November 14, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

OK, who tipped the parent/child balance?

Cynthia DewesIn a recent TV news program, NBC anchor Brian Williams concluded a lighthearted piece in his news show. It was about amusing kids with movies, electronic games, etc., when traveling in the car.

“What did we do before these DVDs?” he joked, as if parents were clueless before they had such tools.

In another presentation on PBS about the life of former President Ronald Reagan, there was an interview with his son, Ron.

He said that in his family the kids all knew they were included in the group, but that there were two distinct parts to it: they, and their parents. In some ways, the parents’ lives were separate from theirs.

Then my daughter remarked upon how opinionated her kids have always been. Even when they were small, she said, they would interject their opinions into their parents’ discussions. And, unlike her own parents (namely her dad and me), they expected and even encouraged them to do so.

Hmmm, I thought. There’s a pattern here. Something has changed in the parent/child dynamic. A shift has occurred in the balance of power, so to speak. What parents (and their kids) used to consider mere respect for legitimate authority, modern children seem to view as a denial of their intrinsic worth.

The implication is that parents who don’t treat their children as equals in every way are somehow lacking in respect for them. Surely if they valued them they would take their children seriously at any age, listen to their analyses and accept their judgments.

This sounds pretty good until we remember that what we have here are adults and children.

At least theoretically, adults are more experienced, better educated and wiser than kids. Not all adults, and not all kids, mind you, but enough to make my point. This used to be a given.

It is not a lack of respect if parents recognize that fact, and take responsibility for giving their children the experience, education and wisdom they need to become adults themselves. It takes genuine parental love to do so because it is not easy to confront an earnest youngster who is convinced he is right. Or to say “no” to that cute wheedler who is “fibrillating at my elbow,” as a friend once described her child.

Take this perceived need to amuse kids in the car. When parents are so self-absorbed that they can’t travel without “sedating” the kids, something is wrong … with the parents.

Naturally, we want peace while we are driving, but it is also important to teach children: a) to amuse themselves quietly without technological aids; b) to be safe by allowing the driver to drive without distraction; and c) to obey someone who knows more than they do. A trip in the car shouldn’t be a power struggle between generations or a popularity contest for parents.

Then we come to children’s opinions. Like our own, they are usually based upon what they understand and what they want. But with kids, their information is limited, and “what they want” can often take precedence over common sense or the good of others.

Certainly we must show respect for children by listening carefully to what they say. This means not making dismissive remarks like “In a minute, honey,” or doing other tasks during the conversation. We should explain to them why or why not their arguments are persuasive.

If we act like parents and allow our kids to express themselves appropriately, they will never lack for opinions. My kids sure didn’t. And don’t.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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