The ideal parenting, and indeed the ideal relational stance generally, is – reasonably consistent boundaries maintained with love.
With children this is relatively simple. We insist on our version of what the boundaries are whilst maintaining a loving attitude, even in the face of rebellion of what ever sort. This does not mean that a situation “has to be talked through” in an endless way, it is simply about as a parent insisting on getting one’s way, with love. Endless explanations for a young child can be another form of bullying. This ideal is obviously easier where there is time and space and energy and patience. Much more difficult when exhausted on a chaotic and rushed school morning. But the more that this way can be practised and brought into daily life the easier it becomes in difficult situations.
No child is born “bad” or “negative”, yes, they come with a whole set of characteristics, but these are just natural dispositions. Any persistent negative patterns that emerge are always the result of trauma of some sort (trauma in its widest sense). Negative patterns emerge when a child does not get the love, support, attention and boundaries it needs.
Boundaries maintained with anger are obviously less “bad” than trying to maintain them with violence or even perhaps where there are no boundaries at all. No boundaries leave the child in a very scary place that in the end leads to a deeply self-destructive sense of self. The child ends up behaving negatively because the parents don’t care, and it is alone when it needs their help, knowledge and attention. It doesn’t have the resources to get its needs met alone, and so ends up blaming itself for being bad. But anger and violence end up with the same result, with the child internalising that they are “bad”. But anger and violence and abandonment are themselves reactions to unaware unbearable feelings generated by trauma with all its insecurity and fear. An adult’s anger happens for many reasons, but often it is because there is no confidence of getting one’s way without recourse to escalating levels of intensity. There is not sufficient trust, or learnt skill, in simply insisting that “x” happens or ”y” stops, with as much perseverance as necessary, whilst still holding our heart open with love.
Real magic happens if this can be practiced. Children want boundaries, they want love, and given them, they are naturally much more cooperative. There is no absolute moral code that says what boundaries are needed, (apart from the Golden Rule of treating other’s as you wish to be treated). This is about personal preference. In their book “Families and how to survive them” Cleese and Skinner argue that more boundaries lead to greater conformity, fewer boundaries to greater creativity. I think there is some truth in that, but I think this difference diminishes when boundaries are implemented with love. This is the crucial aspect that allows the child to flourish.
Sometimes there needs to be the threat, or introduction, of consequences, but it seems to me that this is a last resort and represents something of a failure of love and a failure of the authority that naturally emerges from being able to stand in front of your child, with love, presence, trust and confidence, insisting on your “reasonable” rules. Obviously, to a point the fewer the rules the easier life becomes, but there is a balance here because too few and trouble develops, as above. Children who have experienced reasonable consistent boundaries find adjusting to the world much easier.
What is “reasonable consistency”? It seems to me that rules are made to be broken to some extent. To be obsessive about their implementation can give the message that they are more important than the child and they can end up feeling crushed by their weight. Not consistent enough and they become meaningless. So, balance in everything is, as usual, the key.
What gets in the way of us being able to treat our children with love, consistently?
The fundamental aspect to this is about how our own “trauma” leaves us with insecurity and this plays out in various ways. The more insecure we are, the more likely we are to find aspects of our child’s behaviour unacceptable. The other, (related) “Golden Rule” is that it is always those things that we criticise, reject or judge in the other that are what we have not yet leaned to face in ourselves.
The first and simplest form of this is that we tend treat others as we have been treated. If our parents shouted at us, the pain and hurt of those experiences get stuck within us waiting for an opportunity to come and be expressed in some way. The automatic, unaware, projection of this hurt happens when we shout at our children (or grandchildren in my recent case). If we can face this buried hurt consciously, feel it and allow it, we then heal it and our behaviour changes. Sometimes simply facing our responsibility for our behaviour is enough.
Another facet of this is how through having been wounded in our childhood, we took in the message that we are “bad” or not good enough in some way, then we become hyper sensitive to messages from the world that press this still sore wound. This includes when our child is rebellious or angry with us and we then over-react before we have time to think. It is amazing how many us react from un-reconciled childish places within ourselves. It might also be that a child is sulky or sullen or upset or lying or etc., etc., and we react angrily. Again, it is what we find unacceptable in them is what we have been punished for and what we still hold the pain of, inside us in an un-aware way.
We can struggle to trust our children and trust in their development, when we don’t trust ourselves. Again, this is about our own insecurities causing up to be overly fearful, anxious, reactive or controlling. Learning to trust in love takes practice, especially if we have not been shown it during our own childhood.
But what to do with our anger? This is often the big question. Here is where awareness is key. If we can really see that our anger is ours and that it comes from the hurt we have stuck inside us, we can let it go. No amount of “shoulds” or “oughts” or self-blame, or blaming others can help us, changes has to come organically, from seeing what is going on in ourselves and taking responsibility for it. Regret and apologising, as well as self-forgiveness, are healthy parts of this process as we slowly come to terms with knowing ourselves better. Through forgiving ourselves for being the way we are, we are letting go of the belief in our own “badness” (or whatever word fits best here). When we can forgive ourselves, we can forgive the other. Then, eventually we can stand in the face of situations, which previously would have had us over-reacting in some way, whilst holding both love and boundaries in a flexible and creative and adult way. Love is wonderfully creative given half a chance.
It is important that we don’t artificially shut down our anger in a repressive way. It almost certainly better to allow it than squash it within because of some “should” that anger is “bad”. This just leads to it leaking out in other pernicious ways. It is healthier for children to see spontaneous behaviour, rather than overly controlled and managed behaviour which can cause deeply confusion and double messages. Children also need to see that actions and behaviour has consequences, even if they are over-reactive consequences at times. Stopping our anger consciously and taking responsibility for it with self-compassion is a very different process that flows from awareness, not repression.
Our over-reaction might also be in the form of the withdrawal of love, or to impose some other punishment or other. The same applies here, awareness is the key. Really seeing what we are doing, or want to do, and where that comes from within ourselves, is what makes the difference between reacting with a closed vengeful heart, and bringing love to heal the situation. First, we need to start healing ourselves, then it is possible to heal any rifts between ourselves and our children (or grandchildren, or any other relationship).
This is all about our journey towards finding our confidence and trust in our own being. The only solid ground to build this on is self-knowledge. When we are no longer afraid of what we have inside us, we can face the world with greater equanimity, we can love ourselves and our children more authentically and unconditionally. The same goes for respect, so often our children become projective functions of ourselves, we interpret them as if they were the same as us, a part of us and we judge them as we judge ourselves, we don’t respect their difference. When we respect ourselves, we can respect the other, we can respect and allow difference.