What Are Children's Deeper Expectations of Parents?

Given my 65 years of teaching, which have been highlighted by in-depth work with parents, I am particularly struck by how today's parents seem to want a close relationship with their children more than they want to prepare them for life.

Certainly today's technology has made the parent-child relationship difficult. But I believe the deeper problem is parenting itself, which is increasingly unsupported, often resulting in adult children having difficulty breaking away from home, and finding their lot in life.

Compare parenting with teaching. New teachers immediately find their philosophies and practices confronted by their students. They must learn to read student reactions, while being able to seek the input of their colleagues. In addition, their classrooms will be visited and evaluated by administrators.

Those who start out seeking friendships with their students soon realize the need to establish an authority that students learn from and respect. Those who start out controlling students with one's authority soon realize the need to understand students in order to gain their trust.
While some people naturally take to teaching, great teachers are made, not born. The same is true for parents.

The problem parents are having today is the lack of support our society gives them. Compared to teachers, parents operate in isolated pockets. So parenting often begins off-track, and there is virtually no system in place to help parents adjust, much less transform, their initial parenting philosophy and practice.

Some parents simply raise their children as they were parented. Perhaps an even greater number parent in opposition to how they were raised. In either case, this will cause difficulties in the parent-child relationship. The child is a unique individual, and will resent being raised as if s/he is someone else, even if that "someone else" is his/her parent. It also sabotages the special parent-child relationship that awaits development.

But there is an even bigger problem; parents tend to see childrearing only through their own eyes, not through the child's. The most knowledgeable teachers will fail if they don't understand their students; parents must develop children at an even deeper level. Do they really understand their child's deeper motivations?

At birth, infants instantly realize they will not survive, much less grow, without caretakers. So they experience the fear of abandonment--which ultimately becomes a major human fear. The widely accepted Bowlby Attachment Theory says infants seek the love of their caretakers (usually parents,) feeling that gaining their love will ensure safety and all needs met. Infants seek parents' love by imitating them, feeling if they are like them, parents will love them.

Children's imitation of parental (or guardian) strengths-- values, character, sense of purpose, etc.--become powerful means of their development. However, parents are of course imperfect, so children imitate faults too, which become challenges for both parent and child to face in life.
It is important to note these powerful motivations are unconscious to children. As Sigmund Freud posited, we humans approach our biggest decisions in life--like choosing a mate or a career--from our unconscious.

My long experience with teenagers convinces me they are unconsciously concerned first with how well they are being prepared to do their best and secondly, to be self-sufficient for adulthood. For unconsciously, they know those two factors will determine their true independence, success and fulfillment in life.

As adulthood nears, this unconscious motivation in growing teenagers can lead to family conflicts. There is tension for teens of not feeling prepared or ready for self reliance. Parents may be overly attached to a friend-like relationship with their teen.

In my case, I had a strained relationship with a very strict step-father; relatives called him a "monster" and my friends ridiculed the chores he assigned me. He had his faults, but unconsciously I knew he was relentlessly seeking my best and preparing me to be independent. I wouldn't be where I am today without his dedication.

Parenting surely can be done more harmoniously than he did. But the absolutes of true parenting are these: Help children realize their best; prepare them for self-sufficiency. This is the foundation of a deep lifelong parent-child relationship.