Three Parenting Styles to Avoid

I was recently talking to someone about “modern parenting,” and they were telling me how the main problem with parenting nowadays is that it’s too lenient. Lenient in the sense that kids get away with too much, run wild, fail to stay off people’s lawn, that kind of thing.

I don’t agree. I mean, there are definitely parents who are too permissive (and I’ll bring them up in the post). But based on what I’ve observed over the years, permissiveness isn’t the sole problem, or even one of the most important problems. A lot of dysfunctional parenting involves parents controlling their kids in unhealthy ways or placing expectations on them that aren’t realistic (like, “You will never fail, you will always be happy, you will always be my friend, you will be the answer to all my problems” etc.).

The three dysfunctional parenting styles I’m bringing up in this post are:

The Helicopter Parent

Helicopter parents hover over their kid in a stifling, unrelenting sort of way that’s inappropriate for the kid’s age and abilities. They micromanage many or all aspects of their kid’s life and keep the kid from confronting reasonable challenges.

Helicopter parents create a situation where their kids can’t function independently. They then say, “Because my kids can’t do things on their own, I need to swoop in and save them.” They thwart independence and exacerbate dependence.

These kids have a difficult time learning how to do things on their own, deal with setbacks, and work out interpersonal problems. They’re more likely to feel helpless and think of themselves as ineffective across different situations. Problems like anxiety and depression can easily take root in them.

The Buddy Parent

There’s nothing wrong with parents and kids being friendly with each other or having fun together. But there are parents who act as if they’re friends with their kids the way a classmate or sibling would be.

They don’t tend to set rules, define boundaries, or act as a reasonable authority figure or guide. (Far from consistently, anyway.) They want to be liked at all times. Some of them talk to their kids as they would to an adult friend and share their personal problems inappropriately. (They might in some ways wish to be kids themselves.)

In reference to the issue mentioned at the start of the post, this kind of parent is generally too lenient. (However, wanting to be your kid’s best buddy isn’t the only reason parents become overly permissive. Sometimes, parents aren’t particularly interested in their kids, and their permissiveness comes from being detached or neglectful.)

The Sculptor Parent

To these parents, the kid isn’t a person but a project. The kid can be shaped into a trophy, something the parent will be proud to display in-person and on social media posts. The kid can be crammed into the mold of an athlete, straight-A student, artist, scientist, beauty pageant contestant, or whatever else the parent needs them to be.

Parents who get competitive with each other, who strongly need approval from other people, or who want to live out various dreams and hopes through their child are all susceptible to becoming sculptors. Another scenario is when parents can’t stand certain qualities in the child – usually qualities that the parents hate in themselves. They lack the self-awareness to deal with their emotions in a mature way, so instead they apply the chisel to the marble or squeeze and squeeze the clay, as if their kid can be made into anything.

This parenting style hampers the child’s ability to explore and develop their own personality and interests in healthy ways. It teaches kids that they aren’t loved for themselves but for how they perform to expectations. Kids raised like this can wind up suffering burnout, depression, and an intense fear of failure, a sense that if they aren’t successful or given approval, they won’t be worth anything.

What Does Dysfunctional Parenting Typically Boil Down To?

There are other dysfunctional (and abusive) patterns of behavior that I haven’t covered here. But a key characteristic of dysfunctional parenting, regardless of the form it takes, is the parent’s inability to genuinely see their own child and treat the child as a distinct individual.

Parents wind up using the child to serve some psychological need. They might need the child to be a scapegoat, a vessel for the parent’s dreams, the parent v2.0 with certain bugs fixed, a clingy dependent who’ll never walk away, a best friend who’ll always like them, an uncomplaining servant, or whatever else.

Parents will often be controlled by the psychological need. They won’t be aware of it, at least not fully, and they’ll resist thinking deeply about their own actions, because the need is painful, powerful, and rooted in them. Parents usually find ways of rationalizing their behavior (“I’m keeping them safe, I want them to succeed”). But these parenting styles aren’t about safety, success, or happiness. They serve the parent psychologically while undermining the kid.

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What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It’s Not Just Intelligence)

In day-to-day life, the quality of your thinking depends so much on character. The company you keep is also important.

It’s not that intelligence doesn’t play a role. It’s just insufficient by itself. People who are mentally quick don’t necessarily think with depth, either generally or in response to certain topics. There’s no guarantee they’ll ever investigate their own opinions or question their own assumptions with any seriousness.

