Sunday, November 09, 2014

How much control do parents have?

I read a Facebook post this morning by a young woman I know - mother of two daughters - and found myself utterly surprised to find that I no longer agree with her position. She said:
"With few exceptions, kids are the way they are because that's how they're being TRAINED. If we don't like the current situation, we must do something differently."
I might have said that myself forty years ago as a young sociologist. We sociologists were trained to think primarily in terms of nurture, and to lay everything at the foot of the "socialization" process. But I've seen a lot in the past 40 years and what I've seen tells me that while  socialization is the primary contribution to  our development, parents and primary caregivers have far less control over the process than most people imagine. Parents really are not "trainers" of children. 

First, parents exercise very little control over the world in which they and their children live. Things happen that have deep and sometimes traumatic effect on children that are beyond the control of parents. Examples can include illness, death, accident, job loss, financial reverses, war, earthquake, flood, tornado, home loss, and many, many other things that may be completely beyond the capacity of a child to understand. Parents often make vital decisions, decisions necessary to survival and well-being of themselves, their children or their whole family, but a child understands nothing of those decisions and the reasons behind them. The child only knows how he or she is affected, they only know the fear, uncertainty, loss, anxiety, and other emotions that circumstances can create.  
When my brother was 2 he got pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. Back in the 1950's parents were not allowed to stay in children's hospital rooms, parents like any other visitors were limited to official visiting ours. The practice common today of parents sleeping in the hospital ward room was unheard of 60 years ago. It would not occur to the parents and even if it did it would most likely have been met by strong resistance by the hospital, even forcible removal. So a two year old little boy experienced severe trauma and great separation anxiety that translated into many "difficult" behaviors because his parents left him to health care professionals to prevent him from dying from pneumonia. 
Forty years ago a young woman I knew married her high school sweetheart and had two children with him, recognized the necessity of removing herself and her children from his increasingly violent and unpredictable behavior (including substance abuse and criminal activities).  But her small daughter only knew that her mother took her away from the father she loved with all her heart. The daughter acted out, became delinquent, used drugs, ran away, and got pregnant as a teenager, because she could only see her loss and hated her mother for it. 
It is not just the big events that make a difference. The necessity to "tighten the belt" even just a little in daily life to get past some rough economic times, can read to a young child as deprivation, as loss of security, and an unacceptable loss of predictability. The child cannot always understand how today's economies translate into better things in the future. 

Second, every child is unique and has their own temperament, their own way of relating to the world, and multiple children in the family are always at different stages of development. What works well with the 10 year old, is not necessarily right for the 8 year old, or the six year old.  This is true for all the many kinds of ways in which parents try to reach out to their children and teach them. 
Two years ago, shortly after my mother died, my slightly younger brother flew back here with our parents ashes to be interred at my father's Virginia home town. In one of our many conversations during his visit, I was shocked to discover that my brother viewed the many trips we took as children as miserable torture and hated them. These many excursions to learn how timber is turned into lumber, milk into cheese, water into electricity, etc. are some of my most cherished childhood memories. The very trips that underline my life-long passion for learning evoke only the most painful memories for him. It was as if we did not have the same experience at all. 
That is the key.  Every child experiences the world differently. What is pleasant for one child, can be painful for another. What works as discipline for one, may spark the opposition and rebellion in another. Just trying something different may not work either. 

Third, parents may be the most important influence in children's lives but they are far from the only influence. Siblings, grandparents, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, school mates, teachers, television, books, and many other sources affect children. All of those other people and other sources of information with whom children interact, even briefly. We teach children to read, and then they proceed to socialize themselves within fictional worlds.  I think that I may have learned as many lessons from "Marmee" along with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy as I learned from my own Mama. About a decade ago, I was re-reading Little Women and found this passage: 
"Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it." 
"Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!" And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise. 
"I've been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so." The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her. The knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it, though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray to a girl of fifteen.
"Mother, are you angry when you fold your lips tight together and go out of the room sometimes, when Aunt March scolds or people worry you?" asked Jo, feeling nearer and dearer to her mother than ever before.
"Yes, I've learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips , and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away for a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked," answered Mrs. March with a sigh and a smile, as she smoothed and fastened up Jo's disheveled hair."
Alcott, Louisa May.  Little Women (Kindle Locations 1670-1685).  . Kindle Edition. 
And suddenly I knew where it was that I learned to stifle and stuff down all feelings of anger as a teenager and young woman until those denied feelings found their way out in migraines and suicidal feelings. This was no lesson learned from my own parents, who had little trouble expressing anger.  Indeed the anger of expressed by my parents motivated me to seek a different way, offered by a beloved book character. 

The world often socializes children in ways that cause parents despair despite every effort to block the world.  A favorite social psychology professor in graduate school told us this story: he and his wife (a biologist who earned her doctorate before her husband earned his) made every effort to raise their children, a boy and a girl in non-sex stereotyped ways. They often took their daughter at three to watch her older brother play soccer and made sure to point out the girls on the team, and talk about the skill of those girls as well as the skill of her brother. They offered their daughter stories and images of girls who were adventurous, athletic and brave. So they were totally unprepared for the moment when their three year old daughter announced that she wanted to be a cheerleader when she grew up because they were pretty. 

Children are people, who from their first moments in the world accrue a unique life history.  Influences from all the people the child encounters, all the events in the child's world, all the books, movies, TV, and other media that touch the child's world are woven into a personal tapestry, a self, that is unlike that of any other child, even an identical twin. That self will not always express it self in ways that are pleasant for those around the child or for the child him or herself. 

Last, even the most self-conscious, aware adult human being is to some extent still influenced in subtle and less than conscious ways by his or her own history...and let's be blunt, MOST adults are not particularly self-conscious and aware. There are subtle psychic  undercurrents, hot buttons, feelings of fear, loss and anger from the past, that can be evoked in a second by the right triggers.  Parents act out of their own losses, griefs, fears, and anxieties. We cannot always train ourselves to respond to the world the way we think, when we are thinking, is the right way to respond.  This does not absolve parents of responsibility for the effort to shape their children, but it does absolve them of absolute responsibility for the outcomes. 

There are times when parents genuinely have exhausted all the alternatives and options that are available to them at a given time.  It does not mean they have given up, but rather that they must take a respite, regroup, and sometimes wait with love and tolerance for the child to change within him or herself.