A Parent’s Job: How to Build Character, Not Ensure Happiness

There are books that leave a lasting impression on me many years after first reading them. Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is one such book. Originally written in 1974, it chronicles the experiences of the authors who attended a series of parenting education classes conducted by Dr. Haim Ginott, a world-famous lecturer, school teacher, child psychologist and psychotherapist.

The stories contained in Faber’s and Mazlish’s book still apply perfectly today

One of the more powerful stories and lessons in the book [pp. 188, 189] revolves around a mother describing how distraught she was because her child was neglecting the pet bird she had begged for months to get. Many parents find themselves in that position: where the child promises and swears they will care every single day for a pet, be it a snake, kitten, dog, lizard or pony. They will clean up any messes, they will faithfully feed and exercise the pet, love it and be totally devoted to it. They seem (and probably are) totally sincere—in the moment. Then the parent gives in, buys or adopts the pet, and within a fairly short period of time, the child loses interest and begins to neglect the animal.

What choice does a parent have?

Whose responsibility is it to care for the pet? What typically happens to the parent who often ends up being the caregiver for the pet?

Answer: a lot of resentment if the parent takes on the responsibility of caring for the pet.

When a parent threatens to return the pet to the pet store or give it away, children often cry and carry on. They promise once again to become responsible. And a whole cycle begins of brief enthusiasm for the care of the pet followed by neglect, parental threats, much crying and gnashing of teeth. Evenually, the parent becomes the full-time caregiver with a fair amount of resentment about having to take on that role, accompanied by feelings of betrayal because the child broke their promise.

In the book, a parent faced with this dilemma says, “When I’m faced with the choice of keeping our pet and being an angry mother or giving the pet away and becoming a pleasant mother, you know which I’ll choose.” Worrying about the child’s response if she gives the pet away, the mother goes on to say, “Suppose she cries and carries on?”

I think Dr. Ginott’s responses are brilliant.

“Did I ever give the idea that when we take action, children accepted graciously? Any child of spirit will protest and complain. And when he does, I can say, ‘You wish we could keep the canary [or whatever the pet is]. He brought much joy to our home. But he needs to be in a place where he can receive proper care.’”

One parent asks, “But suppose the children ask for another chance?” Another parent says “They’ve already had a thousand chances!” Dr.Ginott says that children should have a thousand chances and… “when they use those up, they should have one chance more.” At the same time the boundary for responsibility needs to be set.

Parents can respond when children make yet another promise by saying something like, “Not now. Now is not a good time to talk about another pet. In a month or six weeks, bring up the subject again and we’ll all see how we feel about it then.”

One of the parents in the group shares that she could accept what Dr. Ginott is saying at an intellectual level but when she thought about the whole scene of her children becoming hysterical and heartbroken and her feeling like she’s the bad parent, she would be overwhelmed. After all, she says, “I’m the one responsible for making them unhappy. I couldn’t stand it.”

Here is Dr. Ginott’s response that stuck with me all these years: “A parent’s responsibility is not to his child’s happiness; it’s to his character.”

For me, and I think for many parents, this can be a revolutionary concept. Our job is not to make our children happy.

How happy our children are is not how we should measure our parenting effectiveness.

Dr. Ginott states, “By focusing only upon a child’s happiness, we do him no favor. What kind of values would we be passing on to our children if we permitted cruelty to animals? Did you know that ’No’ can be a loving response? Did you know that when we take action to stop a child’s unacceptable behavior, we are doing him a service? What’s more, we are showing him how to be the kind of adult who can stand up for what he believes in.”

Embracing this principle or trying to make our children happy or helping to build their character can change so many of our responses. Being comfortable with children responding to us with anger, frustration or despair when we set limits, tell them ‘No,’ or deny their requests, is a part of our job as a parent.

That is not to say we don’t revel in those moments when something we have said or done brings our children happiness. We want our children to be happy about their successes, enjoy receiving presents, find their gifts and talents and expand them, and give them opportunities to experience joyful feelings.

I think parenting is about appreciating the bigger and more important responsibility we have as parents. Our role is to promote our children’s inner moral core, and to promote values and virtues that can allow them to become decent, morally-strong citizens, caring friends and respectful adults.

And that’s a pretty big job!

Invitation to Reflect

  1. In what ways did your parents strengthen your moral self? To what extent did they seem dependent on your happiness to define how well they were doing as parents?
  2. How comfortable are you with the idea that it is not your job to make your children happy?
  3. How would or does embracing this information impact your responses when your children make requests or demands that might detract from the building of their inner character?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Source: https://www.amazon.com/Liberated-Parents-Children-Happier-Family/dp/0380711346/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1494943674&sr=1-1&keywords=liberated+parents+liberated+children

Image source: http://www.bigstock_Girl_With_Goats_Kid_2089189-1.jpg