Over the last ten years, I’ve come to the realization that parents and teachers don’t make their most important childrearing decisions based on objective and reasoned assessments of the options available. Rather, adults make their decisions about their interactions with children based on deep-seated emotional reactions to their own experiences as children. Our early experiences with our own parents and teachers create our biases and outlooks that only fully come to the fore when we interact with children, especially our own.
We flatter ourselves with the belief that we choose a childrearing approach that will best suit our children, when in truth we choose an approach that best suits ourselves. It is natural for parents, and to a lesser extent teachers, to see ourselves in the eyes of our children and to understand their experiences based on our own experiences. We give children what we needed when we were children and never got.
I consulted with a mother named Elizabeth recently who, while adept at listening, empathizing and conversation, had great difficulty setting firm limits and consequences with her five-year-old son. Consequently, her son’s inappropriate behaviors and anxiety increased dramatically when he was with her as compared with his behaviors at school or alone with his father. When we’d talk about scenarios in which she might set firm limits she would noticeably cringe and become uncomfortable. At one point, to the surprise of both her husband and I, Elizabeth said, “I guess I just need to learn how to be mean.” It was only after I’d heard about her own upbringing that I understood the source of her anxiety around setting boundaries.
Elizabeth was a very successful Financial Manager who had come from middle class beginnings to attend an Ivy League school on a full ride and go on to amass a fortune before she was 35. Although she had more than enough to live very comfortably for the rest of her life she was still working almost full time and a stay-at-home mother at 45. She was raised by a single father who was a strict, sometimes violent, disciplinarian. She told me her father insisted she begin working every day after school at 14 and pay for all her own cloths and toiletries. She came home drunk one night when she was 16 and her father blacken both her eyes.
Because all the boundaries she’d experienced had been accompanied by anger, judgment and sometimes violence she had great difficulty setting boundaries without feeling as though she was “being mean.” She was giving her son all that she had needed but never gotten as a child. But she had no model for giving her son the discipline he also needed in a nonjudgmental, compassionate way.
Slowly, over the course of many months, Elizabeth began learning how to set boundaries and consequences. Although it pained her to see her son frustrated or upset with her, she gradually began to see how much happier he was when she followed through with consequences and allowed him to experience real boundaries. She still has to fight against her instincts to coddle him and take away frustrating consequences, even while he’s being disrespectful to her. However, she’s gradually learning to separate her emotional needs during these moments of conflict from those of her son.
I too have been shaped by the biases of my early experiences. In fact, much of what I do with children is the direct result of my being diagnosed Hyperactive (ADHD) in 1970 and the perspective gained by being the “behavior problem kid” who was said to “never work to his potential.” When I’m watching a child in a classroom or a home I often feel as though I’m watching myself. Quite often, I empathize more deeply with the “problem child” than I do with the adult. And while my experiences have shaped and informed much of the insight and healing I bring to my work, I need to be ever aware of the fact that my interactions with children will always be driven by both my desire to help the child in front of me and my subconscious desire to heal myself.
Joe Newman is the author of Raising Lions