“I’ve always been a good parent and supported my children at every step,” a somewhat distressed parent said to me a few weeks back, “and yet, they don’t really respect me. They are struggling in their lives and tell me that I’ve been a terrible father. I don’t get it, I always loved them, allowed them to do whatever they wanted. They got the best clothes, gadgets and so on. I don’t think I cheated anyone, I’ve been god-fearing. I never thought my kids would end up like this. Where did I go wrong?”
I’ve been asked similar questions many a time. What’s truly remarkable is that most kids and parents actually only mean well. They try too hard. Kids want their parents to be proud of them and vice-versa. So where is the mismatch? I hear it all the time that such-and-such person is a bad father or mother, they are irreligious, immoral etc. and yet their families are flourishing and their kids are doing great. Where’s the justice in that?
It’s the wrong way to look at life, in my view. Admittedly, I’m no authority when it comes to parenting. (I’m a monk, remember). Having personally met a few thousand parents and children in the last few years, however, I’m happy to share some thoughts based on my observations and diagnosis of life. Let me begin with a story from Stephen Hodge’s Zen Master Class.
Several of the monks at Dogen’s monastery had noticed a deer grazing nearby. They began to feed it scraps of food. After a while the deer became trusting and would eat out of their hands. Having taken to heart Dogen’s teachings about compassion and all, the monks were pleased with themselves. However, Dogen was less happy when he heard about the deer. When a suitable opportunity arose, he threw sticks and stones at the deer, which ran away frightened.
The monks were scandalized by Dogen’s actions and confronted him demanding an explanation. “We were kindly feeding the deer, but you have cruelly thrown stones at it so it no longer visits.”
“So you think you were being compassionate, do you?” Dogen replied. “It is dangerous for a deer to become accustomed to people.”
The monks protested, “We would never do anything to hurt it. We were just feeding it.”
“No, you didn’t intend to hurt the deer, but what if the next person your tame deer met was a hunter?”
The same goes for a parent-child bond as well. “Giving them whatever they want” does not necessarily make one a good parent. Kids want a lot of things. Everyone does. But that doesn’t mean that everything they desire is right for them. I’m not suggesting, even for a moment, that you become a harsh parent. It is, however, important to know where to be firm. If you keep children in touch with reality, it’ll be much easier for them to adjust in the real world when they step out.
Being god-fearing, moral, genuine etc. means you are a good person. If you are successful at work, that means you are a competent worker. If you love and care for your partner it shows you are a good husband or wife. Your competency in any area will bring you corresponding rewards. None of this implies that you are a good parent though. No doubt these factors contribute to the well-being of a family. When it comes to sound parenting, however, there’s certainly more to it than providing your children with whatever they want.
As in the anecdote above, a good parent must know when and where to be firm. To love is not to do whatever they want you to do. That has never made anyone happy in the longer term anyway. Instead, to love is to stand your ground where needed for the betterment of your children. They will express their displeasure and it requires a stone heart to see a sad child, but they’ll thank you later. Once again, I say, you don’t have to be harsh. There’s no need to shout, argue violently, or be mad at them. You can be gentle and still be firm.
Be compassionate, be firm, but do so mindfully. Just remember that no one wants to fail, no one wants to be angry or sad, or a loser. Kids have just as much pressure and stress in their lives as their parents. So go a little easy, but do so mindfully. While growing up, I don’t have even one recollection of my mother ever shouting or getting angry, and yet there were many instances when she was firm. One rule was that our report cards that required a parent’s signature would be signed by our father, for example. At times, like when score in maths or physics was the same as my dog’s age, we whined and complained but mother wouldn’t relent. It was non-negotiable. Father would sign. Eventually, we understood and aligned ourselves to score better.
“I got my report card, Dad,” 14-year-old Johnny said.
He had scored rather poorly and feared a severe reprimand. His father grabbed his specs to read the report card.
“And look what else I found, Dad!” Johnny handed him a soiled paper. “In the attic, I also chanced upon your report card when you were fourteen. We have scored at par!”
“Hmmm…” the father said comparing his own report card with his son’s. “You are absolutely right, Johnny. They almost look identical.”
Johnny beamed triumphantly.
“Therefore, son,” his father said reaching out to his slipper, “it’s only reasonable that I give you what my father gave me.”
No, Johnny didn’t get a candy or an Xbox. And no, this is not an example of parental compassion. Humor aside, the truth is, an unexpected punishment damages the relationship because the quantum of such penalty is always debatable. The terms of non-performance must be negotiated beforehand so both kids and parents know exactly what is expected from each other. It sounds obvious but you’ll be surprised to see how many parents rather than simply and gently stating their expectations start lecturing instead. I call it OLD – Obsessive Lecture Disorder. It has never helped anyone. Generally, more old a parent, more serious the OLD. A while back I wrote, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional. In the same vein: old is inevitable but OLD is optional. Be gentle.
If you tackle OLD with mindfulness, understanding and practicing parental compassion, the quality of your relationship will improve immensely. They will grow up to be more fulfilled adults, more together, making our world a better place. Mindful compassion or soft discipline is not enough on its own though. (No one said it was easy.) There are four other elements of good parenting. For next week.