Tuesday, May 31, 2005

knocking down the Invulnerable Parent

Should we tell our children about our phobias?

In a recent online discussion (no longer linked), I advocated that owning up to our fears can be one way to provide a good role model for our children.

I ran smack into The Invulnerable Parent defense. You know, the one that says we can never be anything but strong and perfect for our children. One woman said, "Moms and dads are supposed to be strong, super-people, invincible."

The problem with this, of course, is that we're not.

Sooner or later, a chink will appear in the armor. We get sick, we get hurt, we die. These things happen to the people we love, and we get sad or angry. Things go badly, and sometimes it's our fault. We make mistakes.

I think Invulnerable Parents raise children who are ill-equipped to deal with the world. They set themselves up as role models who never make mistakes, never feel bad, never need to ask for help.

But isn't it better to teach our kids how to handle negative feelings, and how to make amends and fix mistakes? Isn't it better to model the reality of life which is not that we are perfect, but that we are trying our hardest to be good? Isn't it a good thing to show our kids that we push through our adversities and do what we should, because that is the right thing to do? Isn't it better to teach our children to realize when they need help, and to show them how to ask for it?

Invulnerable Parents ignore all these valuable lessons in a vain attempt to protect their children. I don't think they realize the lessons they are teaching instead.

The first lesson is that parents, and adults in general, can't be trusted, because they don't tell you the truth. In fact, they lie to you all the time. They put up a false front but eventually you'll see what's behind it. They are not the people they pretend to be. How could they be? No one is perfect.

The second lesson is that you are not capable -- not strong enough, not smart enough -- to handle what life is going to throw at you, so you'd better let Mommy and Daddy make all your decisions for you. That way you won't ever have to be afraid, or sad, or angry... until you are, and you'll have no idea how to deal with it. See, Mom and Dad were right! You are incapable of dealing with the real world!

The final lesson is that you're all you've got, so get used to it. There's no point in asking for help with a problem, because everyone lies, and besides, they all think you're an idiot. So it's just you. Have a nice life.

* * * * *

I don't think the woman I quoted above is dooming her daughter to a lifetime of distrust and self-esteem issues. I'm not making any assumptions about her general parenting, but she certainly did get my wheels turning. I do know parents like this. I've seen the havoc that Invulnerable Parenting wreaks.

I'm in a situation where I couldn't be invulnerable even if I wanted to be. My kids know I have cancer, although I'm quite sure DS2, just 4 years old, has no idea what that means. What he knows is that I have a sickness, and that sometimes I go to the hospital. Sometimes I am very tired, sometimes I have to eat differently from the rest of the family. I take a lot of pills everyday. My illness is integrated into our family life. It is part of our reality. DS2 this evening pushed away from me, right above my collar bone, and I had to remind him never to push on my neck, "Mommy has owie places, and that's one of them." Part of me was happy that he had forgotten, even though it hurt. A lot.

Even apart from my illness, I don't lie to my children. There are things I don't discuss with them; I'll tell them they don't need to know that, now, or that it's not something they should concern themselves with at all. DD especially is a little nosey parker, and I'm often left with: I don't need to explain myself to you! I was looking up blog links the other day and she was peering over my shoulder -- Why are you doing that? Why are you on that website? It really was getting on my nerves and I finally told her, "I'm writing. This has nothing to do with you. Please let me work!"

But I didn't lie. It is so important to me that they trust me. I had "the talk" with DS1 the other day; he has been hearing a lot of things at school and we had to make sure he knew the straight story. The etymology of curse words has come up a few times recently, too. We can have those discussions because he trusts me to be honest with him.

I can't imagine a situation in which I would have to lie. I think even if I got the proverbial "6 months to live" prognosis, I'd tell them, but maybe not right away. I'm not a "total honesty" lunatic. That's not right, either, because children shouldn't be burdened with information they can't process. As parents we have to walk that fine line between overwhelming them and keeping them in the dark, but my practice is always to give them the bare bones of a situation, and if they want me to flesh it out for them, I will, to a level I feel they can handle.

I guess it comes down to my own confidence in my kids' abilities. They are so strong and capable, I am constantly amazed by them. I push them, it's true, to try and understand what they are feeling, and to take responsibility for things they have done, or not done. I push them to learn new things and tackle new tasks. We can't learn the limits of our capabilities unless we're stressed; each success encourages us to go further. Failure should be a sign that we need more practice or more patience, but that's a lesson that's hard to learn. If we fail to teach our children how to deal with stress by hiding our own stresses from them, they will surely struggle with daily life. How then will they ever be able to spread their wings and find their own heights?

