The Thankless Job of Parenting

Just because you do something nice for them…

As we wrap up the holiday season, our kids head back to school from the long vacation, and we have a new year in front of us, there’s no better time to reflect on the thankless job of parenting.

We’ve all spent lots of money on gifts, on trips away to places that our kids might enjoy, and on fun activities to fill the space left empty by the absence of school. Does all the fun stuff we do for them translate into appreciative, well-behaved children?

The other day I took my daughter to a bouncy play space and for ice cream afterwards. She had a great time. When we got home I told her that the next stop would be the tub and she screamed, “I hate you daddy! You’re the worst person in the world!”

My first thought was “WTF!” But what I said (a bit too loud) was, “How could you say that to me when I just took you out to a bouncy house and ice cream?” She said, “I don’t care, I hate you!” Things were going well.

This brings me to a truth of parenting that I myself am still having trouble accepting: Our kids are not going to behave themselves or change their bad behaviors simply because we do something nice for them.

Quid pro no!

Trouble often starts with a concession.  When I say concession I mean the times when we buy or do something for our kids because they’ve asked and asked, or just because it’s the holidays and there’s an expectation that we’ll indulge. In these cases, we tend to concede either because we want to make our child happy, because we’ve worked out a deal (“If I get you this then you…”), or just because we want them to shut up about it.

Even without “the deal” I feel that we often fall prey to thinking that there’s an unspoken implicit deal – an “I did this for you, and I know you’ll do for me, too.” This deal is the slippery slope that causes trouble in families.

The problem is, as with most things we do for others, we have at least a small vested interest in receiving something in return for our efforts. Even the most saintly of parents has the expectation that their child will thank them when it’s warranted. But while gratitude is an important value to impart, it’s also really important to limit our expectations about how our children should behave in return for the good deeds we do for them. Parents’ high expectations often leads to disappointment because most kids just don’t get it.

A loss is a loss

Of course I got mad when my daughter acted rude right after I indulged her for the whole day. I was simply asking her to do one thing in return. This “one thing” highlights my expectation of our deal (“I did this for you, and now you should do this one thing for me, too”). The implicit deal is the problem because I was set up to be let down.

Am I taking a soft stance here? Am I setting the bar low and, by doing so, I’m at risk of raising an ungrateful daughter? I say no.

In the context of a whole day of fun, my daughter’s angry reaction is her way of dealing with the loss of the moment. She isn’t comforted by recounting the day’s highlights and only wants to continue doing what she was doing before I brought up the tub. I think the tub also represents a clear end to her day of fun, and this only exacerbates her sense of loss. The loss she feels now is more powerful than memories of that “dumb bouncy house” from hours before.

My daughter can’t really see things from my perspective: the effort, time and money I put into taking her out and the effect that her mean words have on me. A child’s capacity for empathy – or putting yourself in another person’s shoes – doesn’t really begin to happen until age 7, and even then there is a huge learning curve.

If we’re really being honest about it, most of us didn’t truly understand what our parents did for us until we ourselves were parents.

Don’t take it personal

The less I make the battle of the tub about me and how my daughter has let me down, the better I will be able to handle dealing with the loss that she feels and is learning how to control. Kids are always learning how to control their emotions around loss. Even when they finally begin to get a handle on this during their tweens, hormones kick in during adolescence and the mood swings and tantrums are revisited with the added bonus that we can’t just pick them up and put them in their room.

Accept the loss when they can’t

While I’m by no means a professional when it comes to keeping myself calm when my daughter melts down after a day of indulgence, sometimes knowing that she’s actually suffering a real sense of loss is enough to keep me from really losing it myself (most times). As hard as it may be, validating her experience of loss in this moment (“You’re really upset about having to take a tub right now”; “You had such a great day today and taking a tub feels like the fun day is ending”) will help her identify the sense of loss inside.  Perhaps the next time she’ll be able to bear it, just as I’m bearing it this time.

Say it now so they can say it later

In addition to validating my daughter’s feelings and providing a calming voice to soothe her experience of loss, my words also help model a way for her to cope in the future. By using words to explain what’s going on inside her, my daughter will learn to gain control over these difficult feelings and also hopefully gain support from those with whom she shares her feelings.

Just because she does it at home…

Like many kids, my daughter is mostly a good citizen out in the world, even if she sometimes acts like an ill-mannered troll at home with my wife and me. Since I have proof that she’s learned her basic manners, I can put aside my concerns about her politeness and sense of gratitude so that I can address the more consequential issues around her learning to cope with loss. She knows how to act properly in most situations; she just lets out all her pent up feelings at home where she feels safe.

Repair the damage

There have been many times when my anger and frustration have caused me to say things that I regret. When this happens it’s important for me to always revisit the incident when my daughter and I are calm. These harsh words cause damage if left unchecked, and talking is like an emotional bandaid. Explaining that I was angry and why can make all the difference in whether my daughter continues to carry around those harsh words or lets them go.