A Lesson in Childism: Why Is It Difficult for Parents to Give Up Control?

For the longest time mainstream parenting has included treating children as inferior to adults, and failing to give them the respect we would give to any adult.

This includes the assumption that what we say about our children (even jokingly, especially in their presence) won’t have an impact on them;  the assumption that we have the inherent right to choose and declare our children’s behavior; and the assumption that children are not worthy enough to have their opinions valued and their choices recognized.

While it is important to realize that children need their parents (and are highly dependent on them for survival), it does not give them the autonomy to chart out a life that the child may be uncomfortable with.

If your daughter does not want to wear a frock on a hot day, and insists on jeans, as parents we can choose to listen to her.

If your son is picking on his food, and wants to finish it later, we can give him the leeway to come back to the table in an hour.

This is not disrespect. Your children are not refusing to listen to you. They are merely trying to communicate what they want, and are seeking your approval in doing so. In such cases, you can facilitate your children in making a decision that is comfortable and acceptable not just to you, but to them as well.

When you choose to listen to your child, and understand the rationale behind their request, you are not relinquishing your position. You are empowering your child.

However, there is often the question, should you even be empowering kids?

Children by default are assumed to lack the ability, awareness and intelligence to make informed decisions. Often the parent chooses to speak on behalf of the child to the different stakeholders in their lives, especially relatives and teachers. This apparent control of a child and the assumption that they lack the capacity to do so, comes under the realm of childism.

What is childism?

Childism is the idea that children need to be respected as human beings. As simple as this concept may seem, it can better be understood by comprehending its opposite force, “adultism”.

Adultism is the assumption that young people are inferior to adults simply because of their young age. Adults often act on this assumption by limiting a child’s access to decision-making, information, resources, human rights, and opportunities to voice their thoughts.

Because adultism is targeted towards children, who may not have the thinking capabilities to comprehend fully what behavior should and should not be accepted by them, it becomes an oppression that they are unaware of. And since majority of parents follow this, it becomes a normal.

by Peace I Give

However, instead of shaming, manipulating or coercing our children into doing what we or others may want them to do, we can choose to consider our children as partners in the decision making process.

But how can we partner with our children in the parenting process, when we are exerting control over their behavior with the assumption that they are unable to make autonomous decisions?

The conflict between a child’s autonomy and compliance

Many parents report that obedience is a principal childrearing objective. While compliance has been noted to play an important part in a child’s self-regulation of emotions, it should not be an outcome of parental control.

According to a study, mothers’ supportive behavior predicted children’s willing compliance. In addition, it also revealed that if children are exhibiting resistance to behave in a certain way requested by parents, it means that the child is motivated to control his life events, developing a sense of autonomy and an ability to assert themselves in social interactions.

In no way is such behavior indicative of poor parenting or strained parent–child relationships.

Unfortunately, in many social settings, resistance to a parent’s demands is seen as disrespectful. This creates an undue societal and peer pressure to make attempts at controlling the child’s behavior, and transform it into submission to parental authority. The onset of parental control initiates the crisis of autonomy versus shame and doubt. If children are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world.

If children are criticized, overly controlled, or not given the opportunity to assert themselves, they begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become overly dependent upon others, lack self-esteem, and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their abilities.

Autonomy Supportive Parenting is a balance between helping children realize their abilities and also benefit from being taught how to behave, by their parents. Children are given space to feel their feelings, and to understand rules. 

How can we adopt an Autonomy Supportive Parenting style?

1. “Choice within limits”

Involve kids in the decision-making process, while providing safe and age-appropriate boundaries.

2. Communicate, instead of just telling

Tell your kids the reason behind what you are asking them to do, or not to do. Help them understand the consequences, instead of quoting the notoriously popular sentence, “because I said so”.

3. Be empathetic

“Help your kids feel unconditionally loved by talking to them calmly and without judgment, even when they mess up”, writes Psychologist Tali Shenfield in a Fine Parent. That way, kids develop confidence in their choices rather than fearing they’ll lose parental acceptance by making the wrong one. 

4. Be patient

Know that your child will say no! When you give your children the freedom to do so, you will need to prepare yourself to give them time to understand why you are trying to convince them otherwise. It will take a while before they meet you halfway and start to understand your point of view.

How childhood trauma leads to internalized childism

Childhood trauma lives in our symptoms: depression; panic attacks; eating disorders; obsessional worries; catastrophic anxieties, and relationship fears. It can be an outcome of multiple causes.

When children are traumatized they become internally split: part of them struggles to overcome the trauma, and part of them internalizing the childism (considering themselves inferior to adults) that comes with the trauma.

Childhood trauma can culminate into transgenerational trauma if it is left unresolved. Such behavior can damage generations, who internalize the dislike directed at them from the grown-ups who run their lives.

