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 Consequences of Stressed Parenting

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Getting It about Children

 What does it mean to “get it” about children?

 This concept, which I refer to regularly in my work as a counselor and writer, seems to be a “zero or one” condition; people either get it or they don’t. They either understand that children are human beings who deserve to be treated like human beings-or they just don’t get it. Unfortunately, there are many people in our society who don’t get it. And surprisingly, this includes many mental health professionals.

What does it mean when someone doesn’t get it?

It means they have succumbed to the notion that children are basically different from adults. It means that they think children operate on vastly different principles of behavior than adults do. They must think this, because no adults would improve their behavior by being hit, insulted, criticized, yelled at, or punished in any way. Adults behave as well as they are treated - everyone knows that.

Why, then, does everyone not know the same is true for children? Why is it assumed that children will behave better if they are punished?

Obviously they may change their behavior due to fear, but as psychologist and author Marshall Rosenberg reminds us, there are two questions we need to ask ourselves when we want to change a child’s behavior: Two questions help us see why we are unlikely to get what we want by using punishment.... The first question is: What do I want this person to do that’s different from what he or she is currently doing? If we ask only this first question, punishment may seem effective because the threat or exercise of punitive force may well influence the person’s behavior. However, with the second question, it becomes evident that punishment isn’t likely to work: What do I want this person’s reasons to be for doing what I’m asking?

We seldom address the latter question, but when we do, we soon realize that ... punishment damages good will and self-esteem and shifts our attention from the intrinsic value of an action to external consequences. Blaming and punishing fail to contribute to the motivations we would like to inspire in others. Dr. Rosenberg is a psychologist who “gets it,” clearly and completely. Yet there are many who do not. There are many who would believe that Dr. Rosenberg’s description may be accurate for adults, but not for children.

Yet if children are indeed so different from adults, on exactly what day of their life do they suddenly change their operating principles? On the morning of their 18th birthday? Their 21st?

No one can answer that question, because there is no such transition. Human beings of all ages operate on the very same principles: they behave well when treated well by another, and they respond by wanting to treat that person well in return. They behave poorly when deliberately hurt by another, and they react with anger and resentment and a wish to hurt that person in return. It makes no difference that mistreatment is rationalized in the parent’s mind as being “for their own good” - the child, such motivation is irrelevant. All they see is the action itself.

If we don’t get it, and we believe that children have strange and different principles of behavior, then parenting is much more complicated. We are forever guessing what to do.

Do we count to five or ten before spanking? Do we give two minutes of time-out or five? Do we ground our teenager for a day or a week? Do we apologize for our mistakes or do we present a perfect front to our child?

If we do get it, if we understand that children have the same operating principles, the same human nature that we all have, it becomes a simple matter to predict how they will respond to our actions. All we need to do is ask ourselves how we would respond in the same situation. Parenting becomes a relatively simple matter of applying the Golden Rule. As Dr. Elliott Barker, director of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse, puts it so eloquently:

Children who have their needs met early by loving parents are subjected totally and thoroughly to the most severe form of “discipline” conceivable: they don’t do what you don’t want them to do because they love you so much!

If you haven’t cluttered the airwaves between you and your child with a thousand stupid “don’ts” over your Royal Doulton china, or not eating their dessert before the main course, or not finishing their spinach, or not doing this or that, then those few situations where it really matters because of safety and impropriety don’t need anything approaching the connotation of “discipline” to ensure appropriate behavior.

Every child is no less a human being than we are. They deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, understanding, and compassion. When they are treated this way, everyone benefits.


 

 

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