Update: I edited the introductory paragraphs to remove references that were disturbing to some people. No harm or personal criticism was intended.


Judy said...

My kids know I panic when I walk into a spider web. They know I freak when someone else (them, for example) is driving in a way I would not. Granted, the youngest is 9, but I've never tried to hide my fears from them -- especially not the irrational ones. It's MUCH easier to say "mom is being irrational about this" than to try to pretend that I'm not terrified of creepy crawlies.

They also know I make mistakes, occasionally use words I've forbidden them to use, and have even crashed the car. Not perfect and don't expect them to be.

charletg said...

Joan - I think you missed one of Doggie's main concerns. Her daughter just had a serious loss and is now afraid of a parent dying. Now is not the time to share a phobia that is based on Doggie's fear of dying in an airplane crash. I understand if you wish to talk about this in the abstract but Doggie is not the best example of an Invulnerable Parent. Have you ever read her blog? There is one lovely article about how her daughter already knows her mother isn't perfect. I am not arguing about the content of the piece you just wrote. I do contend that using Doggie is not a good example.

dogfaceboy said...

Don't you have your own life? Can't you live it? You are not the authority on anything but yourself. Take comfort in that, and leave my life out of your blog.

Dreaming again said...

I have a few things to say ...so if it goes on too long, just delete me. I hope I don't ramble too much.

First, the mom's and fear's and passing it down to their kids. My mom passed down a terrible fear of thunderstorms/tornado's to me. Growing up, it wasn't a big deal. We lived in the mountains of California, so it was only traveling for vacations that it was an issue. But, I was as terrified as she was.
Then, at 17, we moved to Oklahoma.
Near a creek. South of a city. Not a good place.
I was petrified. Our first spring here, we'd have horrific thunderstorms here almost every afternoon or night. More than once, I would curl up in front of her bedroom door ..too ashamed at that at 17 I wanted my mommy, but too scared to stay in my room.

When I had kids, I was even more scared. The first time my son cried at thunder, I knew I didn't want to share my fear. I didn't use the allergy theory ..wish I thought of it, but I did something similiar. I sat him down with me. All of two years old. I told him that I was afraid because I'd been taught to be afraid, but look at Dad and the neighbors who went out to watch the storms, they weren't afraid. We watched the storm forcasting. Then, my husband and I took him to safe resteraunts to watch the storms through windows and pointed out lightening off in the distance ... we taught him the science, even at the young age of 2 ..by the third storm ..he was interested and no longer afraid. By the end of the season, I could breath when storms came through. By the time he was 5 ... I became interested in storms. By the time he was 7, my MOTHER became interested in storms. Both of us could now easily be storm chasers if we were physically able to. We sought out to make sure we didn't have a third generation of fear by educating ...and educated ourselves out of the fear! ( I think your allergy theory would do VERY much the same thing! the daughter would then ask questions about the plane, the mother would explain and educate, maybe not the first flight ..but ...)

I agree with you on the being honest to a point with the kids. Tell them age appropriate things. But do they need to know information that might not occur?

My husband had polio at age 3. He wasn't supposed to live. Then, he wasn't supposed to live past 35. (he didn't tell me this till he married me when he was 32!Actually, his mother told me AFTER I married him) 6 years ago, they told us he would not live another year. He's not even in a wheelchair, much less bedridden or dead!! If we'd told our children that Daddy might not live long ...they'd have had to worry unnecessarily. When he has to go into a wheelchair, we will tell them that eventually he will get to a point of needing to stay in bed, when he gets to the point of being bedridden, we will tell him that eventually he will not make it. He's 49, he'll be 50 in November. We've been married for 17 years.
The boys are 15 and 13, if we'd been totally honest with them, they'd have worried their whole lives if Daddy would be there in the morning.

They are used to mom and dad being sick a lot and mom being in and out of the hospital. (I have lupus and myasthenia gravis, 12 surgeries and 22 hospitalizations in my sons 15 year life, but none in the last 2 years, my next one on Thursday)

They know the basic details, the know I don't feel good, they know we both have pain ...and they know sometimes things can get serious. They've had increasing information with each year ..but generally ..as they ask questions ... I don't hide information from them. BUT I rarely sit them down and say "this is what is happening. Usually, they hear their father and I talking and they will ask a question. If it's serious, we make sure they're not around (life and death) if it's not, we just talk so that they can absorb what they want and ask questions. If they LOOK like they have a question but aren't asking ..and won't talk ..we tell my mom and get her to talk to them casually. (Nanna is sometimes easier to talk to!)

Anyway ... I've rambled on long enough ... your post triggered a lot of thoughts for me. Sorry for rambling so much.