Our culture is more devoted to children's happiness and emotional development than any other in history.
BING-BING-BING! Ever feel like you ricochet violently like a pinball -- being your child's friend AND boss? We love our kids. Thoroughly saturated in their busy lives, sometimes we hover. We fret. We juggle it all with the best intentions for their happiness.
Our culture is more devoted to children's happiness and emotional development than any other in history. We're invested in their hopes and dreams-and deeply involved.
But how much involvement is healthy?
When it's mom and dad with separation anxiety
Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd argues that despite good intentions, parents may unwittingly set the stage for children to develop into self-involved adults who lack moral character.
In his new book, The Parents We Mean to Be (How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development, 2009), he explains why parents struggle.
Weissbourd reminds us that for kids to separate, parents must separate first. Such separation is tricky if parents idealize their kids. Parenting can be narcissistic and self-centered. What constitutes helpful and harmful closeness to kids is often unclear.
The author explains, "While we need to continue to assert high moral expectations, we also need to recede to the edge of our children's consciousness -- even to endure temporarily feeling like nobody, being "invisible" to our child -- while we enable a child's peers and other adults to influence our children's self-definitions and to become the focus of their lives."
But receding to the edge of their lives is easier said than done! Ask anyone with an adolescent under the roof. It hurts. It can be ego-crushing. It can feel downright unnatural. Yet Weissbourd argues it is critical to cultivate emotional and moral maturity in those we love.
How close is too close?
Weissbourd believes for healthy moral development to occur, children must idealize their parents. That means seeing them as authority figures with wisdom and experience they have not yet achieved. There are several ways parents unknowingly hinder moral development.
Friend wannabes. Getting caught up in the idea of being a child's "friend" mixes up the idealization process. Fun and relaxation is fine, but kids need their parents to be different. When children view parents as equals with the same arsenal of emotional coping skills as themselves, the world may seem too frightening a place. Viewing you as separate, capable, and strong imparts confidence they will one day possess to tackle the world.
Too fragile. Parents may also unintentionally mess up the idealization process by displaying too much vulnerability or failure to cope. When kids feel they need to take care of us instead of the other way around, maturation may not occur. Setting emotional boundaries is not withdrawing love or concealing truth; rather it protects their developing sense of morality.
Hovering helicopters. We are a generation who understand this pitfall well. If we are constantly micromanaging kids, they cannot feel we trust them, that we have confidence in them. Children cannot respect parents who are consistently serving and catering to them.
Becoming better nurturers
How do we parent more intentionally so children progress in emotionally healthy ways and grow stronger in moral character?
Recognize moral development continues through adulthood. Frequently parents view themselves as unchanging role models rather than flawed humans who are transforming through a dynamic relationship with their children. "Appreciating and being generous with others, acting with fairness and integrity, and formulating mature and resilient ideals are a life's work."
Connect with other parents. Parents in touch with other parents can monitor and guide one another's children. Parenting is insanely tough enough without having to go it alone!
Prioritize moral development. When we become too invested in the happiness of our children -- their achievements, their self-esteem, their comfort -- we may unknowingly underestimate the value of their moral lives. What makes a person morally virtuous anyway? Weissbourd paints a portrait of someone who is moved by kindness, generosity, and integrity. They know and value others and are capable of loving on a deep level.
In his book, The Parents We Mean to Be, the author maintains we are entirely capable of raising children who "search for and follow their higher natures, and engage in vibrant, caring relationships with family and friends who grow to be alert to signs of distress in other people, who feel responsibility for those from other classes or races or backgrounds, who feel propelled to give to the world in some way."
As parents, following our higher nature involves letting them go. When we do it correctly, when we achieve closeness in helpful not harmful ways with our children, there is bound to be heartache. But character building yields immeasurably rich rewards.
Michele Ranard is a professional counselor/tutor/freelancer with a passion for enriching the parenting journey.
Weissbourd, Richard. The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development. Houghton Mifflin. 2009