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I encountered many difficulties as a first time parent. Not getting an uninterrupted nights sleep in 2 years, cleaning messes that seem to regenerate, multiply and grow new heads like proverbial monsters, hardly ever getting to eat my meals while they were still hot, are all high on the list.
But these were things I knew to expect. Many mothers mentioned these things, so even though I could not have fathomed just how frightful they would be to deal with day after day with no respite or end in sight, at least I knew of the existence of these problems.
A problem that I did not foresee, though I should have, is of a more philosophical nature.
Like most teenagers, in my adolescent years, I was quick to judge and dismiss theories I did not agree with. Time and experience tempered my outlook. I learned to question all theories and learn their limitations. I learned to force myself to play devil's advocate to my own beliefs. I made an effort to see things from a different point of view, even ones I did not agree with, so as to understand other people better. I learned empathy and shed some of my insecurities.
All of this helped me become less judgemental. I strove to understand the choices people made and their perspective. I fought hard against the instinct of imposing my own views on people. I struggled to fight the urge to tell people what to do and how to lead their lives.
And then one day I became a parent. Suddenly I was responsible for another life.
I was responsible for a baby so dependent on me that she could not move herself away from obvious danger, could not feed, or clean herself. I had to make every decision for this other person. Initially it was fine, for this baby was not capable of making any choices at all, or was she?
When she was only a week old, I remember she had to be given a medicine and protested vociferously and I forced her to have it. It felt so wrong. I had been training myself not to impose my will on anyone and now here I was doing it on a defenceless baby. It was so against my way of thinking, that I could not help feeling upset.
Anger came from being forced in to doing something a part of me thought was horrible, and another part of me realised was essential. She was being forced and I was being forced with no clear idea as to who was doing all his forcing.
This is a struggle a parent has to live with every day. How much do we impose our will on our child? How much is necessary? How much is too much? It is such a delicate balance and a slippery slope. Then I had to force her to drink medicine, today I have to force her to eat balanced meals and put away her toys and tomorrow who knows what. How do I do this without getting angry or upset either with her or myself? How do I force her calmly when I abhor the idea of forcing anything on anybody. And yet how do I not force her in to safety and long term happiness, when her well being is my responsibility.
All the parenting books and posts tell you that you should be calm in dealing with children and suggest various ways of dealing with defiance ranging from distraction, trickery, positive reinforcement, to time-outs and punishments.
But no matter what method we use, we are still imposing our will on the child. And justifying it, as in the best interest of the child, is not enough. How do I know, that I am not over stepping? Some justify pushing their kids into arranged marriages, or medical and engineering professions against the child's will, as in the best interest of the child.
Some of us consider input from our children and feel good about involving them. But when there is an argument or even a discussion with young children, parents with greater knowledge and experience can usually convince the child that they are right. If it is not right to bully children with superior physical strength, then why is it okay to bully them with superior intellectual strength?
Sometimes, I think we talk so much about parenting strategies to deal with this very contradiction. We are desperate to find a seemingly pleasant way to impose our will on the child. Indeed, it feels like we have a double life with one set of principles on how to interact with our kids and another set for everyone else we care about. It is strange and difficult to know in which situations our kids need to be parented and in which situations they deserve to be given the respect and space we give everyone else.
Today this problem is often talked about in terms of how it affects the kids. But what about how it affects the parents, coping with these double standards of interaction, on for their kids an done for everyone else?
In the past powerful people imposing their will on others was considered to be perfectly natural and parents did not need a sugar coating it to impose their authority. To impose authority calmly, we need to believe in our authority and not doubt and question it all the time. But if we don't question ourselves then how do we know when to relinquish that authority?
I have not let these thoughts paralyse me as a parent. A lot of this anguish is esoteric, because in our daily lives we need to react and make quick decisions and usually we just follow our instincts one way or another and children are robust as is our species, so most things work out in the long run, but the philosophical question does remain.
PS: This post was not so much about what we should actually do, but to point out that as parents we have to live this odd contradiction of attitudes towards our kids and other people, that can be stressful for us.