When my eldest child was born the whole world shrunk down to the size of her face, the feel of her skin, the sound of her cries. The days grew long, I was bleary eyed with exhaustion, and all my energy went into the here and now, into meeting all the moment-to-moment needs of a colicky infant.
Finally one day I looked up and realized sixteen years had passed; here she was, a young woman looking down at me from the vaunted height of her extra three inches! The days are long but the years are short.
I often recall this experience when addressing the concerns and fears of young parents: I yearn to give them a glimpse of the end-goal of parenting: a caring, vibrant adult capable of deep relationships, and of standing on his own two feet in the world.
This is what most parents want, but during the long days these are often not the goals we are mindful of. We are concerned with how to get our children to pick up their socks, stop hitting their sisters, and take responsibility for their own chores. In the frustration of the moment we are often tricked into thinking that any solution that solves these problems will lead to the ultimate end-point of a mature adult.
Unfortunately life isn’t that neat and tidy, and many of today’s common parenting practices may get us the sock-free living room we crave at the cost of our relationship with our children, and indeed, at the cost of their maturation. Today’s two most common parenting practices can cause a hardness-of-heart that stunts development and puts the brakes on the very processes of maturation that are essential to the formation of the kind of adult we hope to introduce to the world.
Using the withdrawal of our connection with our children as a tool to get their behaviour into line, (a commonly used shunning method of today’s parents is time-outs) or using what they care about against them, (often euphemized as “consequences”) indicates to the child that they are only acceptable when their behaviour lines up with our expectations.
Imagine if we used these methods in our relationships with our spouses: imagine if my husband took my car keys away because I didn’t clean the kitchen when I said I would. What if, when I walked in the door exasperated from work dumping my purse and coat on the chair without putting them away, he told me that though he loved me, this was unacceptable behaviour and I must go to my room until I was ready to behave appropriately?
How many times would it take before I would find myself hardening toward him? How long before I would greet his “discipline” with an eye roll and a “whatever”, or “I don’t care”. How likely would I be to respond favourably to his helpful, friendly suggestions fifteen minutes later?
Why risk provoking these reactions in our children? They need caring hearts if they are to be caring people. If we provoke their instincts to stop caring about us, the very ones who are meant to guide and direct them into the complex world they must live in, we are courting trouble. The days are long – yes – but the years are short, and we must keep in mind where we are going in order to attend best to where we are.