written by: Kosjenka Muk
In our work, we often notice that people from problematic, chaotic families quite often develop important life resources very early in life: for example intelligence (in order to understand confusing situations and to find a way out of such situations), perseverance, inner strength, ability to cope with difficulties, sensibility, empathy, sense of humor (as a way of relieving one’s own and other people’s unpleasant emotions, or as a strategy of finding one’s place within a group).
Likewise, it can be frequently noticed that children who grow up in protective families which provide everything they can, grow up into average and often not particularly strong and confident people. Sometimes they can become egotistic and spoiled people, as it can be seen especially in the last several decades when “children first” is a prevalent attitude and many parents neglect the need to set boundaries and teach the child to cooperate. (This unbalanced attitude is partly a reaction to “adults first” approach of past decades and centuries – and health is in balancing everybody’s needs.)
Of course, this is not a rule, but it happens a lot. Every family is a complex whole, and the child’s experiences are multidimensional. There are no mathematical criteria according to which all influences and their consequences for a child could be organized. Likewise, the same kind of influence can cause different consequences, of which some are unpleasant, and some are useful and important: chaos and traumas can trigger the development of the above mentioned resources and positive features as a way to survive, but at the same time they can cause lasting fear, anger, guilt and a negative self-image. Parental care and attention can create a feeling that we are worthy and acceptable, but also average or below average abilities, motivation and self-confidence on the other hand, due to lack of challenges. As in the case of most individual and global life circumstances, consequences are never black and white, but always a combination of the “positive” and “negative”.
Many people who were strongly protected by their parents say such protection made them insecure and unable to cope with challenges, since they didn’t have much chance to experience whether they were able to cope with unpleasant situations, or to practice resourcefulness and creativity. On the other hand, nobody would like to be in the shoes of those who suffered neglect, abuse or ridicule. Such people know very well that they had to pay a high price for their inner strength, by acquiring some unpleasant patterns.
Don’t worry – you don’t have to neglect or traumatize your children so that they would become resourceful. With some awareness and effort, you can enable your children to “have their cake and eat it”. What is important are not strong and frequent unpleasant experiences, but significant and frequent challenges. This is what families who protect their children often lack: they may neglect the children’s need to face challenging situations which would stimulate their hidden resources.
You can shape challenges so that they stimulate thinking, perceptiveness, sensitivity and strength, while simultaneously being caring and attentive to your child. The key is in giving your children emotional support, at the same time leaving it to them to complete as many challenging tasks as possible.
You’ll need to adjust the challenges to the stage of the children’s development, to target approximately the upper limit of their current abilities, exceeding just a little their “zone of comfort”, enough to make it problematic and not easy, but not so difficult for the children to get discouraged and start doubting themselves. Children do it spontaneously, always reaching a little higher, always trying to get a little further and better. Observe your children carefully in order to find out if a challenge suits them. If the child is at least partially interested and motivated, you can continue. If you notice that they show strong sings of stress or fear, it’s a good idea to postpone the task and find another, easier one.
Provide as many different challenges as possible: ranging from physical ones (dressing, tying shoes, including children in household work – don’t give them your fragile china to clean, though), intellectual (e.g. buy a book of puzzles or games that require thinking, teach the child to read or to speak a foreign language as early as possible – a two or three-year old child can slowly get used to recognizing letters, and at the age of four many children are ready to start reading), up to social tasks (solving relationship and communication related problems). Shape those challenges as games, as often as possible.
Avoid offering ready-made solutions to the child. It’s better to help the child think about possible solutions by asking sub-questions. Encourage them to create as many solutions as possible, e.g. “Johnny is mocked by other children at school. Think about at least 10 different things that Johnny could do about it.” Follow the children’s thinking process and help them with sub-questions such as: “Which unpleasant consequences can you think of? Who other could you include? What is important to know about other children and why are they doing what they are doing? Have you forgotten something? Can some of these solutions be improved?” Be gentle with those questions and don’t push so much to discourage the child.
Certainly, lack of time is a problem for many parents. However, you do not have to sit the entire day with your children asking them such questions. It’s enough to have such conversations during other daily tasks, and to take advantage of situations when your child has a real problem. You can use time during lunch breaks at work or the ride back home from work to think about new challenges for your children.
Let your children occasionally get hurt, scratched or burnt, especially if they ignore your warnings (use common sense and make sure there is no risk of serious injury, though). This won’t have long term emotional consequences, but the children will learn reasonable caution and to assess their abilities and the consequences of their actions more accurately. Avoid attempting – except in situations of serious bullying – to solve their conflicts with other children instead of them. Children are able to cope with the unpleasantness of these conflicts – actually, many people go through much more difficult social experiences as children than as adults – quite successfully, if they have your emotional support and encouragement.
However, you can help them to think about these conflicts and their possible solutions. If your children are fighting amongst themselves, avoid acting like a judge by random punishments, but don’t ignore them either. (A good question to ask might be: “What would you do now if you were in my place?”) Help them discuss how they feel and what they want. You might need to give more protection to one child if the other is a persistent bully, but first consider what motivates the latter to be violent.
Avoid trying to make your child’s life easier in terms of daily tasks. As soon as they can do something – eat, dress, do their homework … – avoid doing it for them, as much as possible. It helps if you do things together – this makes the tasks less boring and builds your relationship. Emotional support and acceptance are the most important. Avoid verbal or non-verbal criticism, except when it’s needed (but avoid undeserved praise, too). You will make your child’s and your own life easier – the child’s in the long term, and yours both short and long term.
The job of a parent, in my opinion, is not to make a child happy. The key to parenting is to teach children how to create happiness in spite of problems and challenges. This can be done through personal example, as well as emotionally and intellectually supporting the children when they face problems.
Too many parents try to protect their children from problems and frustration. On the other hand, problems and frustration are motivating. They push children into developing their resources. You can only help children to find long-term happiness if you do not insist that they should be happy all of the time.
As with all life advice, use your common sense when making decisions. Don’t exaggerate. Find balance. Listen to your gut. And relax. Even if you were a perfect parent, it wouldn’t be good for your child.
In such ways, by applying some extra effort and awareness, you can help your child build firm foundation, strong stepping stone for creating a high quality life on all levels.