Stray Dog

So much of parenting has to do with compliance that it can be hard to keep our eyes on the prize: the relationship between you and your child. "Brush your teeth; clean your room; do your homework" is just the beginning. There are more essential imperatives. "Learn to swim; don't run out in the street; take this vile-tasting, viscous antibiotic." And my least favorite of all from when my kids were entering school. "Let this stranger in a white coat hold you down and repeatedly stick metal in your arm."
Do you understand immunizations? Neither do I. And a six-year-old certainly doesn't connect being held down and jabbed repeatedly with avoiding measles, mumps, and whooping cough. Whatever that is.
Doesn't it seem that there are endless "have-to's" involved in being a responsible parent? Isn't it easy to lose sight of the larger picture? At some point your relationship with your child will be even more important than how she acquiesced to the demands of dental hygiene, safety, and immunizations. Just as a stray dog knows whether she has been tripped over or kicked, our children know whose interests are being served when we instruct them. Our motivations are transparent as they are important. Or as a politician might have said, "It's the relationship, Stupid."
For example. Consider these two imprecations:
1)   "Get good grades; the future is uncertain and I want you to have every advantage."
2)   "Get good grades; I want to brag to my friends at the club about my child being admitted to a highly competitive college."
Can we agree that these two statements begin with the same suggestion but end in significantly disparate places? The child whose parent is rooting for her (1) will have a different attitude toward her studies than the child who feels like an object (2).
Parents in my office frequently hide behind "I want what is best for my child." But if their 11th grader would be happy as an electrician but miserable as a student, the veneer quickly fades.
And what of a child's responsibilities to her parents? There are families in this culture whose relationships are intensely strong. I know a 15-year-old who greets her mom by saying, "thank you for working so hard. I have finished my homework and made dinner." This family stands in stark contrast to ones with which you may be more familiar. Children are bribed with ski trips and new cars if they will only complete a few assignments. These children have been known to say unspeakable things to their parents. "It's all your fault, mom, I hope you die, you f*@#ing bitch," for example.
How did we get here? How is it possible for a child to refuse to study or to speak civilly? How can children come to hate their parents? The popular myth is that lenient parents produce snarky, spoiled children. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" is still a common belief. I have an alternative view. These families have lost sight of how much unadulterated fun it is to have a kid. I find over-controlling parents are more likely to end up with disconnected kids who are lost in their phones. Parents who consistently correct pronunciation, insist that homework be done, tell their kids to sit up straight are communicating that how the child behaves is more important than who the child is. What fun is that?
Law enforcement personnel are taught never to take out their weapon unless they are prepared to shoot and never to shoot unless they intend to kill. I may be wandering far afield with my analogy, but I encourage parents not to interrupt or correct their child unless it's the issue that they are willing to fall on their sword for. How important is it that your child use "whom" correctly. Less important than it is for you and your kid to have some fun, I would argue. Constant grammatical correction is--stop me if you've already guessed the end of this sentence--not that much fun.
If the kids know they can make mistakes, they are more likely to disentangle themselves from their parents. They can distinguish what they themselves want versus what their parents want for them. They can individuate and become independent. Here is some directed advice:
  • Read to your child. Not because you want her to get an A in reading but because it is fun to read to your child.
  • Throw a ball with your child. Not because you want her to get an athletic scholarship, but because it is fun to thrown a ball with your child.
  • Take your child on a three-day canoe trip. Not because you want her to have an engaging topic for a college essay, but because it is fun not to be eaten by a bear.
It is extraordinarily difficult to force a child to learn. Yes, you can enforce compliance, but a child who is internally motivated will perform better than one who says, "I finished the homework, can I have my phone back now?" And the more you focus on compliance, the less likely you are to engender that which is so critical to all kinds of happiness present and future: an amiable relationship with the person who is going to pick out your nursing home.
Your kids are your kids for only the briefest of shining moments. Sure, those moments may seems interminable when you're waiting for the fever to break or anticipating her arrival from that late-night outing, but the kids are going to be grown and gone before you can say, "I should have focused less on compliance; think of all the fun we missed."

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