Jim Walker, an independent social worker and psychotherapist, says in a Community Care Inform guide to unresolved loss and trauma that a traumatic childhood in itself, “is not predictive of maltreatment of children. What is predictive is if the adult has not been able to come to terms with their traumatic experiences”.

The guide says a common reaction to unresolved trauma is parental dissociation, with parents “likely to neglect the emotional needs of their children and/or have difficulty in assessing risk in their partners”.

Essentially taking the form of childism.

This is further substantiated by the concept of repetition compulsion. Proposed by Freud, it is a psychological phenomenon, where we have the tendency to repeat “patterns of behavior which were difficult or distressing in earlier life”.

This does not mean that there is something wrong with us or our parenting. As children, we were exposed to such behaviors, and being vulnerable we picked them up. However, we can choose to identify these behaviors and rectify them so they don’t affect our children.

When our traumas are unresolved, our brain isn’t fully integrated. When we grow up, we may assume that we have overcome our traumas, but any triggers in our present life may throw us back in the unstable emotional state we may have experienced as a child.

Dr. Jack Kornfield recommends an approach called “RAIN,” to help us mindfully deal with these triggers. The steps include:

  • Recognize – Pause and notice what you’re feeling.
  • Accept/acknowledge/allow – whatever strong emotion is occurring in the moment.
  • Investigate – Start to investigate your internal experience. Try what Daniel Siegel calls SIFTing through your experience, noting Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts that arise.
  • Non-identification– Don’t allow the thoughts, feelings or experiences to define you. If a memory arises, remember that the memory is not happening to you now and does not define who you are.

When we learn to approach our memories with calmness and curiosity, we are less likely to be triggered.

Many times therapy is also helpful.

Childism, codependency and the need for control

Why is it that we have been conditioned to realize the impact our actions may have on others, instead of wondering how they will affect us?

There’s an entire industry around “emotional intelligence” and re-teaching adults how to look into themselves to better understand how to relate to others. We wouldn’t need to be trained in emotional intelligence if we learned about it organically as children.

Although empathy is a learned behavior, the capacity for it is inborn. This means that every child has some level of understanding how their actions can affect those around him; and this trait can be nurtured by being receptive to a child’s needs and having his or her emotional states recognized and responded to.

Unfortunately though, many times parents react to a child’s behavior. By react it means that parents attach their emotions to the child’s behavior, instead of trying to understand the reason for why the child behaved the way he did. As parents, we tell the child how he made us feel, but don’t ask him how he may be feeling.

As a result, the child,

1. Overrides what he or she is feeling,

2. consequently, failing to label his or her emotion and

3. replacing the true emotion with a supposedly “corrective” behavior that is aimed to please others or avoid upsetting them.

This cycle of ignoring one’s emotional needs with that of adopting acquiescent behavior breeds codependency.

According to Dr Renee Exelbert, a licensed psychologist and author based in New York,

“Codependency is a circular relationship in which one person needs the other person, who in turn, needs to be needed. The codependent person, known as ‘the giver,’ feels worthless unless they are needed by — and making sacrifices for — the enabler, otherwise known as ‘the taker”

This is highly problematic and contributes to emotional instability. Children who may be taught to sideline their own emotional needs and give preference to the needs of their parents, develop codependent relationships. Such relationships have the capacity to diminish self-esteem because of an imbalanced power structure.

Control is one of the defining characteristics of codependency, whether it has to do with controlling oneself or others. Since codependents struggle with empowering themselves and being assertive, they tend to seek control and power from external sources in order to feel good. A codependent may try to change others in order to find happiness, and this at times may apply to their own children as well.

Conclusion

As parents, when we choose to ignore the opinions, choices and emotional needs of our children, we engage in anti-child biases. We may assume that such behavior is helping discipline our child, but at times it may be forcing kids to override their needs, and submit to the will of their elders.

This form of childism is the need to control the behavior of children.

Childism is the idea that children need to be respected as human beings. It can better be understood by comprehending its opposite force, “adultism”. Adultism is the assumption that young people are inferior to adults. To counter this unintentional abuse we can partner with our children in the parenting process and involve them in the decisions affecting them. This can be done by Autonomy Supportive Parenting – a balance between helping a child realize their autonomy and also benefit from being taught how to behave by their parents. Children are given space to feel their feelings, and to understand rules. 

However, before we choose to end childism, it is important we address our childhood traumas and resolve them. Unresolved childhood traumas, alongwith repetition compulsion, can most likely lead us to seek stability by controlling our children.

Many times when parents react to a child’s behavior, it means that parents attach their emotions to the child’s behavior, instead of trying to understand the reason for why the child behaved the way he did. As parents, we tell the child how he made us feel, but don’t ask him how he may be feeling. This may develop high levels of codependency in a child, who later on in his life, may seek to control the behavior of others to find assertiveness and happiness.

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