Among the many things we take for granted are often things most dear to us. For many, the family unit tops the list. Family is the training ground for human survival. For me, the easiest definition of family is: ‘home’. It is a space, which holds people who you feel connected and belonged to.
The family is a space where we live our early years, especially our childhood. The most crucial years that define and mould us as future adults. As human beings we enjoy the most extended childhood period before we take on independent functioning.
So the family isn’t just anybody, but precisely our significant adult caretakers. Mostly it is parents who take on this role. But, the family unit can be even a single parent, adopted parents, foster parents and in our culture, often, the grandparents.
Whoever they are, as the significant adult caretaker of the child they have a huge responsibility to life itself. The responsibility is to ensure that this young human child will make her/his passage through to adulthood.
This is where and how we learn or at least supposed to learn the basic skills to live a well-adjusted life.
Being adult means taking on responsibility, making decisions that are safe, wise and for the betterment of the society/planet at large. Thus parenting is a huge responsibility to say the least. Whoever decides to take on this responsibility has to teach the child many of the basic ‘fundas’ of life.
It is from our parents that we learn how to treat ourselves and each other. They become our adult human role models.
At every phase of the child’s life the parent has to be the adult in that relationship.
There are two areas that parents can take for granted but are crucial in child rearing. Both are instinctive and require balance.
The first is about the child’s survival. This includes direct care taking behaviour patterns and imbibing skills in the child for future survival. Almost every species on the planet will have this behaviour while rearing their young, wired in their genetics.
The behaviour includes basic biological needs of survival: Food, water, sleep.
I am baffled how parents do not bat an eyelid when they serve their child food full of steroids or chemicals or dangerous amounts of sugars and unhealthy oils. Even more baffling is when a child demands such foods and the parents feel miserable that they are not able to give it to them.
I am further baffled at the role reversal we have with regards to dietary habits. The child decides what should go into their school tiffin even when it is completely unhealthy. The excuse that I often hear is that they love their child and so the child gets the ability to make the decision.
Drinking water is not even considered as an issue. Of course, drinking a flavoured soda is a big ado over nothing.
We not only leave out some of the important questions of child rearing but we let role reversals happen; all in the name of loving our child.
I cannot help but ask the question who is the adult in this relationship?
We need to ask these the basic important question so that our children can imbibe them and when they get older they too can ask themselves these questions: What food requirements does my body need to be healthy? How much sleep should I get so that I do not fall prey to stress or other illnesses? How much stimulation should my brain be exposed to that will not get me all anxious and aroused?
As parents you need to equip your child with skills that will keep them safe and more importantly when the child becomes an adult the skill will come to their aid rather than hijack their survival.
The second is the ability to separate. Maintain relational boundaries. These boundaries allow the child to know their own unique identity. Modelling and maintaining healthy boundaries will allow a child to know how to develop their own sense of self. Boundaries give the child an understanding on how to develop close and meaningful relationships.
Often treated very casually, boundaries are ignored. Children who have been brought up in such environments often have to work their way through second guessing as to what constitutes a healthy relationship.
Parents who know how to develop healthy boundaries with their children do not allow the child to cross over and take on the adult behaviour, roles or problems.
Clearly defined boundaries allow the children to have a predictable environment. This gives the child a sense of emotional support and security. You create a structure that will allow the child to feel safe.
When parents’ boundaries enmesh with that of the child, role reversals take place. Sometimes to such unexpected levels that parents begin to fear their child. They live by the rules of the child rather than by the rules of the family.
Role reversal is very stressful not only for parents but eventually for the child. The child doesn’t know whether they create the rules or they have to obey them. In this they become stressful and often express anger and terrible tantrums.
Parenting is not easy. It is one of the most challenging tasks. Often in order to be perfect, parents could lose out on the natural function of a family unit. Yes it is all about love. But parents’ love is also known as tough love.
(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and an associate professor, HOD, Carmel College for Women)