Sometimes the best general measures of infantilizing are, as previously described, things like your children still living at home at age twenty-six, four-year-olds who can't delay gratification, or twenty-year-olds who prefer to share everything with you rather than taking the risk needed to make intimate friends outside of the home. Children are supposed to achieve certain developmental milestones, and there are plenty of good books and theories out there that explore this idea. We like Erik Erikson's theory because it provides a pretty clear "general map." Generally speaking, a five-year-old should be able to tie his shoes, pick up her toys at the end of the day, and wait a few minutes for something he wants rather than going berserk unless immediate gratification occurs. A twenty-one-year-old should be able to reconcile a checkbook, pay bills without bouncing checks, have a friendship network that replaces a good deal of the functions of his family of origin, and be able to hold down a job.
The more we do these things for our children at these various ages, the more we infantilize them. And certainly, the more confused and helpless we feel when contemplating our children's lives, the more likely we are to have problems in this area.
Letting Kids Run the Show
This overlaps somewhat with infantilizing. How do we know when our kids are running the show? We know they are when it feels like the adults aren't in charge. When there are constant, miserable power struggles between parents and children, and between parent and parent. When children "divide and conquer" as in, "Mom said we can't go out until we've finished our math homework. But can we go out now and do it later?" When kids have become consummate negotiators, when parents have become consummate nags, and when the tension in the house is so thick that everyone feels stressed. We know our kids are running the show when deep in our hearts we are beginning to resent our children. That's how we know.
Specifically, our kids are running the show when they have five different toothbrushes from which to choose because you thought it would end the power struggle over brushing teeth, and it hasn't. He is running the show when you ask him to take out the garbage six times and then finally do it yourself, week after week, rather than finding a way to consistently enforce his doing this simple chore. Your daughter says she hates you after you tell her you can't afford to buy her a car. Because you can't tolerate her anger towards you, you cave into this transparent manipulation and buy her a car and pay the insurance on it in full, going further into debt, which creates ever more sleepless nights for you.
Do your children have horrendously foul mouths despite your repeated requests for them not to say the "f-word," the "s-word," and every other obscenity you've heard, and then some? When you ask them not to swear, do they just snicker and call you a name? Does it make your heart sink and your gut fill with rage at the same time when this happens? Or do your kids fight like barbarians all the time, shattering what little fragments of peace remain in your household, causing your blood pressure to remain elevated despite the new medication your doctor put you on? If these things are part of life in your household, then you have a problem.
Fix the Problem
Many of you already know how to fix the problem. In some families, the trouble isn't knowing how to fix these problems. It's recognizing that not fixing these problems will result in far more pain and suffering in the long run. There is no time like the present to begin helping kids grow up. Again, remember that one change instituted consistently can turn a whole system around. And don't try to change everything at once.
Below you will find a list of suggestions. Remember, life is not a test, it's an experiment, so being imperfect will not result in penalties in the game of life. So take a risk and try these suggestions. You will probably be pleasantly surprised by your results.
1. Let 'em tie their own shoes! Teach your five-year-old to tie her own shoes. Intentionally put an extra five or even ten minutes into your morning routine so that she will have time to tie her shoes herself. The first few times she gets it even approximately correct, notice and affirm her accomplishment. The incredible personal joy of accomplishing this task will sustain the behavior once it's learned.
2. They won't break if they have to wait a few minutes. When your eighteen-month-old awakens from his nap right when you're in the middle of turning those steaks or removing that souffle from the oven, yell in a cheery voice that you'll be in to get him in just a minute. If he starts fussing, even if it's a really big fuss, continue doing what you're doing (unless it's going to take more than five or ten minutes). Then when you're done, walk confidently and cheerily into his room, thank him for waiting, and tend to his needs. Don't make a big deal about it. Be as matter-of-fact as you can be. Exposing your children to very small doses of frustration like this will help them learn that waiting isn't the end of the world, and that they are separate from you. If you feel too guilty, know that it is a loving thing to help your child learn life's lessons.
3. Let her tears do the healing. When your fourteen-year-old daughter comes home from school in tears because her first boyfriend has apparently broken up with her (an event, by the way, that could be reversed tomorrow and then repeated the next day, given their ages), just listen. Be a good listener. Say things like, "It sounds like this is really painful for you. I'm sorry you hurt so much right now." Avoid giving her advice. Just listen, listen and listen some more. Sadness helps us heal. Tears come with sadness. Simply being with her sends a very powerful unconscious message that you believe she can handle life's pain. And of course, listening and validating are all that's needed to let her know that you care deeply for her.
4. Don't bail him out! Your twenty-one-year-old son, a senior in college, walks into the house after working at his fairly lucrative summer job and announces that he has somehow amassed a credit-card debt of $750 which he is unable to pay. Say, "Gee, that's a lot of money." Say this neutrally and with reverence. Do not smirk, do not look horrified, do not wring your hands, do not go into fix-it mode immediately. Wait a few moments. The pregnant pause will be uncomfortable for both of you, but when he realizes you aren't going to bail him out, his mind will start to think about what has to be done. If he asks for you to pay it, very calmly say that you'd like to, but are much more afraid of what will happen if you do pay it off than if you don't. Then immediately ask, "Would you like some help figuring out how to juggle your finances and how to set up a budget and payment plan so you can get this paid off in a couple of summers?"
All parents would like to completely smooth the way for their children. It's only natural. Competent parents resist those urges because they know that over time, smoothing out all of life's rough edges will cripple their children and keep them from ever growing up. That's essentially the choice.
Tags: Parenting and Families