Renowned family researcher and marriage and family therapist, Bill Doherty, describes parents today as “the most child-sensitive generation of parents the world has ever known — and the most confused and insecure.” In a culture with “a dizzying array of contradictory advice on just about everything,” and an equally dizzying “expansion of opportunities, choices, entertainments, and immediately available gratifications,” no decision about parenting seems clear or easy. As blogger Jennifer Fulwiler’s noted, “As a modern mother, I am required to obsess over every. single. aspect. of my children’s lives. …”
Anxious to make sure we don’t handicap our children emotionally in a world where anxiety and depression seem to be their destiny, we work at being their “emotion coaches.” Anxious to make sure they will be able to “make it” in the modern world, we’re on constant lookout for opportunities that will “set them apart.” Anxious that we are responsible to fill their lives with happiness and meaning, we continually seek out “rich experiences,” that we must either provide or broker for them.
And we find ourselves evaluating whether or not we have been successful as parents by continually monitoring our children’s responses towards us: “Are they respectful or rebellious? Are they affectionate or indifferent? Do they enter our presence eager to engage and communicate? Are they responsive or dismissive?” When things go wrong, we are to blame. The result, as Doherty notes, is that “(children) know their parents love them and want to communicate sensitively with them, but they also know that parents are unsure about what to require of them and how to say ‘no’ to them.”
Some of these modern parental norms are good. They underscore the truth that strong relationships are a child’s most important source of strength and happiness. But there is a focus conspicuously absent in modern parenting — one that earlier generations took for granted as the essence of parenting: teaching children to deny themselves and to govern their desires and passions.
Author Louisa May Alcott captures this focus in a poetic description of her lifelong efforts toward self-mastery: “A little kingdom I possess where thoughts and feelings dwell, and very hard I find the task of governing it well. … How can I learn to rule myself, to be the child I should, Honest and brave, nor ever tire of trying to be good? ... I do not seek to conquer any world, Except the one within.” Her journal entries are replete with evidence of small efforts to govern her passions, and her parents’ belief that their great work was to demonstrate self-mastery, and guide her in her efforts to do the same.
But self-denial and self-control are hard words to say, let alone help children develop today. Most of us rarely spend five minutes feeling uncomfortably cold, hot or hungry. We are almost totally unfamiliar with the feelings of discomfort known to previous generations that might strengthen our capacity to deny ourselves immediate gratification. But more than that, many cultural messages suggest it is wrong to deny ourselves what we want. If desires, passions, feelings and emotions are what define a person, being “true to one’s self” demands doing whatever they tell you to do. Anything that might tell you otherwise — whether that be religious teachings, traditional values or moral norms — are suspect, because they might keep you from being your “authentic self.”
The truth is children depend on us to offer them the possibility, the hope, the expectation of developing self-mastery. They need to hear and experience over and over again the truths, habits, and traits of character that will enable them to become masters of themselves, rather than slaves to their desires. They need to know that our cultural slogan, “if it feels good, do it,” only leads to enslavement, denying us the possibility of becoming all we could be, and keeping us from developing the character that is essential to nourishing the relationships we yearn for. They need to know that they are responsible for, and have the capacity to develop the self-discipline they need.
A return to this focus does not mean a return to dictatorial and insensitive authoritarian parenting. It means, as my great-grandmother frequently told my mother, “we must be firm, and we must be kind.” In the face of a dizzying array of contradictory advice and choices, we can turn to truth gained over millennia of experience: children need the freedom to practice virtue, the freedom for true excellence, the freedom that only comes when they learn to govern themselves.