By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Please bear in mind that the following represents a parenting ideal. One should not expect to fulfill it perfectly. Therefore have patience in trying to implement these principles gradually.
A very important parenting principle to remember is that it is the parents’ job to fulfill the child's physical, emotional and intellectual needs, but it is not the job of the child to fulfill the needs of his parents.
In this sense the parent child relationship is truly unidirectional. It is the parents’ job to give to the child as selflessly as possible, and the child is not expected to give back until he's relatively mature. In the meantime you can ask the child to give to others and you can encourage him, but it should be done only for his own benefit so he will be trained to be a giver when he gets to adulthood. In other words, the purpose of asking a child to give should never be solely for the actual benefit of the receiver. Therefore we can gently ask a child to give, but never force him or expect it from him. Please keep in mind that giving endlessly to a child when he is young is precisely what fills him up and turns him, in turn, into a real giver as an adult.
It is fine however, to have the parents’ needs incidentally fulfilled by the child. For example, if the child decides to say “I love you,” and that fulfills the parents’ need for love, that is fine because the child is doing it out of his own need. If the child wants to hug and kiss the parent and the parent enjoys this it is fine, and it is one of the joys of being a parent. We need to remember that this enjoyment has the effect of encouraging us and giving us the strength and will to be better parents and to continue giving to our children. However forcing the child to hug and kiss when he doesn't want to, only because the parent wants it, is emotionally unhealthy for the child. Likewise asking a child “Do you love me,” for the purpose of fulfilling the adults’ emotional needs is inappropriate.
A Parenting Principle: Helping the Child Learn Self-respect
Using a child to fill the adult’s needs is harmful to the child. Childhood is precisely the time when a child needs to learn the priceless skill of acknowledging and respecting her own needs, wants and desires. A child is in the process of creating her very self, and therefore needs to know that “My needs are important.” This is the foundation of self-respect. But using a child to fulfill an adult’s needs damages the child’s self-esteem, as she thus thinks, “What I want and need is not important, I am not worthwhile. Only what others want is important.” Indeed, using a child to fulfill another's needs can be a kind of abuse. Children are very fragile and sensitive and need to be treated with the utmost respect and care for their fledgling sense of self.
A parent should not use a child as his confidant, his ‘little friend’ or his amateur therapist. This puts pressure on the child to take responsibility for his parents’ problems, which is something he's not able to do as it overwhelms him emotionally. Again, it makes the child feel the parents’ needs are what count when it should be the child's needs that are paramount in any dimension of the parent-child relationship. If a parent does have needs they should be fulfilled through her spouse, partner, therapist, family or friends. We need to take care of ourselves so we can be there for our children.
Indeed, we as parents should learn to appreciate the exquisite pleasure of giving to our children. We invest tremendous energy in them and we need to take pride and satisfaction in the creation of an emotionally healthy and well-adjusted child.
One important way of giving to them is the act of tolerating their mischief with love. Minor misbehavior is normal and healthy for children and it is a great kindness to them when we accept it in stride, with patience and a smile. To find out about how increased happiness is the cure for misbehavior, click here.
If you’d like to learn more great parenting principles, feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialty pages on this website, or download one of my informative free reports.
If you are facing challenges raising your child and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!