I love tools. I love all tools. But mostly I love woodworking hand tools. The feel of a well- balanced, properly honed chisel or jackplane in my hand as it carries out my intent, my will, communicated through nothing more than slight deviations in pressure from various muscles. No words. No confusion. Instantaneous feedback. The characteristics of the wood are known by the plane as it completes a pass through or over it are offered to me through subtle variations of resistance. It says "ease up, bear down here, move around this…." It's a dance….. Well, not really a dance. There is no partner. I cut, smooth, split, shape, even bend the wood, but there is really no partner. For it to be a dance, there would need to be another being. A person. A person with agency (will, power, essential cause).
Many craftsmen would accurately argue that certain pieces of wood indeed have their own intent and will. When the wood presents a turn in the grain, a knot or twist, it forces you to adjust your plan, your intent, and proceed differently. But at least you can stop, put down the wood, and decide where next to act, how next to act. In a dance, one has to keep moving, the twist presented by the partner may change from one second to the next. The original intent to be imposed on the subject has to be abandoned. Even the idea that will is imposed loses momentum when the medium on which one is acting becomes a being.
So it is with our children. Our intent invariably involves a change we wish to engender in them. If you look up the word engender you see two possible types of intended action: to produce or to provoke. Here I mean provoke. We wish for a change in them. We wish for perhaps a change in their effort, their follow-through, their awareness, their self-regulation, their attention to detail, their sense of ownership and responsibility, something. But it is not a change that we can produce; it's only one we hope to provoke. Even though we are the parent with their best interest in mind (this is not something we are doing for our own advancement or amusement), it is up to them to be the producer of the change. We don't act on them; we remove the barriers to their successful development. We remove the barriers to their successful acting on the world. But we don't get to stop and put it down; we have to keep the dance going.
Why is this so hard? Why are we so frustrated and often feeling powerless? Perhaps we are frustrated because we are trying to do too much. Our children often fail to do the right thing at the right time, in the right amounts, for the right reasons. They don't hold the tasks of success in mind. It's up to us to see that things are done and done properly, but it is up to them to do these things. There is much to be said about the mechanisms involved in teaching, encouraging, motivating and coaching our children so that they will do their part. But what I want to concentrate on here are the feelings involved when parents have to do this dance where our children ultimately determine its success or failure.
Unlike when working with pieces of wood, we can't impose our intent because the medium on which we are acting is another being. Besides the ethics of free choice and self-determination, it really is finally in the hands of our children whether they will or will not carry out the successful acts that are needed. We are just not really in control. The frustration of generations of parent can be heard in the phrases "Because I'm your parent! - Because I said so! - and "Who do you think is in charge here?" Typically our words are uttered at a volume upwards of 100 decibels and with either a tyrannical roar or a high pitched plea, both of which reveal our growing understanding of our impotence. Even if we escape the trap of believing that our child is willfully thwarting us, embarrassing us and exerting power over us, we are left with the sad and helpless awareness that he is incapable at this point of producing successes that we believe children his age should be able to execute.
So what can we do about these ongoing feelings of helplessness, inadequacy and lack of control? During our end-of-the-year workshop, we reviewed some of the elements of relationship and attachment theory that speak to the nature of the relationship between parents and children. One of the key notions was that the relationship is not about control and that one must constantly remain focused on the child and your goals for him, rather than one's daily agenda. While I continue to believe that such an approach is essential, I want to add a countermeasure. Since we don't have as parents the luxury of making our child and our goals for him our only agenda, how about we alternate between that and the thousands of other agendas.
Again, there are many elements involved in promoting the goals we have for our children that we can get into elsewhere. I just want to suggest that we can gain a strong measure of emotional relief by pragmatically allowing ourselves to set the bar at what is humanly possible for parents at home. Such an approach would leave us sometimes focusing on our child's needs and our goals for him, sometimes arranging for others to meet those needs, sometimes requiring our sons to manage on their own, and at times trusting that they are resilient enough to bounce back from temporarily unmet needs and un-promoted objectives. This should ultimately result in greater acceptance of the axiom that the relationship is not about control.
Finally, I want to offer a notion that further allows us to adequately regulate our own emotional content while working so hard for the ultimate wellbeing of our child. I often learn wonderful things from the parents of our students, and this week I learned a new phrase from one mother that really captures the essence here. She was reflecting on our practice of having our boys process significant difficulties that have resulted in elevated emotions with a third party. Her elucidation of the probable reason the practice is effective was "That makes sense; he (the third party) doesn't have a dog in that fight." And she's right, if you don't have a dog in that fight - an emotional investment in being right, having been disrespected, having just repeated a request forty-eight times or having put your needs aside for your child for the ten-millionth time, even in avoiding having junior turn out like his villainous relative, it's easier to make decisions, engineer teaching consequences and take actions that promote the growth of your child.
Unfortunately, you don't have a scheduled supply of third parties that don't have a dog in the fight to buffer your emotions at home. Therefore you have to work on a mind set that allows you to serve that role, while also engaging in the ongoing struggles on the front line. That mind set is that you are a separate person. You have significant accomplishments in your life and you are as valuable as your son. You deserve respect. You deserve to have your own needs met and to have your own life. And no matter what challenges have been assigned to your child and your family, no matter whether any of these truths are acknowledges by your son, other family members, the community, circumstances or your own beat down self, no one can change these facts. So why do you act like these truths can be taken away? You are the parent. You don't need the acknowledgement of your child to make these things true. The more you demand acknowledgment of these truths from others, the more you reveal your own doubt that you own the role of parent. That social convention of reciprocity, the implementation of the golden rule, does not have to occur for parents. In fact, it doesn't really happen very often while our children are still children.
What I am saying is to believe in yourself, and to refuse to relinquish your parental role as a means to inoculate yourself from the emotional insults of parenting. Remember those tools I love so much? I liked the well balanced and well honed ones. Your tool is yourself. You have to stay well balanced and well honed to stay in your role and handle the emotions of parenting. You have to remain aware of your son and your goals for him and act to further these goals, while balancing all of the other agendas for which you are responsible. You won't receive reciprocity as a parent, but you can use all of your other resources to stay balanced and sharp. You can't afford to have a dog in the fight while you are being a parent. If you do, go feed the dog and replenish its strength so that it can sit this fight out.
About the author: Dr. Marty Thomson is Director of Psychological Services at Little Keswick School, Keswick, VA. www.littlekeswickschool.net Phone: 434-295-0457.