Butler County Times Gazette
  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: Accept children for who they are

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  • While I watched a group of 2-year-olds in an art class, it was striking to see how engrossed they were in their work. The teacher squeezed globs of different color paints on the children’s papers and asked each child where he or she wanted the new color. The children were using rollers instead of brushes, creating the most amazing effects as the colors mixed and the roller changed direction.
    Were the children having fun? Perhaps, but not in the usual way we think of children having fun. They were very serious about their work, as were the teachers. But both children and teachers were clearly experiencing much joy in what they were doing, the teachers in particular finding joy in the amazing creations the children were producing.
    This brought to mind the subtitle “The Paradox of Modern Parenthood” of Jennifer Senior’s book, “All Joy and No Fun.” The dictionary defines paradox as “a statement that seems to contradict itself but which contains a truth.” Perhaps the idea of a paradox applies because when we expect joy and fun to be the same, discovering the truth that they are not comes as a shock. Apparently, it is “modern parenthood” that has created an awareness of this distinction. There are many factors of modern life that have made parenthood more difficult, but a major change has been one of expectation.
    We have a great emotional investment in our children, and more and more we think of children as our creation. Andrew Solomon, in “Far From the Tree,” writes “There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby they engage in an act of production . . . it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own.”
    Raising children has always entailed work. But there seems to be greater stress in parenthood these days, and much of it seems to come from the expectations we have of our children and of ourselves as parents. If children have become our productions, it leads us to see them as reflections on us, on our own worth and on our accomplishments as parents.
    The balance between parents and children is out of whack. The brain function of young children is offered by Senior as a means of understanding how children and adults are different, and why the way children operate is particularly stressful for parents. The question in the differences between parents and children is who is supposed to accommodate to whom? This is a central question with which many parents struggle and too often leads to a capitulation of one to the other. Children are not prone to capitulation and their struggle to prevail is what makes life difficult for parents.
    Women as mothers, in particular, struggle with remnants of the “good mother” ideal in an era that values autonomy which women have fought to achieve. The conflict between what they feel they should give their children and what they want for themselves is strong. There is no single answer to that conflict. Rather it comes up daily, in many situations that require deciding in favor of a want or need of one’s child or of one’s own. This becomes especially difficult in the face of unrealistic ideas about what children actually need – as opposed to want.
    Page 2 of 2 - Raising children is not all joy, but neither is it no fun. The no fun part might be diminished if we could accept children for who they are, rather than who or what we think they should be.
    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.

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