Our Three Biggest Parenting Challenges
Parenting today is a real challenge for most parents–perhaps more so than it was for our parents. There are many reasons for that, and they can be summed up in the idea that this is a far more complicated world than the one in which our parents raised us.
Here are the three most difficult challenges I see for today’s parents.
1. Exhaustion. Let’s face it. Parenting is a full-time job for which there is no pay other than satisfaction and our children’s love. Especially at times when those rewards seem to be lacking, it may be doubly difficult to summon the energy, day after day, to give our best to our children. Even in well-functioning two-parent families the energy required of each parent, on top of an already exhausting job or two and innumerable social, school, and family commitments, is physically and psychologically draining. How much more difficult it is for single, separated, or divorced parents!
Added to all this is the never-ending stress of challenging, argumentative, strong-willed, or high-energy and special-needs children. Children’s demands and requirements are a 24-hour-a-day call to action. Rest time for the parent? That idea almost sounds like a joke.
Finally, there is the mental intensity of trying to remain consistent, which all the experts say is an absolute necessity for effective discipline and guidance of children. Included here is the challenge of trying to learn new parenting concepts and techniques, if one has the guts, humility, and fortitude to take a parenting class or read a book on parenting. Is it even possible to remember all those new ideas and to consistently put (at least some of) them into action consistently?
2. Lack of Awareness. Early in life our care givers–biological parents, foster- or adoptive-parents, or others–taught us how to live. They taught us basic attitudes about life, people, and things. They taught us many of the basic skills needed in life. They taught us our core values–what’s most important in life–what it takes to succeed, how to handle feelings, and how to relate to others. And they taught us how to parent. We were in “parenting school” from birth till age 18, or whenever we got out on our own. So when we became parents, we naturally did what we learned from our parents. We naturally started putting into practice the “old-fashioned” ways of our parents. And there is nothing wrong or bad about this. What else could we do? If we were raised in an English- or Spanish-speaking family, we naturally learned to speak English or Spanish. The same with parenting.
The old-fashioned (Old School) methods aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, either, except when they are violent or abusive. Problems arise when we expect those good old-fashioned methods to work as well for us as they did for our parents, but they don’t. And sadly, for too many parents today, the old methods are not only not working as well as they did when we were kids, but they seem to be backfiring, and making things worse with their our modern-day kids.
Why? It gets down the central issue of control vs. autonomy. This means a heavy dose of what I call “Old School “ power-and-control type methods of influencing children to do what they are told, do the right thing, and behave well. Control of child behavior (often referred to as behavior management or parental control) is the central and by far most critical parenting issue of our time. Too often these more primitive, “Old School,” power and control type parenting methods tend to invite resentment, resistence, and conflict in autonomous, independent-minded, strong-willed and self-centered children who are so well connected to the exciting outside world from toddlerhood on by electronic gadgets and by other people, including their little peers in day care right on up through high school.
Our parents’ approach to parenting was “old-fashioned” not only in terms of methods (see the chart “Old and New School Parenting Methods”), but also in terms of attitude. The Old School attitude, which has been around forever, was I am the parent, I know what’s best, I make the rules. You are the child, you need to learn what’s right and wrong, and you must obey the rules. For some it even included children are to be seen and not heard.
Taken together, the Old School attitudes about parenting and the parenting methods constitute a physically-oriented, “beat them into submission” (either verbally or physically, or both) approach to parenting that consists of power and control tactics. As I said, these are not inherently wrong or bad, unless they are abusive (either physically or emotionally). They may work just fine in many, many families with compliant, submissive children. It’s with the strong-willed kids, the defiant and angry ones, the demanding, short-tempered hotheads, that the old methods fall short and cause big, big problems and power struggles.
Thomas Gordon, in Parent Effectiveness Training, says this about the typical power methods of influence used by parents:
“It is paradoxical but true that parents lose influence by using power and will have more influence on their children by giving up their power or refusing to use it. Parents obviously will have more influence on their children if their methods of influence do not produce rebellion or reactive behavior. Non-power methods of influence make it much more likely that children might seriously consider their parents’ ideas or their feelings and as a result modify their own behavior in the direction desired by the parent…I have come to the conclusion that parents over the years have continued to use power because they have had very little, if any, experience in their own lives with people who use non-power methods of influence. Most people, from childhood on, have been controlled by power exercised by parents, school teachers, school principals, coaches, Sunday school teachers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, Scout leaders, camp directors, military officers, and bosses. Parents therefore persist in using power out of a lack of knowledge and experience with any other method of resolving conflicts in human relations.”
So a serious problem for many parents lies in the fact that they simply have not been taught non-power methods of relating, such as my New School techniques.
3. Pride (Ego). Besides simply not knowing much about non-power methods of relating, though, most of us face another significant challenge as parents: our own ego–our pride, or our “little me” as Eckhart Tolle puts it. Virtually all parents want the very best for their children. Parents really do know what’s best for them. And still, children often respond with hostility, stubbornness, and even defiance to their parents’ guidance. Part of this is the children’s own determination to do what they want to do. Part of it, too, might be resentment at the mere idea of being “bossed around.” And when we get challenged, we often get hooked by our own pride–our own ego.
Our desire to have our kids behave well is often not just a matter of what’s best for the child. It is often rooted in our conviction that their behavior is a reflection on us as parents (especially when we’re in public). Then too, when those young ones resist or defy us, we can easily get caught up in defensiveness. After all, “I’m the parent, not you, and so I’m the boss.” If we are further challenged by uncertainty about how best to respond, our anxiety is made worse. This feeling stimulates us to try harder to exert our influence, and impose our will. It’s the perfect recipe for a power struggle. And power struggles can turn ugly, creating even bigger problems.
Our pride–ego, or “little me”–can also challenge us when we try to learn and practice new relationship skills that are not power-based. These methods of relating can feel like backing down or giving in. They are not. While they may, indeed, be a way of “backing off,” they are really not backing down. Listening is hard partly because it might (rightfully) feel like we are being attacked, or because it might (wrongly) feel like we’re agreeing with a child’s immature or self-centered ideas just by listening. Using requests instead of commands might feel like we are weak instead of strong. Besides, what if they say No to the request? Using I-messages instead of you-messages (“I would like you to do X” instead of “You must do X”) might also make us feel weak or ineffective. To invite the child’s ideas (“Well, what do you think should be done?”) might make us feel like we don’t know what should be done. That’s not the case. We might have a very good idea about what should be done, but we want to hear what the child’s ideas are about that before stating our own ideas.
Coping with exhaustion is not easy. I maintain that parents who learn to use non-power based techniques with their children will see the kids start cooperating more and resisting less, which will relieve a parent’s stress significantly. But this means letting go of some of what parents learned from their own parents how to parent children. It also means coming to grips with one’s ego and the natural tendency to always have the answers, always be right, be “in charge” if not “in control” of children’s behavior. The relationship skills I advocate represent a “softer” approach to parenting, and authoritarian “drill sargent” types are likely to feel uncomfortable at first by using them instead of power and control methods. The results will speak for themselves though, as parent-child harmony starts to replace conflict and stress.
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model. Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.