Not long ago in Waycross, Georgia, the police uncovered a plot involving nine third-graders who had carefully planned to knock their teacher unconscious with a paper weight, bind her with tape, and stab her with steak knife. Officials found all the implements intended for the job and learned that each child had been assigned a particular task, including covering the windows and cleaning up after the murder. The students were retaliating for the teacher's scolding of one of them.
Although this is an extreme example, I commonly see this kind of behavior in children—when they are corrected or restrained, they become indignant, even enraged. Almost without exception the parents of such children have not had the courage to consistently teach them what behaviors are unacceptable. These parents are actually afraid of their own children. How does this happen?
In order to be happy, what we all want most is to feel loved. Old people want love. Children want love. Parents want love. Truck drivers and school teachers want love. Everybody wants love. And because the absence of love is so intolerably painful, we all tend to get love wherever we can find it. For most of us that means a lifetime of manipulating everyone around us for Imitation Love, because we can't find—or in many cases, have never even seen—Real Love. When we're empty and in pain, any relief at all is welcome.
Although it is rarely conscious, most parents use their children as an enormous source of Imitation Love. This is entirely understandable, since with relatively little effort—a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, for example, or a trip to the mall—children will reward parents with praise and approval, while it is usually much more difficult for parents to get the same degree of approval from other adults. Having found this well of Imitation Love, most parents are reluctant—terrified, actually—to do anything that might interfere with its continued flow. When their children make demands, therefore, these parents tend to give in. They are afraid to say No.
This parental fear produces children who feel entitled to do whatever they want. If anyone dares to tell them No, they feel victimized and justified in lashing out against the offender. When adults correct them, they're irritated rather than humbled. Instead of taking direction, they're offended. And they solicit support for their dramas of victimhood. If a teacher corrects a student, for example, he or she commonly stirs up the parents to come to his or her aid, taking sides against the teacher.
When parents need the approval of their children, they instantly become hostages to their children. They can't say No to them, because the children then become annoyed, and the parents can't tolerate the withdrawal of approval. Regrettably, these parents then become worthless to their children, and the children effectively become orphans.
These children have no adult guidance, so they attempt to rule their own lives, as well as the lives of those around them. In the case of the elementary school in Waycross, this could have resulted in serious injury or even death. And how would the coroner have attributed the death? He could have described it as being secondary to knife wounds, but it would have been more accurate to say "Death due to lack of parental guidance," or "Death by insufficient parental No's,"—in short, "Death by no No."
More than anything else, our children need to be loved, but loving them does not mean giving them whatever they want and creating in them a sense of spoiled entitlement. Children need to be loved and taught. They need us to guide them, which means on many occasions that we must guide them away from activities that would be harmful to them.
We must teach them what they need to learn—which is often difficult and even painful—rather than give them what they want.
In the process of loving them, therefore, we must sometimes tell them No. We don't need to do this with anger, but we must have the courage to make decisions they won't like and be willing to lose their approval. In fact, because learning requires growth and struggle, if our children always like our decisions, it's very likely that we're not teaching them what they truly need.
Want to learn how?
Eliminate confusion and conflict with your children.