They can use their mental agility to dodge or immediately deflect any ideas or substantive pieces of evidence that don’t fit with their view of “how things are.” (Sometimes, these kinds of deflections help people get through the day without getting bogged down; it’s impossible to spend every moment re-evaluating what you think. But there are situations where deflections and dodges are harmful, shutting down an important line of inquiry or preventing a discussion about a proposed law. The quality and timing of these deflections, and the reasons behind them, are affected by your character – what you value, for instance, and your integrity.)

They may be clever at crafting rationalizations or arguments that seem well-structured. They may feel no need to examine whether they’re behaving with integrity; it’s enough that other “right-minded” people are expressing the same thoughts. They may prioritize “owning” someone in an argument over learning anything. Or they use their intelligence mostly for snark and viciousness.

An intelligent mind can still be a lazy mind. It can still be a narrow mind or a mind given to exceptional dishonesty. (Context matters too. An individual can display in-depth thinking in one area of life while remaining superficial or dishonest in other areas – and either not recognizing the superficiality or not being troubled by it, because it doesn’t cost them social approval.)

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Rediscovering What I Value

While cleaning my desk, I found a notebook from a few years ago where I’d listed 10 qualities or human capabilities I admire.

They came from a site that displays dozens of these words and asks you to pick a smaller subset that represents what you value most. (Something like that – I don’t remember the site or the specific instructions.)

It’s interesting to consider what I chose as most reflective of my values.

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“You only know what you know ’til you know…”

YouTube recommendations sometimes are wonderful. I go on YouTube mostly for music, and this song by Mozella (an artist I was unfamiliar with), hit me with its lyrics, which have some good insights about change and development.

“You only know what you know ‘til you know.”

People, myself included, sometimes wish so badly that they could know everything they need to know at the outset of some great venture or new stage in life – to have the knowledge, complete and whole, at their command, to keep them from missteps, embarrassing mistakes, and painfully wrongheaded decisions.

But there’s no such complete knowledge. At any given point, you know what you know, that’s it. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a mentor or another trusted person to guide you, you still have to live out the process of learning for yourself, and one way or another, you won’t always get things right. The key is to keep learning, to grow in wisdom.

“So many things mattered to you that really meant nothing but you needed them to find the truth.”

Yes, some of the things that once interested you may seem unimportant now, but they’re still a part of you. They helped you become who you are now. You’ve still learned something from them.

“You can’t sleep it off or drink it away, trick it with frivolities, fortune, or fame.”

There’s a temptation to ignore pain, which is a symptom of an underlying difficulty, something in you that needs to be addressed. The strategies for avoidance and denial are varied and often involve an addiction or compulsion of some kind; maybe you drink frequently or spend hours on mindless Internet browsing. But the problems don’t go away. The call for change and growth persists, even when it goes unanswered. How long can you avoid change or pretend that everything can stay the way it is?

James Hollis on Lethargy and Fear

In Living an Examined Life, James Hollis writes the following:

“Life’s two biggest threats we carry within: fear and lethargy… Those perverse twins munch on our souls every day. No matter what we do today, they will turn up again tomorrow. Over time, they usurp more days of our lives than those to which we may lay fair claim.”

Those words (from Chapter 2: It’s Time to Grow Up) struck me forcefully. I recognize this struggle in myself, and it’s also in the forefront of my mind now because I recently observed Yom Kippur – a day of fasting and atonement, and also reflection on my actions and what I’d like to change (and how I’d like to make those changes).

The effects of fear and lethargy often emerge in different kinds of avoidance. Avoiding specific efforts, backing down in various ways, complying without true conviction, disengaging from meaningful activities and turning to repetitive, numbing behaviors, or seeking what Hollis describes as “fundamentalist forms of thinking that finesse subtlety, fuzz opposites, seek simplistic solutions to complex issues, and still our spirit’s distress with the palliative balm of certainty.”

I also think lethargy can be born of fear. What looks superficially like laziness (like the choice to watch hours of TV) is sometimes a way of procrastinating because you’re afraid of what will happen if you act. It’s a way of hiding, remaining unnoticeable and as such more impervious to attack and less likely to suffer the disappointment of failure. (Though you may later suffer the regret that you didn’t act.)

Obviously some fears are warranted and need to be managed reasonably. And it’s ok to relax too. If you’ve worked hard, made various efforts during the day, you can take a break. The danger is when fear and lethargy begin to dominate you. I need to watch out for this myself – to pay attention to behaviors that are mere distractions from what’s important or avoidance techniques in response to things I need to face.

