It’s painful to be a good parent

Helping families to solve their problems sometimes involves doing detective work. How did the problem arise? Why this problem? Why are they handling it the way they are?

One way of answering some of these questions is by taking a complete family history. One aspect of that history involves becoming acquainted, through my clients’ memories and stories, with the people in their families. This helps me to see patterns of behavior that tend to recur from generation to generation. It helps me to understand what my clients consider normal and functional behavior and what they see as problematic.

Once, a very long time ago in a place very far from here I had a family come to me with a problem. As they began to tell me about the people in their family, each description was the same: “s/he’s a wonderful person; s/he’ll do anything for you.” I began to wonder about their grasp on reality, but that’s a story for another time…

What did strike me was that they equated “wonderful person” with “will do anything for you.” Indeed, when we have friends, we know that we can count on them to help us out if we are in trouble. But is that true of a wonderful parent?

Well, many people will tell you that it is true also of a wonderful parent. This is the parents who meets all of the child’s needs, cleans the child’s messy room, brushes the child’s hair, helps the child with homework, picks up the child from school if it is raining, and puts the child’s needs before his/her needs.

Hmmm… I’m not so sure. What happens when the child is building with blocks and the tower gets wobbly? If mom or dad intervene, does the child ever figure out how to balance things better? Oh, the mother and father can teach him, but is that the same as his learning it by trial and error and strengthening his neural pathways and achieving a feeling of mastery? OK, I have clearly loaded the answer, because to me, a mother or father who does everything for their child is a mother or father who allows the child to miss the thrill of discovery and the sense of accomplishment that solving a problem can bring.

It is hard to see one’s child struggle with a problem. It is so much easier to go and solve it for him or help him to solve it, but the mother and father are not always going to be present. The child needs to have the confidence and the experience to solve problems in his life. He cannot carry mom and dad with him, but he can carry his ingenuity and creativity wherever he goes.

This is not to say that parents shouldn’t teach their child. Of course they should. They can teach problem solving by talking through how they themselves solve problems and to give the child examples of situations and help the child generate ideas about what could be done. However when a child is confronted with a challenge , often the best thing to do is to encourage him or her to think of solutions, to talk them out, perhaps to try them out. Trial and error at young ages are so much less painful and embarrassing than later in life when the child becomes aware of peers. Sending a child into the world with the ability to solve his/her problems and to think for him/herself is a gift that only a parent who learns to sit by and do nothing can give.

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