As I was about to leave the hospital after giving birth to my son, my doctor entered my room (and I have to tell you, this wonderful doctor who had delivered my son, had delivered me 22 years earlier and, in those days of “G.P.’s” had been my only doctor since), put his hands on my shoulders, looked at me closely, and said, “remember Nancy, you were here first; he has to fit into your world.” Those few simple words were probably the best parenting advice I ever received. And, through the years, in the various capacities in which I’ve had the opportunity to work with parents, I try, always, to help them see the wisdom of this philosophy.
One has to consider, what is the ultimate goal of parenting? It seems to me, in the most simplistic, straightforward terms, the goal is to create to the degree possible for each individual, an independent, successfully functioning adult who can create and maintain positive interpersonal relationships professionally and personally. It also seems that, in order to do this, they have to have incorporated the rules of the society in which they live.
This is very easily seen and completely understood in more primitive cultures. Everyone has a place and a job and the threat to the continuity of existence to the tribe or community is so great, that any kind of significant deviation from the “norm” will not be tolerated and that individual will be expelled from the group. In our much more sophisticated and complex society, there is, fortunately, room for much greater deviation and individual expression. However, there are rules, both written and unwritten, that must be followed if one is to travel successfully along the many paths taken through life. The fact is, that no matter how learned, no matter how wealthy and/or influential a parent may be, their ability to have the world adapt to meet the demands of their child, is limited and, at some point, comes to an end. The world was here before one’s child and will be here long after the child moves on. Your child’s life will be much easier if he learns to deal successfully with the challenges life presents. It is also helpful and reassuring to keep in mind that the earlier one learns life’s lessons, the easier.
As an assistant director of a major early childhood program, I was often approached by parents who were distressed because their child was in a class or camp program with children they didn’t know. Although I understood that their preference was to have their child be with friends, it wasn’t always possible. What I tried to point out was that these children were 2, 3, or 4 years old, a stage in life when it is fairly easy to make new friends, as that ability is just then being acquired. Also, that even if it were possible to place them with friends, would it still be possible to do so as they progressed through elementary school. And, even if that became possible, what would happen if, in 7th or 8th or 11th grade the family had to move and that, in all those previous years, their child had never had the experience of creating a new friendship—of walking into a situation in which they didn’t know anybody. Wouldn’t it, at that stage, be somewhat daunting if not actually traumatic to first be faced with such a challenge? The truth is that making friends is a skill. And, it’s a much easier skill to learn at 3 or 4 than to do so for the first time at 14. Instead of perceiving the situation as a calamity, I hoped to help the parent see it as an opportunity for their child to develop an ability that would be an asset throughout life.
Another situation comes to mind. I knew a parent whose second-grader auditioned for a newly forming choir in his school. The leader was planning for the choir to perform in various venues in which it would represent the school. In other words, it was a serious undertaking and not just an afternoon activity. The child was not accepted. The mom was outraged. “This is terrible. Why should a child that age have to feel rejection? Everybody who wants to do be a member should be accepted!”
Well, that’s not life. We are not all accepted to everything to which we apply. It seems the mom could have used this whole experience productively. She could have, first and foremost, recognized and acknowledged her son’s feelings of disappointment and rejection. She could have, then, explored with him how people are different, having varying abilities and talents and asked him about all the ways he was gifted and affirm all the things he could do and could do well. My guess is that over the course of his lifetime, there will be more disappointments and other situations in which he’ll try but not succeed. How incredibly valuable to learn at 7 years old that, yeah, it hurts, but life goes on and tomorrow, who knows, maybe something even better will come along. Anyway, I know I have enough good stuff to make other wonderful things happen.
When a child has a little hurt, a little disappointment, a little anger or frustration, it acts, in a sense, the way an inoculation does. When one is inoculated, the little bit of toxin creates a reaction in the body, building an immunity, so that in the case of exposure to major toxin the body can resist it and the individual can go on in a healthy and strong way. It is the same process for the aforementioned emotions and experiences. When a child learns to deal with events when s/he is young and has the support and understanding parents provide, then when the bigger doses come later in life, a tolerance and ability has been created that allows her/him to continue in that same strong and healthy manner.
I want to make it clear: I in no way advocate any individual giving up his or her rights or his or her place in this world. We need very much to teach our children to stand up for themselves and, without arrogance or insult, to accept and claim what is rightfully theirs. What we also need to teach them is that is wrong to infringe upon the rights of others to or expect others to sacrifice in order to satisfy our own desires.
I am reminded of the oh so meaningful quote of Rabbi Hillel: “if I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I?” By learning how to fit into the world, we not only ease our own passage, but create a smoother, more satisfying experience for those around us. As Jews, we are instructed to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and we have a guide Pirke Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers) that instructs us, in the minutest of details, in the ways we are to treat others.
So, I suggest to parents to keep the following guidelines and questions in mind as they steer their children through the growing up years. Always appreciate and respect their feelings. Listen. And then, in forming a response both verbally and in action, ask, “What lessons am I teaching and what am I suggesting to my child in what I am doing? (For instance, in always arranging to have your child placed with friends, is he also getting the idea that you believe he is incapable of creating his own friendships?) Will my handling the situation this way serve to help my child gain independence and self-confidence? Will it encourage her to believe in herself and her ability to handle what life brings her? Am I building up—or preventing—individuality, self-esteem and self-assuredness? Try to envision that adult you are working to create and how today’s lessons will play out. If that picture brings a smile to your face, you’re doing a good job.
Nancy is a Certified School Psychologist, Motivational Speaker, and psychotherapist with an office in Paramus, anticipating publication of her first children’s book. http://www.thepsychspeaks.com/
By Nancy Silberman Zwiebach