Healthy Anger as Part of Healing from Emotional Abuse

A while ago I wrote a post called “If you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship…” It describes many aspects of emotional abuse and what victims typically experience.

Reading it again, I realize that I wrapped up the post in a somewhat tentative way. I wrote how one of the first steps towards healing is to understand the abuse and its dynamics – to maintain distance and recognize what’s going on. And that’s true. You need to do that to experience some healing. But of course it isn’t enough.

What else can you do? What’s a key part of the process of finding yourself again, waking up, and gaining strength?

Healthy Anger

Anger is a natural reaction to abuse. However, when you’re living in the midst of abuse, your anger may have no healthy outlet.

For example, a child in a dysfunctional home often gets punished for showing normal emotions, including anger. What happens then? The anger turns inward. It rips into the psyche and digs into the body. It helps create depression and self-loathing, and possibly gastrointestinal complaints and other health problems.

The anger may leap outwards at various targets. The victim may also take up addictive behaviors, like drinking or eating too much, to help cope with these overpowering but buried feelings.

Often, victims of abuse aren’t aware of just how angry they are. They don’t always connect their ravaged psyche or destructive behaviors with their suppressed emotions.

That’s why expressing anger is such a critical part of healing. When you’re healing from abuse, you need to let out the anger and understand it.

Letting out anger doesn’t mean destroying other people or harming yourself. The anger may come out in sessions with a therapist, hopefully a space that’s safe for you. It may involve screaming in a room. While remaining in the present, you might confront the past, naming the abuse out loud and explicitly placing the responsibility for it on the perpetrator. It can mean just letting yourself feel the anger – knowing what it is and where it comes from and riding it out as it pours out of you. Maybe you can find additional outlets for it in vigorous exercise or artistic expression.

I don’t think our culture deals with anger in a healthy way (where I live, in the U.S.). More often, what I see is a pressure on abuse victims to quickly forgive. In the name of being virtuous, in the name of “moving on,” victims are urged to resolve everything with speed and minimal fuss and then act as if it never happened. But that isn’t how people heal. You can’t force people to forgive their abusers. If forgiveness comes, it must be natural. (I also don’t think forgiveness will look the same for different situations and offenses.)

People are afraid even of healthy anger, because it isn’t tidy and neat. It doesn’t lead to simple resolutions and to problems getting swept away and blissfully ignored. Even as it heals you, it’s harrowing. It’s painful and potentially overwhelming. It doesn’t come out all at once. Maybe it never fully leaves you. But it can be put to good use. It can motivate you, remind you of your mental, spiritual, and emotional needs, and help you assert your boundaries and defend your dignity.

As a victim of emotional abuse, you may never have learned to understand, feel, or express anger in a healthy way. In recognizing it and finding a way to express it that doesn’t destroy yourself or others, you may find yourself experiencing other effects: less guilt and self-loathing, a more vivid inner life, a painful but necessary awakening, a need to change the way you live. It can generate an urge to locate yourself when you think the abuse has weakened or demolished you. You’re finding yourself in the rubble and pushing your way out.

RIP Marion Woodman

I first learned about her through this interview, where her thoughts on addiction and perfectionism struck me:

“They are never where they are; they are always running, or dreaming about the wonderful past, or the wonderful future. So they are never in the body. The body lives in the present. The body exists right now. But an addict is not in the body, so the body suffers. Uninhabited. And there’s where that terrible sense of starvation comes from.”

Recently I started reading one of her books, The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation, and it’s a summons to fight stagnation:

“People splayed in a perpetual chrysalis… are in trouble. Stuck in a state of stasis, they clutch their childhood toys, divorce themselves from the reality of their present circumstances, and sit hoping for some magic that will release them from their pain into a world that is ‘just and good,’ a make-believe world of childhood innocence. Fearful of getting out of relationships that are stultifying their growth, fearful of confronting parents, partners or children who are maintaining infantile attitudes, they sink into chronic illness and/or psychic death. Life becomes a network of illusions and lies. Rather than take responsibility for what is happening, rather than accept the challenge of growth, they cling to the rigid framework that they have constructed or that has been assigned to them from birth. They attempt to stay ‘fixed.’ Such an attitude is against life, for change is a law of life.”

I wanted to share this passage in part because that last line is a necessary reminder to not resist the inevitable changes and to not avoid the changes that could help me grow.