Monday, August 8, 2011

How To Stop "Giving In" To Your Child

Yesterday I read some advice from parenting "expert" John Rosemond in an article called Mom should stop giving in to tantrums. A mother writes to him about her daughter, almost 3 years old, who is having separation anxiety. The little girl used to have her father as primary care-giver, but he abandoned her just over a year ago. What does Rosemond say about this delicate situation?
I sense that you might be over-complicating the issue by thinking that your daughter's anxiety over separation is due to her father's sudden disappearance from her life. That's actually unlikely. It's more likely that she has no memory of him at all (but might recognize him if he suddenly appeared, but recognition and memory are two different things).
This is a very big assumption. While the little girl may not remember her father specifically, she certainly could have a feeling that she lost something big or that someone abandoned her. However, it doesn't really matter what the anxiety is "due to" because at age 3, she's not making it up. She's anxious about her mother leaving.

The general rule is that when a child is having problems separating, the more the parent talks to the child about an upcoming separation, reassures the child that mommy's coming back, and hangs around trying to calm the child down, the worse the problem becomes. Unwittingly, the parent conveys anxiety to the child, thus making the child that much more anxious.
One general rule about parenting is that there are very few general rules. Some kids might do better with more talk and preparation, some with less. I agree that making your child more anxious would certainly not help the situation, but I disagree whole-heartedly with the following:
Don't give these situations any buildup. Just take her to the designated caretaker, kiss her, hand her over and walk away. As you've already discovered, any attempt to calm her down before you leave is going to escalate her screaming. Trust the caretaker to properly handle the situation from that point.
Given calm resolve on your part, your daughter will probably stop crying within a few minutes of your leaving and the problem should be a thing of the past in a few weeks.
Just hand her over and walk away? She will probably stop crying? What if she doesn't?

Rosemond sure does make it sound easy. His advice boils down to: Just pretend it's not a problem, and it will go away. I've talked about this technique before, and compared it to ignoring the urge to go to the bathroom. We all know how well that works.

But the title of Rosemond's advice column got me thinking about "giving in." I honor my children's requests and take care of their needs whenever I possibly can, but I wouldn't say I feel like I'm giving in. It just feels like giving to me. So what makes the difference there?

Then I realized that lots of parenting experts talk about how important it is to be firm with one's children. I never liked that idea, and now I have figured out how to explain why. When you are firm, you only have two choices: to hold yourself together against any pressure your kids might apply, or to give in and break under the pressure. You have two positions: unbroken and broken. No one wants to think of being broken by her children, so one might think she must be rigid to stay together. The firm parent must deflect any pressure to yield, to give in, to change her mind.

If you don't like the sound of that, don't worry, there is another way to be. You can be flexible. You can still be strong when you are flexible. You can absorb a good amount of pressure, and you can bounce back from it. You won't lose your integrity when you give. You won't break like something firm that has given in or given up.

You can just give. You can bend, you can stretch, you can compromise, you can accommodate. You can have many more than just two positions. You can give (and give and give...) without giving in.

That sounds much more practical to me than the alternative.


Disclaimer: This is not a criticism of working mothers. It's a criticism of "expert" advice that seems simplistic and insensitive to me. I know from experience that it can be heartbreaking for a mother to leave her child when the child is upset.