I work with lots of parents.

They tend to fall into two groups.

One group focuses on behavior.  The other focuses on feelings and needs.

The first group talks about expectations, rules, discipline, misbehavior, respect for adults, grades, appearance, accomplishments and success in the future.

The second group is more apt to ask questions and to be confused.

The first group tends to be convinced.  It pretty much knows what it wants from its kids, and how it wants them to be.

The second group tends to be curious.  It’s still trying to learn how its kids tick, how they feel and what they need.

The first group is apt to say things like “I don’t like that s/he does that.”

The second group is apt to say things like “Why does s/he do that?”

My job with the second group is to teach empathy – to draw on their own emotional experience as a guide to future parenting. I do this mainly by helping them remember what worried, scared, overwhelmed and comforted them when they were their kids’ age. Also by learning to listen to themselves now, to their own feelings and needs, and to respect what they hear.

My job with the first group is get them to join the second group.


2 responses to “Focus

  • John

    To me this is too black and white.

    I’ve always thought that there was merit on both sides and that a balanced middle ground approach was best.

    Some clear rules and expectations are a good thing. As is respect for one’s elders, saying please and thank you, writing thank you letters, and saying sorry when you make a mistake. Hygiene and teeth-brushing are important, as is learning to clean up after oneself and help out a bit around the house in the form of a weekly or daily chore. And some sort of discipline or consequence is generally a good idea as well. I think it is crucially important to begin nurturing the idea that many times when you choose the behavior you choose the consequence. “Parenting with Love and Logic” has a lot to offer regarding all of this.

    If the above things are absent, children tend to become ungrateful, demanding, whiny, spoiled, and develop a sense of entitlement.

    Of course all of this needs to be given with warmth, support, friendliness, unconditional positive regard, and love. Children need not just to listen, but to be listened to, to know that their parents are curious about them, want to get to know them, want to understand them. Children want to know that they are OK, loved, accepted, wanted

    To me, both are needed. So what you presented is not an either or proposition, but a matter of taking the best of both approaches and combining it. I think both statements are perfectly ok statements: “I don’t like it when s/he does that” “Why does s/he do that?” And should be used together. Along with a clarifying question for oneself: “Why don’t I like it when s/he does that?” (For some parents it’s all about how their kids’ bad behavior makes the parents look, which means that the parents have issues to deal with. But if the answer isn’t about the parent but is about the child, then that is likely a good thing.)

    And no two children are alike, so what applies to one may not work for another. So this is a huge part of the adventure of parenting, figuring out what makes each child tick, encouraging their uniqueness, and still cultivating pro-social behaviors, politeness, kindness, conscience, respect for others, self-control, cooperation, teeth-brushing, et cetera.

    • Steve Hauptman

      Of course you’re right. It’s not either/or. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

      But this post emerged from a series of meetings with parents for whom parenting was black and white, who tended to see empathy and discipline as somehow opposed to each other, and the former as subversive of the latter. Unsurprisingly, they were parented in this way themselves. The families that produced them were controlling, narcissistic, alcoholic, and in some cases abusive. As a result they grew up undervaluing their own feelings and the importance of empathy in relationships. And as adults their need to remain connected with their own parents — by, among other things, remaining “loyal” to an unempathic style of parenting — undermines their awareness of and sensitivity to what their own children need from then.

      With such parents I do find it necessary to reframe parenting issues as a choice between two priorities, if only to make clear that an alternative to what they know is possible. Once they accept the importance of empathy we can move into integrating it with discipline.

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