Is there really a difference?
I don’t believe I have ever met a parent who does not want their child to think for themselves by the time they leave home to pursue a life outside their family of origin. We all want our kids to be equipped to make decisions for themselves and to question, rather than to blindly accept the views of others as their own.
While most of us would agree that this is an important task and goal for us parents to achieve, many of us just don’t want our kids to practice on us! They want them to think for themselves and to challenge the beliefs of others in that world out there, but they don’t want to see their parental thoughts, beliefs, and values challenged.
Our kids were born with a “sponge-like brain” that did not yet have the capacity to think or reason or to question what they heard, what they were told or what they observed. So their initial response to input was simply, “if you say so, it must be so.” (I know, you parents of older kids are no doubt thinking, “Where did THOSE years go?!)
As they develop physically, mentally and emotionally, what naturally emerges is a little kid who begins to think for him/herself. So, “Wait a minute. What do I think?” begins to develop and replace the original response of simply taking on what they are told, and then concluding, “If you say so, it must be true.”
All of this to say more simply, kids somewhere along the line of development begin to think for themselves, and although this is what we want, it can be a real shock since we’ve grown accustomed to this little kid that took in all that we said without question.
This is where the necessity of accepting and even embracing their challenges comes in. And the challenging I am referring to must not be confused with rebellion, which is not inevitable and can be destructive and much more difficult to deal with.
When we parents do not accept that challenging our authority is not only normal but necessary for our kids to learn the fine art of thinking for themselves, we run the risk of responding to their challenges in ways that may lead to the unnecessary and destructive rebellion we’d all like to avoid.
Before you conclude that we are talking semantics when it comes to challenging and rebelling, consider the following distinctions:
- Challenges to our authority are constructive and purposeful.
- They are necessary and inevitable.
- They provide the opportunity for learning, for shaping, and for influencing our kids through conversation about the issues in dispute.
- They help our kids move and mature from, “if they say so, it must be true” to, “wait a minute. What do I think?” (And isn’t their ability to think for themselves what we actually want?).
Rebellion, on the other hand:
- is usually destructive rather than instructive;
- is unnecessary and not inevitable;
- it regularly teaches very little. If learning does occur, it is at a high price;
- it has little or no influence on learning to think wisely for themselves;
- Chronic rebellion is usually the result of challenges either being handled poorly, or not allowed at all (“because I said so!”, “Because I’m your father!”, “Just do it and stop asking questions!”).
How we respond to and handle healthy and respectful challenges will either serve us well in our efforts to avoid destructive rebellion, or it will encourage it.
Somethings to consider
What we fear most about being challenged and encouraging our kids to think for themselves:
- Our ego, the need to look good (and to not look bad)
- Fear of losing our influence
- Our need to be needed
- Their being hurt/damaged as a result of their choices and possible failures as a result of those choices
- Challenge from our kids is normal, even necessary
- When responding to their challenges, keep in mind the differences between their will-which must be broken, and their spirit-which must be encouraged and protected
- To prevent stifling their spirit:
- avoid using guilt to manipulate
- avoid withdrawing, cutting off communication, rejection and personal attacks to their character or personality
- encourage challenges are done so in a respectful manner
- Remember that all the above is easier said than done!
We’d like to thank Ed Wimberly, Ph.D for generously writing today’s article. Ed is a psychologist with over 43 years of experience at his practice in Santa Barbara, CA. Ed is also the author of “Parenting with an Attitude…21 Questions Successful Parents Ask Themselves” and runs the Raising Great Kids website. Ed’s newest book on marriage will be available soon.