When I see parents for the first time, I always ask them what their goal is. The answer that I usually get is that they want their child to be happy.
No matter what the issues that got them to me are, whether it’s inappropriate behavior, poor academic performance, social difficulties etc., parents are always concerned about their child’s happiness. This, in and of itself is not a problem. As a matter fact it would be a big problem if they didn’t want their child to be happy. However, there is a glitch with this seemingly straightforward notion.
The glitch is, whose responsibility is your child’s happiness. When they are infants, clearly it has to be your responsibility. They have very little control over anything that they need to be happy. They need to be fed, dry, clean, stimulated, hugged and in general free of unpleasant sensations.
However, as your child grows they have more and more control over what they need to be happy and whether you want to admit it or not you have less. Any other way of looking at it is an illusion.
Think about it. When your two-year-old is having a major meltdown do you really think that you have control? When your three-year-old goes to preschool for the first time it’s likely that you will experience some anxiety. This is most likely related to the fact that you have absolutely no control over what goes on when you’re not with your child. So on and so forth, as your child gets older you have less control.
Not having control over their child’s life is literally terrifying too many parents. As a result, they maintain the illusion of control, to keep their anxiety at a minimum. This perception if it works at all is short lived because there will be many reminders all along the parenting journey about what you don’t have control over.
So if a parent has very little control over their child’s life and the idea of parenting to protect and provide happiness by giving to in making decisions for your child has some major flaws, what’s a parent to do?
The first step is to look at a more reasonable goal. Which is for your child to be responsible for their own happiness because quite frankly, they are the only ones who can make it happen. If the goal of parenting is to teach them how to manage that responsibility and everything that you do as a parent is to that end, your child has a good chance of figuring out what they need to do to be happy on a long-term basis.
The second step is to develop parenting tools that teach responsible behavior and the third step is to give them as much practice as possible.
What are these tools? Quite frankly, you are already familiar with them. Among them are chores, allowance, limits, consequences etc. Hold on you might say. Aren’t all of the above meant to control a child’s behavior. Yes, if that is your goal. No, if you see them as tools for you child to learn about essential skills in life.
Let me give you an example. When my daughter was about eight we were in a toy store to get a birthday present for one of her friends. She was a major athlete even at that age and always drawn to any athletic challenge. Consequently, when she saw a Pogo Ball, she had to have it. I don’t know if you have ever seen a Pogo Ball. It is simply a plastic circular platform with a ball stuffed in the middle of it. It looked like a plastic Saturn. The idea is that you are supposed to stand on the platform, grip the ball with your feet and hop around on it. A feat that I still believe is impossible, if you consider more than three hops a success.
I could have responded to her incredible anxiety be buying, this totally grounded not flying saucer, by buying it for her and in her mind becoming the most wonderful dad in the world. On the other hand I could have just said no, becoming the source of all life’s pain and misery. I simply said, if you want it you should have it.
She was ecstatic carrying the source of life’s happiness, for ever and ever. In about 3 minutes she stopped in her tracks as if to say “Wait a minute. There’s something wrong here”. Then there was the truth of the moment. “You are buying this for me. Right!. I clarified that if she needed the Pogo Ball to be happy, she also needed to buy it with her allowance. It was her decision to make and I would not interfere. Between you and me, inside I was screaming “What are you thinking. “This is impossible. It will be in the back of your closet in two days.” However, she needed to make the decision and realize the consequences of her decision. She bought the Pogo Ball and for the time being was not in strong favor but, she was happy. “For the time being.”
The consequences were realized the very next time we were in the same store. While meandering through the isles, There it was! The hottest, most incredible skateboard in the world sitting on the top shelf above the sporting equipment. Talk about Pavlovian response, my daughter was drooling. You guessed it. Dad, Look at that skateboard, can I have? True to form “If you have to have it to be happy, you should have it.” This time without the time delay, “Yeah I know, if I use my allowance.” My reply was just a smile and “Do you have enough money for it?” It cost about $225. She had a little under $200.. I started to say, and was abruptly interrupted by “I know – I know. If I hadn’t bought the Pogo Ball I could buy the skate board.”
I submit to you that this is learning about impulse control, planning, short term reward verses long term reward, value and of course, most importantly being responsible for your happiness. This way of letting life teach.
Yes, I could have bought the Pogo Ball or not and in effect, depriving my daughter of a very valuable life experience.
About Dr. Marc Greenfield
Dr. Greenfield is a psychologist who has dedicated his life to helping children using a multitude of formats. He began his career working with autistic children in a specialized treatment program for vulnerable children in Hialeah Florida. He coordinated a psychiatric program for seriously emotionally disturbed children at Variety Children’s Hospital in Miami Florida for over 10 years. He was an advisor to television networks on children’s and parenting programming (primarily WTVJ and WL RN in Miami Florida). He is currently the founder and director of Children’s Survival Network a nonprofit organization whose mission is to comprehensively meet the needs of abused and neglected children. Dr. Greenfield also maintains a private practice in South Miami, Florida. You may contact Dr. Marc Greenfield at firstname.lastname@example.org