When my son was 2 years old, I took him with me to a presentation I was giving to a group of pregnant women. The meeting was hosted by one of the women. Normally, they do not allow kids in these meetings. My guess is that because they’re afraid that the host’s homes are not yet child-proofed since most of them are on their first pregnancies (to which my husband says about our son possibly bumping into sharp table corners: “If he’s smart, he won’t do it again.” Our own home reflects this philosophy — table corners have never been padded, stairways have no banisters, and cabinet doors swing open freely and it’s been this way since forever).
We all packed into her bright living room. My son sat on the floor in one corner. The host brought out a bucket of Legos. “It’s the only toy I have,” she said. The Legos came with a booklet. I didn’t really see it up close but it seemed the sort filled with scenes you can create with the Lego pieces or possibly a catalogue of other Lego products available for purchase. My son picked up this booklet and essentially ignored the bucket of Legos. Throughout my presentation that lasted at least an hour, my son sat quietly in his corner, flipping through the booklet, occasionally looking up at me. At the end of my presentation (which was about Dr. Gottman’s principles on making marriage work and how a happy marriage is possibly one of the best gifts we can give our kids), I opened the floor for Q&A. “I have a question. How do we get one of those?,” someone asked, pointing towards my son. All eyes turned to my son, who, seeing all the attention on him, smiled shyly.
“Wow, that must have been the best advertisement for the Gottman program,” my husband said. “You should bring him again next time.”
This and times when people have come up to me, impressed that my kids are well mannered, well behaved, and independent, it is extremely easy to slip into that faulty attribution bias parents have about being parents: but of course, great kids come from great parents.
On the flip side, it is the very same bias that hurts parents when kids act out. Why else do we feel embarrassed when our kids misbehave? When my son or daughter has a crying fit in public, I feel like everyone is watching me, judging the sort of mother I am, and asking why I can’t keep a tight rein on my kids. Really. When my next door neighbor who lives across a parking lot says he can hear my daughter or my son screaming from his third floor window, I feel mortified. He has – I swear – two of the world’s most perfect kids, now adults. What does he think of me as a parent? The idea that children reflect their parents and that parents are 100% responsible for their children’s behavior, positive or negative, is difficult to elude.
Here’s what I want to say to parents who praise my kids’ good behavior: Actually, we shout a lot in our house. We’ve often considered putting a sign outside our window (which is right by a walking street with fairly heavy foot traffic on the weekends) saying ‘Angry parenting style’ by way of explanation — you know, like performance art? Our kids are all too familiar with the stairs, their time-out location. “Do you want to sit on the stairs?” is not so much a question as a threat. It’s become so familiar though that our kids volunteer to sit on the stairs and have been known to skip to time-out (which I think they do intentionally to annoy me but as my husband pointed out and I’d have to agree, whether they skip or sulk to time-out, the end result is the same: they come out of time-out calmer and ready to sort out the problem). What I want to say is that the well mannered well behaved kids you see is just one side of the whole picture.
Having said that, I do recognize that my kids behave better than a lot of kids I’ve observed. I’m happy that other people enjoy them as much as I do. But as tempting as it is to take credit for this, I think it is important to recognize that children are their own distinct individuals, who (small as they are) make their own choices. I am reminded of this each time I see my children react differently in the same situation even though they are both raised in the same household. A parent’s job is to provide the boundaries that create a secure environment and specify what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Setting limits tells a child that you care enough to look out for them, to save them from danger or from losing face.
Boundaries can be fun to break, at least in thought. I hardly ever buy candy for my kids. They get enough candy from neighbors and friends. But this does not stop them from asking me whenever we pass by some candy in the store. “This looks so good Mommy. Can we buy this?” asked my son about some particularly toxic looking bright blue concoction. “Nope. Not today,.” My daughter said, “It’s okay, Mommy.” I turned my back to inspect the produce. I overheard my daughter say to her younger brother authoritatively, “When we get bigger and we have our own house and we have our own money, we can buy ALL the candy in the store and we can eat ANYTHING we want.” At least I know they have a good incentive to work hard.
Having created that environment, we need to give children the freedom to make their own choices and trust that they will make good ones. I like how my husband puts it, “I’m not so much scolding them as letting them know that I believe they can do better.” They may make the wrong choices sometimes, and that’s okay. Their behavior is not a direct outcome of something we have said or done as parents, and it would work well to be aware of this attribution bias when it crops up. The freedom to make their own choices and possibly bumbling along the way is all part of growing up and developing a healthy sense of self.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote a lovely reminder of the distinct individuals that children are and the stable bows (us parents) from which they emerge.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.