The meaning of children in their parent’s lives has been given attention increasingly. Some months ago, a Pew Research Center report based on an American Time Use Survey, concluded that parents find caring for their children to be much more exhausting than the work they do for pay. Yet they also find much more meaning in the time they spend with their children than in the time they spend at work.
Aside from the physical care needed by young children, emotional interactions with children are both exhausting and meaningful. All relationships entail conflict, and the problem of conflicting needs and desires in human relationships is posed first in the parent-child relationship. As babies develop, parents are the first people with whom they come into conflict. They are also the first people with whom children experience the frustration both of living in the real world and of others whose needs do not always match their own.
The relationship between parent and child is the prototype not only of human conflict but also of the methods we use in our attempt to resolve it. The methods used always seem to come down to right or might. In a given conflict, we think that we are right and the other person is wrong and we try to resolve the conflict by persuading the other that our idea is the right one. The other option has been to impose our point of view on another through sheer force. Parents often express this in attempting to “reason” with a child, which means trying to persuade him that the parent is right. When that fails, thoughts may turn to ways to force a child to comply with a parent’s ideas or wishes.
By observing, one can see how this plays out in young children’s interactions with others – their attempts to resolve the conflicts that arise. For example, children start to line up at the sink for hand washing after an art project. One child gets there first. A second child, also wanting to be first, solves the problem by standing alongside the first rather than behind her. The first child accepts this. Then, a third child arrives and surveying the scene arrives at the same solution by standing alongside the second child. Now it is not the first child who objects but the second, who tries to push the third child out of the way. A teacher appears and solves the problem by having the second and third child move into the correct positions on line. The children accept her authority without protest.
Another time, children are playing with an assortment of miniature cars, trucks, and trains on the floor. A child wanting a particular toy that another child has takes it away from him. The “owner” of the toy is angry and tries to take it back. A struggle ensues and neither child lets go of it. Once again, a teacher resolves the conflict by protecting the rights of the first child and finding a similar toy for the other child.
Page 2 of 2 - In these examples, it was the teacher’s authority that solved the problem. In interactions between parents and children, the authority of a parent is not as readily accepted, and parents seemingly are faced with the prospect of “giving in” to a child – or finding a means of imposing their will.
The challenge for both parents and children lies in learning the art of compromise – finding a solution that acknowledges the needs of both. Finding such solutions is part of the art of living, but may also be part of the exhaustion of child-rearing.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.