In two decades of practice, I have seen almost everything, both the good and bad in parental behavior. By far, most of the parents of the children I’ve worked with, even the ones who have abused their children, were not evil people. They were often good people who deeply loved their children and they were doing the best they could within the limitations of their training and understanding of children. Even the best parents make mistakes – we all do. Other than deliberate abuse, neglect, and abandonment, the most common mistakes parents make can be grouped easily in to five categories.
The first is selfishness. Parents make the decision to move, divorce, remarry, or change jobs based on what they want or what they want for their children without ever seriously considering what is best for the child or what the child wants. Parents assume that children’s wishes are somehow less important than grownup wishes. I recognize that children have wants and desires that change frequently and clearly adults can make more logical decisions than children. I’m also not suggesting that parents defer their decision making to their children, but when it comes to wishes – wishes are wishes.
Why should a parent’s wish for a new job in a new city outrank a child’s wish to stay in the same school and keep the same friends? These are big changes that can have a dramatic impact on all of us. In fact, adults have better skills to cope with their unfulfilled wishes than children. That should make us even more likely to consider their thoughts on big decisions.
This is especially important when it comes to “things.” Parents may think that a new job in a new city will bring more money so the child will be happier in the long run, but money cannot buy your child happiness. Cars, clothes, and spending money don’t buy happiness – people and relationships create happiness. Yet parents spend hours at work in order to give their children things when, in fact, their children more often would prefer to trade nicer things for a parent at home.
On the other side of this same coin, the second category involves a parent’s fear of upsetting his/her child. No one likes to be the target of anger, but giving children what they want is not always in their best interest. You’ve heard it said that parents are not their children’s friends, they are parents. That is true, but even if we were their friends, even friends sometimes do the hard thing.
Children need limits and they need direction. They won’t often ask for it, but research over the past thirty years has made it clear that children want it. Boundaries give them safety and comfort. Stable parents who set clear limits and balance those limits with a child’s earned level of responsibility tend to have well-adjusted children.
The third category addresses how we teach our children. There are many ways to teach – reinforcement, modeling, reading, discussion, lecture, and punishment. Many parents make the mistake of limiting themselves to one or two options. I am not a big fan of spanking, but I am equally skeptical of the parent who says, “I will never spank” as I am the parent who says, “Children have to be spanked.”
Children are complicated beings and good training involves using many tools in the process of mentoring them and teaching them about life. Some methods work well with one child, but not another and some methods work with a specific child in one situation or at one age, but not in another situation or at another age. A wise parent carefully matches the training tool to the child and the context.
Finally, and maybe the biggest mistake of all, is the parent’s failure to manage his/her own life. I’m certain that most of the children I’ve worked with over the past 25 years would never have needed me if adults in their lives had their acts together. I’m not blaming all problems on parents, but parental problems managing anger, money, chemicals, work schedules, and marriages lead to many of the problems that children exhibit physically, interpersonally, and psychologically.
Parents do many wonderful things. They sacrifice their careers and personal pleasures for their children. The set aside their financial wishes and endure difficult marriages in order to create stability for their children. Even troubled parents often want to do better and they will if they can learn how to do so. Awareness of these common mistakes can help all of us all be better parents.