Our children are born the least mature, the least able to survive alone, of any other species. They subsequently learn more about the world, and how to be in the world, than any other species, and they learn most of it though watching us. Though we may like to think that they will take in our “words of wisdom” about “how the world is”, the uncomfortable reality is that what they will absorb most is our day-to-day behavior. Actually, it’s worse than that; the great unfairness of parenting is that our children will absorb more from observing us when we are at our worst than when we are at our best.
Our children will observe, absorb, and integrate our ways of being into them, including our ways of treating others, our fears, and our mannerisms. This will all happen despite how we tell them to think or behave. Research in this area has exploded in recent years along with the discovery of mirror neurons, brain cells that allow us to learn by imitation of others. The potency of this type of learning was brought home to me when we had our house painted when my son was 2 years old. Based on his limited observing of the painters, he learned enough to mimic them with uncanny accuracy: the brush strokes, using a paint roller, and most striking of all, how they sat down with their cans of soda for a break. If observing people who held little emotional importance to him for a matter of minutes could be taken in so well, what impact would years of observing me have?
While most parents are ready to teach their children discipline and know that they are the ones to do so, they are less ready to accept the idea that they can teach only by example. Bruno Bettleheim
I am often struck by how parents’ complaints about their children’s behaviour tend to mirror the parent’s behaviour. We expect our children to be respectful of the desires and feelings of others, but do we consistently demonstrate this ourselves? We expect our children to be able to control their impulses, displaying self-discipline, but what about our own self-indulgent behaviour? The most striking examples involve us punishing our children while displaying the same behaviour that we are punishing them for. The most obvious example involves a parent hitting a child to punish him for hitting others. Similarly, we may punish our children for being insensitive to the feelings of others, all the while being insensitive to our children, such as not listening to their experience of the situation or reasons for their behaviour. Instead of constantly reminding our children of what they need to do, we ought to be reminding ourselves that they will learn more from our example than from anything we tell them.
Children need parents who model self-discipline rather than preach it. John Bradshaw,
Our efforts to apply the previous three principles of healthy parenting will benefit our children substantially. Offering our responsive presence, disciplining with wisdom, and enjoying our children are the most effective things we can do to serve their well-being and any efforts we make are well worth it. It is important to be aware, however, that our efforts will necessarily be compromised by how we behave, behavior that will be heavily influenced by intrusive feelings and our attempts to avoid them. As a result of our own early trauma it is inevitable that we will be triggered into distressing feelings and our children will at times be on the receiving end of our reactions. Similarly, our habitual defenses against intrusive feelings mean that we will tend to relate to our children much as we relate to other people: in ways that avoid these feelings being triggered. If we tend to judge others as a way of avoiding our feelings then we will tend to judge our children. If we tend to play the victim as a way of controlling others, then they will tend to use guilt to control our children. The unfair reality is that if we are happy it will be easier to parent our children such that they become happy, and to the extent that we are unhappy this task will be more difficult. (Read more about this here. link)
If we wish to raise happy, healthy children we are then it will be most fruitful if we also work towards becoming happier ourselves. There are many options to help you become happier, including various forms of personal growth work, including self-help books, psychotherapy, groups, retreats, and workshops. There are also many resources available on this site, including the lifestyle choices. Ultimately, you will need to work with the intrusive feelings that compromise your happiness; your awareness that these feelings are intrusive and not about now, your capacity to meet these feelings with wise, compassionate presence, and your discipline to behave in ways that lead to long-term well-being rather than short term relief through avoidance. Happily, these skills mirror the principles of parenting, and any progress you make on one will support your progress on the other. Presence is necessary for raising happy children and for working with our intrusive feelings. Discipline to do what serves the well-being of ourselves and others rather than indulging an impulse is necessary for stopping our patterns of avoidance, and is the very wisdom we are trying to impart to our children. In sum, we are best served by treating ourselves and our children with the same wise, compassionate presence.
That is the end of The Four Principles for Helping Children Feel Good. Sign up to the right for updates when new free material is added.