Parenting Ghosts: Forever Haunting Our Judgments

My first job after I received my social work license involved working with children and their families in a medical setting. I was in my twenties, single, and inexperienced. My first psychoanalytical training program included a child-centered curriculum that involved working closely with children and their parents along with mastering countless readings about child development theories and approaches. What has stayed most poignantly with me is not the various and sundry pieces of parenting advice, which ebb and flow throughout the years. Rather, one specific essential feature resonates deeply with me whenever I consult with parents of twins: the importance of asking Mom and Dad about their cultural and emotional recollections related to their upbringing and understanding how these norms and behaviors influence their parenting styles and beliefs.

Recently I spoke with parents who have struggled with maintaining control and discipline with their five-year-old fraternal twin boys. The boys’ kindergarten teacher has politely tried to tell them that their children are having difficulty following the rules in the classroom and acting appropriately with the teachers and other children. Both boys have difficulty with self-regulation and impulse control.

The father of these boys demonstrated considerable insight into the problem. He talked about having grown up in a strict authoritarian household that he experienced as suffocating and dismissive. His mother disciplined the children with credible threats about getting punished after Dad arrived home. Naturally, he was loath to repeat this behavior with his sons. So he decided that it would be advantageous to allow his children “flexibility,” essentially a freedom and an expression of love that he had longed for growing up. Unbeknownst to him, this intention to give his children a different experience contributed to their behavioral difficulties.

Dad described a few of the twins’ free-range behaviors. The boys have unfettered access to snacks. If they refuse to sit down during dinnertime, they can leave the table, open the refrigerator, and grab what they want to eat. Bedtime rituals drag on, with repeated needs for water and attention that are endlessly gratified. Both boys manipulate delays in going to school by running away after they’re unstrapped from their car seats.

Both parents are beautifully receptive to a new understanding about the crucial importance of setting limits, creating boundaries, and enforcing rules. At this developmental stage, excessive flexibility undermines parental control. Whether they like rules or not, children need to trust that parents are containing and consistent. These parameters lay the groundwork for raising secure and happy children who will not rely on manipulation or defiance to get what they want.

Photo by Dipin Maharjan, Pexels

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