Suck it up, parents!

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by Susan Prosser on March 9, 2010

Dear Susan,

I have spent the last 14 years trying to make my children happy by looking after them, protecting them and making sure they had whatever they wanted and needed.  Now I am finding that they are demanding and they have temper tantrums whenever they don’t get what they want and I feel frustrated and exhausted.  How do I change things at this point – everyone, including my husband, says I have spoiled them.

Dear Mom

The number one thing parents want is for their children to be happy.  There are several problems with this desire.

1.  Happiness does not exist as a permanent state  2. Happiness is not about feeling bubbly and light because we have stuff or we have our own way and 3. Parents can’t make their children happy but they can prepare them to make decisions that will create a sense of agency, usefulness and peace in their own lives.

When our children cry or complain, our natural response is to calm them down, stop the crying and make sure that they are not suffering.  Most children abuse this natural response and try to take it a little further and get a little more of whatever you are giving – solace, attention, food, toys….  This is all very natural until a pattern develops where this give and take becomes the norm and parents continue to feed into complaints in order to keep the peace or, as you say, keep them happy at all costs.  This pattern cripples children.

What actually helps children is to build skills for managing life.  This means they have to endure difficulties and challenges and find their own solutions.  This means they have to learn how to do things for themselves and others.  This means that parents need to step back and allow the learning to happen and also to step forward when necessary to teach them and help them to manage.

When you say no to a child you are helping that child to be strong and manage life when things are not easy.  This is one of the best gifts you can give because we all know that our adult world requires us to be able to handle obstacles.

You will have to endure the discomfort of your children’s temporary unhappiness when you say no to them in order for them to develop the emotional muscles they need for the future – a little short term pain for long term gain if you will.  Brace yourself and remember that you are doing them a favour.  You do not need to be liked by your children all of the time – you are the parent and teacher, not the friend.

There is a handy rule that I recommend you adopt and that is – Do Not Do For Your Child What Your Child Can Do For Him/Herself.  Obviously there is flex in this rule but in general it holds true.

Self esteem comes from confidence in oneself to be able to manage responsibilities and tasks.  This requires skill development, which requires learning, practice, experience and mastery.

From age six to 12 Erik Erikson, a renowned developmental psychologist whose work on the stages of development is still used as a foundation for understanding human development, described this phase as “industry vs. shame and doubt”.  In other words, when humans are productive and able to acquire and use skills to make a difference in the world, they feel confident and capable.  When they don’t know what to do and all they can do is whine and complain, they will feel anxious, shamed and doubtful about how to learn and thrive.

So dear parents, learn to “suck it up” as the kids say, and manage the discomfort you feel when your children are not “happy”.  Encourage them to do things for themselves from an early age – for example:

  • when they bring you a problem to solve, put it back in their laps and ask them how they think they should approach the situation;
  • when they want something assure them they will have it when they have saved their money for it (that is why we give allowance by the way);
  • when they demand an answer right away for a favour or request let them know that if they get an answer right away it will be a definite “no” but with time to reflect you may be able to find a way to help them out;
  • say what you mean and mean what you say – it is ok to make mistakes and apologize but in general it is very important to stick to what you have said (when children feel your strength on these matters they feel more secure).

Trust and believe in your children’s ability to learn, manage disappointment, master skills, develop empathy, cooperate and contribute.  These are all organic elements of being human and it is our job as parents to encourage and facilitate the development of those aspects in our children.  This approach is much more likely to lead to a sense of well being in their lives as adults.  You will see that your children will seem much happier when they realize they don’t need to have their own way all of the time.

I wish you courage and fortitude to carry this out.