Psychiatrist Henry Jones once said that he thought parents should practice “Benign Neglect” when raising children.
Clearly Henry meant – be kind and do not over-control.
In other words, don’t pick on everything and don’t sweat the small stuff.
I believe our role as parents is to teach and guide – to be an ally, not an enemy to our children.
Punishment is rarely, if ever necessary, although it is important to provide knowledge about how to do things, what’s appropriate, etc. In this context, you, as parent, should select out of all the universe of things you should be noticing and correcting, those few that are relevant to the time and place. Don’t try to teach everything at once.
It is also important to provide the structure and parameters that are age and personality appropriate for each child – learning how to loosen them as the child matures.
In all the years of doing therapy, I found parents tended to operate from one of two extremes – either too loose with no structure and routines, or too tight with overly controlling too much.
When too loose, the lack of structure and routines leaves the children feeling anxious and confused. They don’t know what is expected of them, and don’t know the proper way to do things.
Frequently, parents that don’t provide any reasonable structure at all are either schizophrenic, alcoholic, or seriously disturbed in other ways. They leave their children floundering. Instead of providing guidelines and limits, they neglect their children and then over-react when they notice a child acting “out of line.”
As teens and adults they seek structure externally – in religion, cults, the Marine Corp.
My friend, who has a doctorate in mathematics, gets so anxious when she has to organize anything without a clear set of instructions from others – when she moved into her new home she couldn’t even organize the food and spices in her pantry closet. Both her parents were alcoholics. Her siblings have similar problems.
When control is too tight, children become either very angry, very passive or both (passive-aggressive). When the parents are too demanding, the children don’t learn how to make decisions themselves – everything is dictated from above.
Countries, like Singapore, where up until recently perfection was demanded, have difficulty competing in a highly competitive and constantly changing business world.
Either too tight, or too loose often lead to over-reaction and punishment.
I believe that children need guidance, direction, explanations, role-modeling, and routine that is regular but not rigid. Children should feel that their home is a haven, safe and comforting and that their parents are on their side – not angry and punitive enemies.
As an aside – the child’s bedroom should be a “safe harbor” – not a place for time-out punishments. Property rights are taught by helping each child protect his or her property without forcing sharing.
Although I was a therapist for many years, I’m currently a management consultant and I teach managers and executives how to work with staff. I basically teach them the same concepts I taught parents years ago.
In the corporate world, I talk about the funnel theory of management and suggest that managers start with tight control with new employees, and as they learn to trust and understand each other, the control loosens.
It’s the same with children – when they are young we need to be much more aware of their needs and safety – we manage very tightly (although not cruelly). Part of our responsibility as parents is to teach them to make choices, fend for themselves in age appropriate ways and little by little we loosen the control.
Let me give you one example: If you have a daughter, you dress her and make all the clothing choices for her when she’s an infant. As she becomes a toddler, you let her help you pick out which shorts or jeans she is going to wear on a given day. When she becomes six or seven you go shopping together and select several outfits that you know are the right size, right price range and appropriate. You let her select the two or three out of the group that she wants. When she becomes nine or ten, she can wander through the racks herself and select what she likes (after you’ve selected the store and told her what you were shopping for – e.g. bathing suits) and all you have is veto power.
When she is a teenager – and you’ve developed this process over time – all you need to do is plan a budget together, make a list of what she probably will need – and drop her off at the mall with your credit card.
If you find the right balance, provide a safe haven and help your children learn how to make their own decisions, not only will you have raised children with high self-esteem, you will have taught them step by step how to think for themselves, make decisions, and take the risks necessary to be creative and productive members of our society.