Imagine for a moment…that your young child is a grown woman or man.
Twenty five. Thirty. In a life on her or his own. Good group of friends. Saves money. Smart. Successful. Has a good job, maybe even enough for a down payment on a modest house.
And imagine that you think, “Wow, things turned out OK.”
And now imagine that your daughter or son is in a relationship.
Step inside that private world for a moment. (Not THAT private world.) Instead, the one where you are a fly on the wall while your adult child is in conversation with that partner. A discussion. A disagreement.
And, you hear your grown child being…guilted. Or, doing the guilting. Speaking disrespectfully or allowing the other person, maybe a spouse or fiancée, to twist their words or give the cold shoulder. And, you are a fly on the wall witnessing patterns of pain and negativity.
And you think, “How did this happen?” How did my child grow up to let someone else guilt her? Snip at her? Put her down in subtle ways?” Or “How did my child grow up to become someone who could be so manipulative with someone’s feelings?”
Guilt. Shame. Anger. Three things that can destroy human beings from the inside out.
When kids are young, parents are generally so concerned with good behavior—compliance, obedience, cooperation—that they tend to do nearly anything to achieve it. But, the cost can be too high for kids who are often raised on a steady diet of fear, anxiety, and resentment.
If a child does not comply, a parent may be quick to usher in a threat.
If a child does not agree, a parent might be swift with the ultimatum.
If he or she does not cooperate with a plan or a request, a parent is typically angry, offended, and might readily dole out guilt and criticisms.
“If you don’t listen to me, next time you want something, forget it.”
“If you’re going to talk to me like that, then you can make your own dinner.”
“Get over here now or I’ll take away your (fill in blank) for a week.”
It sounds ugly. But, truth be told, millions of parents resort to this, not as the final effort, but rather as a habitual way of relating. It has become such a common way of communicating with our children that we are not seeing how it affects them and us.
We do not notice the resentment mounting or how we can prime ourselves for the next disappointment. This is not our natural state. This, believe it or not, flies in the face of how we’re hard-wired to connect.
And we do not often see how this way of controlling children only produces counterwill in them, more resistance, more distance, and ultimately, teaches them a language of control, guilt, and shame. You did this to me so I do it to you. Tit for tat. Even Stephen. Every hurtful thing anyone ever did to anyone else began with that person’s own original wound at the hands of someone else. From the tiniest of emotional injuries to the most egregious.
Fast forward a couple of decades. Or five years. Or even tomorrow’s play date.
“If you don’t play Barbie with me, I won’t be friends with you anymore.”
“If you don’t come over to my house today, I won’t share my toys with you ever again.”
Or in the words of a four year-old I heard recently, “Get down from there right now, young lady, if you know what’s good for you! Or, I’m leaving.”
We don’t realize how much we unwittingly employ tactics of abandonment with our kids. They cooperate, because no child wants to risk losing a parent’s love. But, what kind of cooperation plays on a small person’s fear? Co-operation is about partnership. We cannot prepare and teach our kids about partnership through coercion.
When we coerce, we overpower. The person on the receiving end learns about what it is like to have no power or have a certain kind of power.
On the outside, everything looks great. Paycheck. Friends. A big smile. We can go our whole lives not knowing how they might be suffering in their love lives.
What can we do now with them, now that they might be still young enough to need us, to look up to us?
We can think about how quick fixes and strategic power plays might look and feel if our kids carried them out with others down the road—or the other way around.
Do we, as authentic parents, want to raise authentic children who know themselves? Or kids who did not develop enough self-respect to allow someone to truly love them without threat of rejection?
Nurturing our kids’ self-respect means consciously choosing not to use guilt, domination, shame, sarcasm, or ultimatums that hang your love in the balance. The result is a grown child who trusts love—and knows how to receive and offer it without fear.
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