By Dr. Alan Winder
As I expressed in my previous articles, I view healthy parenting as allowing the child as much flexibility as possible to experiment in all different ways, while constantly providing a “safety net” to prevent the child from making bad decisions that can cause serious or long-term damage. This entails constantly monitoring the child and being flexible to the factors in the child’s life, allowing as much free movement as possible for the child to try many different experiences and mini-experiments and to develop the confidence that comes from experiencing what works and what does not. At the same time, the parent must be prepared to instantly tighten up and use the authority of parenting to prevent the child from making a dangerous decision that will possibly hurt him badly.
Parenting also requires honesty, no matter how painful. Good parents are honest with their beliefs and what is really motivating them. Children are deeply emotionally intuitive and can sense even the slightest insincerity, no matter how unintentional.
For a topic that does not evoke an emotional reaction, it’s easier to categorize a parenting belief and policy: for example, teaching a child that stealing is wrong because (1) Gâ€‘d said so; (2) it violates an ethical code that is easy to explain; and (3) society needs rules or else it will implode. With a topic like sexuality, however, it’s not so simple, because every person has deep emotional and visceral reactions that have nothing to do with right, wrong, Gâ€‘d, or anything other than that person’s own life experience. It’s easy to hide it all behind a religious or moral stance, but many times this is disingenuous. When a parent represents a lesson as being significant for one reason when it is really for a different one, the child will sense this and become confused.
Children crave honesty. Children crave a connection with their parents. A major part of this is seeing their parents as normal human beings that they can relate to, not omniscient, perfect beings without flaws or problems. One of the most valuable lessons a parent can transmit is how to cope with the negative parts of life. When a child sees parents struggle, deal with problems, and deal with their own flaws and imperfections, the child learns the real lessons of life. Later, when real-life problems arise, those lessons will be put to use, and the child who has seen a parent demonstrate positive, effective coping strategies is the child most likely to succeed.
So, whenever a parenting lesson is being taught, it is vitally important for the parent to be honest. If the parent is uncomfortable with any topic, or is unsure or confused, that must be communicated clearly. No parent enjoys telling a child about his own internal struggles and insecurities. But showing the child that it’s OK to have these experiences and feelings, that not every answer is clear, is really one of the most valuable lessons a parent can transmit. This is not fun. But no one said good parenting is easy.
Acceptance plays into this as well. At what level does the parent accept what a child does, even if it is against the parent’s beliefs? There is some variability here. As an extreme example: If a parent believes that soda is bad and unhealthy but the child decides to drink soda anyway, it is unlikely the parent will reject that child. However, if a child becomes a rapist, murderer, or something else extremely bad, it is very likely the parent will reject the child. So the question is–where does the parent “draw the line”? If a child chooses a career path the parent does not approve of, if the parent does not approve of a child’s sexuality, if a child rejects some or all of a parent’s values or belief system, does the parent reject the child? Accept the child wholeheartedly for who she is? Try to find a middle ground of rejecting the behavior while accepting the child?
Getting back to the topic that we started with: Even if it is somehow wrong for a boy to wear a dress, should the parent allow it, or stop it? Does it fall into the category of mistakes that are too severe for a child to be allowed to make? Or is it simply a part of healthy development, so that the child should be allowed to experiment and come to his own conclusions?
I hope you weren’t expecting an answer from me! Ï–
Dr. Winder is a clinical psychologist in practice in Cedarhurst. He accepts some insurance plans. He can be reached at 516-345-0456 or DrWinder@ITSPsych.com. The full article appears on his blog, www.ITSPsych.com/parenting.