they should. Maybe their teacher is mean to them. Maybe they are made fun of by classmates. Maybe they struggle with debilitating anxiety because their parents hover over their every move.
We insist they keep their room clean, but maybe they aren’t so good at that. We insist they not be chutzpadik, but maybe they’re not quite sure what that word really means. This is not to say children should have free reign of their lives. As we have discussed, children need guidance, rules, structure, and expectations to flourish. However, we must be careful of the environment we are creating in our homes. If our homes are dominated by insistence, our children may be choking under the pressure.
Insistence is an ineffective substitute for compassion that is born out of worry. It only accomplishes distance, leaving a child feeling lost and alone. Yes, our insistence may be born out of compassion, but it would serve us well to curb our compassionate insistence, to make room for true, unadulterated compassion - the kind of compassion that brings our children closer, encourages connection, and sends the message that we are with them no matter the struggle. If we manage to foster an environment of unconditional acceptance, we will find there is less need for insistence, as our children will feel more respected, and look to us for guidance.