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Balanced (& unbalanced) parenting

by David Shackleton

(Image: a ‘stone poem’, Balancing Act, by Fernando Llosa)

At a one hour workshop at a folk festival recently, I and many others were fascinated by the dynamics between the couple presenting the information and their three or four year old son.  He was very interested and quite knowledgeable about the workshop topic, and he clearly considered himself one of the presenters.  His parents supported this attitude, explaining that he was very involved in their work and helped out all the time.

However, he was not respectful of their presentation plan, and interrupted them whenever he wanted to say something.  They tolerated this for the first half of the workshop, but eventually the father tried to get his son to step back a little.  The boy refused loudly, and when the father persisted, the boy raised a piece of wood that was part of the workshop material and made as if to strike his father.

I recognized that what I was seeing was a consequence of an unbalanced parenting style.  The parents genuinely wanted to develop their son’s self confidence and self esteem, and had made a practice of supporting his initiatives and validating his comments.

This is a worthy and important parenting approach, but it is just one side of a dualistic balance.  The other side could be described by that phrase from the past, “Children should be seen and not heard.”  This speaks to parental authority over children, and children’s deference to that authority.  Unfortunately, our left-liberal culture now sees such an approach to child-raising as misguided, if not abusive.

And indeed this is so –- any systematically one-sided parenting is misguided and abusive, although usually not intentionally so.  The good intentions of modern permissive/supportive parents like the workshop presenters match the good intentions of historical authoritarian parents, and both are equally mistaken in their belief that their approach is sufficient, and that the opposite way of being is inappropriate, unnecessary or abusive.

One role of parents is to set boundaries and limits, and to do this they need to be comfortable with the authority of their role, and to hold the child subordinate to them.  Another role of parents is to develop their child’s self-confidence and self esteem, to hold the child equal to them, and they need to be comfortable doing that as well.

It’s a tough call, as all dualistic balance roles are.  The parents delivering the workshop had one side of their task well understood -– the development of their son’s ability to think and choose for himself.  The opposite side of their role, to make decisions on his behalf and enforce them, they were very uncomfortable with.

Sixty or seventy years ago, the mainstream culture was on the other side of this division, comfortable with parental authority and deficient in supporting child autonomy and equality.

There are many other dualistic balance issues involved in parenting, of course.  Another major one is the question of safety versus risk-taking.  Keeping children safe is important.  However, they also need to know how to assess risk and manage risk, and to take risks when needed.

If we make their environment too safe, they cannot learn these things.  And yet, to give them the learning opportunities around managing risk, we need to let them do things that could hurt them.  This is difficult, especially for mothers (usually).

And yet, if we don’t strike a good balance on these issues while our children are young, we set them up for major problems later, when life will offer them situations for which they are ill prepared and incompetent.

The imbalance will perpetuate in the psyche of the child, and he or she will not achieve their full potential.  What form the imbalance will take will depend on the details of circumstance, but it will be suboptimal.

For instance, a child raised with too much autonomy may become an adult who is arrogant, too sure of themselves.  Maybe they will have no respect for any authority, seeing it as illegitimate and oppressive.  Maybe they will lack empathy for others and be unable to subordinate themselves to the goals of a group or a team. Or maybe they will react against the freedom they had, seeing it as too difficult, too scary, and seek a relationship of subordination, of deference.

On the other hand, a child who is raised to be always deferential to parents may grow into an adult who doesn’t trust her or his own judgement, or who fears to make decisions.  Maybe they will react against the role of subordinate and determine never to be in that position again, and will need to dominate in any close relationship.

All of these outcomes are diminished and damaged compared to who the child could have been, because of the unbalanced way that they were raised.

I will finish this month’s comments by reminding you that balance in these issues is not about finding or following a middle road between two opposites.  Rather, it is about becoming comfortable to wander all over the map, from one extreme to the other, as guided by circumstance.

A child must become comfortable with deferring to parents, and also with making his/her own decisions.  S/he must learn to assess and take risk, and also to seek to minimize risk.  To learn these things in childhood takes parents who can guide their child in both ways, through both extremes.

Parenting may be simultaneously the most difficult and also the most important role we ever take on.