At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child’s success is the positive involvement of his parents. — Jane D. Hull
Here we are, right between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. It’s the perfect time to talk about parents.
These two holidays offer us an opportunity to honor our parents for all that they have done for us. After all, they gave us life. They worked to feed and clothe us. They cared for us and raised us. Virtually all parents deserve appreciation for the positive things they have done for the world, simply by nurturing children.
But in reality, parenting is far more complicated than the positive focus of these holidays would allow us to admit. Few would argue the fact that it’s one of the most difficult jobs in the world. The reality is that there are an infinite number of ways to parent a child wrong. And if we allow ourselves to truly contemplate that, it is frightening indeed.
Let’s use an example of Katy to see three different parenting styles, how they look in action in childhood, and how they play out in that child’s adult life.
Two-year-old Katy has a head full of dark, silky hair and big brown eyes. She has a happy, energetic nature, especially in the mornings. Katy sits in her high chair while her mother is at the kitchen table eating breakfast. In front of Katy, on the tray of her high chair, is a selection of cheese cubes and pieces of banana, all cut to the exact right size for her to pick up and pop into her mouth. On this morning, however, Katy is feeling particularly exuberant. She is trying to get her mother’s attention by being silly.
“Cheese pweeze!” she yells as she picks up a cheese cube and squeezes it until it smashes into a blob which she then drops back on her tray. With her eye on her mother, who is looking at the TV, she picks up another cube. “Cheese pweeze!” she yells again.
This scenario, or one very similar, has played out in the household of almost every toddler in the world. There is nothing remarkable or unique about it. However, what makes this scene matter is Katy’s mother’s response to her toddler’s age-appropriate behavior on this morning. Let’s take a look at the various response options for Katy’s mom, and how those responses might affect Katy now and in the future.
Style 1: Katy’s mother senses that Katy is trying to get her attention. With laughter in her eyes at her daughter’s mischievousness, she stands up, walks over to Katy and says, “What are you doing young lady? Cheese is to eat, not to play with.” She hands Katy a piece of cheese and watches to ensure that she doesn’t squish it. Katy sees her mother’s expression and senses that her mom thinks that she is cute and silly, but also that she means business. Katy is not to squish the cheese. She begins to eat it.
Style 2: Katy’s mother is engrossed in her television show. She ignores Katy for a while, hoping that she will stop her bad behavior if she doesn’t get attention for it. However, Katy only escalates, yelling “Cheese pweeze!” even louder, over and over. Finally, Mom looks over and sees a pile of squished cheese and banana on the tray of the high chair. “What the hell are you doing?!” she yells loudly, startling Katy. She runs over, snatches Katy from her chair and places her roughly on the floor. “You made this mess. Now you can clean it up!” She stalks off angrily, leaving the wailing Katy sitting on the floor surrounded by a mess of food.
Style 3: Katy’s mother is engrossed in her show. She says, without taking her eyes off of the TV, “Katy, stop making a mess of your breakfast. You need to eat it.” Katy continues to yell exuberantly, trying to get her mother’s attention. “Eat your breakfast or I’m going to give you a time-out,” Mom says absent-mindedly. After a few more efforts to get her mother to pay attention, Katy realizes that her mother is not going to notice her and engage. She grows tired and hungry and begins to quietly eat her breakfast instead of squishing it.
In these examples, it is probably fairly easy to see that Style 1 is healthy, nurturing parenting, and that Style 2 is abusive and will, sadly, likely cause some enduring damage to little Katy. Style 3, however, isn’t quite so clear. It is not abusive, and it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable in any way. Actually, it probably mostly seems like a loving but tired mom who just needs to get breakfast done.
Most good parents reading Style 3 can probably relate to it quite well. And truly, that is nothing to worry about. In fact, Style 3 is not a problem at all unless it happens enough. If it happens enough to send Katy clear messages that her feelings and needs don’t matter, then Style 3 becomes Emotionally Neglectful Parenting.
Let’s track how Katy’s development will progress if she grows up receiving, over all, the Healthy parenting style depicted in Style 1, the Abusive parenting style of Style 2, or Style 3, the Emotionally Neglectful parenting style.
Style 1 – Healthy, Nurturing Parenting: Katy is a confident woman.
- She knows that she is lovable (because she saw the love in her mother’s eyes, even when she was being silly and causing trouble).
- She knows that her needs for attention, love and care are healthy and normal (because they were met in childhood).
- She is able to give and receive love and care (because she was able to do both as a child).
- She has good control over her impulses (because her mother gave her simple, age-appropriate rules like “cheese is to eat, not to play with,” to live by and clear, healthy consequences).
- She is typically able to determine what she feels and why (because her feelings were noticed, validated and responded to throughout her childhood).
- She experiences the full range of natural human emotion and is usually able to manage, name, share and use her feelings (because she learned all of this as a child)
Style 2 – Abusive Parenting: Katy is a traumatized woman.
- Katy doesn’t trust people (because her mother often flew off the handle in a startling, scary way). She has anxiety because of this.
- She feels that if she is not vigilant, others will hurt or take advantage of her (because her mother did).
- She has anger (because she was mistreated as a child) simmering beneath the surface, ready to protect her if needed.
- In relationships and friendships, she can be difficult to get along with (because she is guarded, anxious and angry).
- Generally, she feels beaten-down by life (because she was beaten down as a child). She knows that if she wants something in life, she will have to fight for it.
- Katy does not know what she is feeling or why, much of the time (because her emotions were not considered as a child; in fact, her basic emotional needs, such as her need for attention from her mother, often led to punishment and hurt).
- She experiences the full range of natural human emotions, but often very intensely (because she grew up in an intense household where emotions ruled the family).
- Katy does not have good control over her feelings and impulses (because her mother gave her excessively harsh punishments when she was a child instead of giving her simple, age-appropriate rules).
Style 3 – Emotionally Neglectful Parenting: Katy appears fine, but feels empty and lonely inside.
- Katy thinks that she is lovable, but she is not sure (because her mother didn’t look at her with love in her eyes enough).
- Katy tries not to need anything from anyone (because her basic emotional needs were not met enough in her childhood).
- She typically does not know what she is feeling, or why (because her feelings were not noticed, validated, named or responded to enough as a child).
- Katy often feels empty and numb inside (she has pushed her feelings down and out of her awareness because they were not accepted or noticed by her parents).
- Secretly, Katy feels that something is wrong with her (because she lacks access to her emotions, and she knows that something is missing in herself and her life).
- She feels alone no matter whom she is with (because she lacks the emotion that would connect her to other people in a meaningful way).
- Katy looks at other people laughing and talking as they walk down the street and wonders, “What do they have that I don’t?” (Because she can see that other people are living a richer, more meaningful life than she is able to have without access to her own feelings).
Of course we all know that no parent is perfect. The majority of parents strive to do their best. But some parents do not. And even of those who try hard, some fail their children in ways which will cause pain in their children throughout their lives.
As children and as parents, we all have choices. Will we pass on the abuse or the emotional neglect that we grew up with to our children, who will, in turn, pass it on to theirs? Or will we face our own missing pieces and hurt and pain? Because that is the only way to offer our children the healthy parenting they deserve.
If all of the parents in the world could work to heal themselves, then all of the children of the world could grow up receiving an improved, healthier version of parenting than their parents got. And in the next generation, the world would be a healthier, happier place for all of us.
And then we could celebrate Mothers and Fathers Day in a whole different way.