Our job as parents is not to establish relationships with our children where they depend on us and we depend on them. Our job is to create a learning environment powerful enough to allow our children to venture out in the world, independent from us, where they can survive and thrive.
How many times have you heard someone say that we bring children into the world because we have a lot of love to give? From a strictly biological perspective, this is untrue. Sperm can fertilize an egg with or without love. But, as we always talk about here, we should challenge this assumption further. From drdavidhamilton.com:
Much of the reason for this seems to lie in the development of the brain. The brain grows rapidly in the first few years after birth but, contrary to most people’s assumptions, this is not entirely according to a genetic program. The program runs in the context of the child’s environment. If the environment is rich in love, affection, attention and positive emotion, then the brain receives the emotional nourishment it needs and grows according to plan. But where the child doesn’t receive this emotional nourishment, the program runs differently and brain growth in some key areas (as well as whole-body growth) slows down.
Sharing love with a child is undoubtedly critical. I buy into attention and certainly physical touch. However, we’ve been brainwashed about what we think love means. In many ways, parenting to most Americans looks like a heart-to-heart sit down with our kids, one where we lecture about good and bad, right and wrong. That’s less necessary than what our kids witness in us as we navigate our own lives. From Wisc.edu:
In the world of the social sciences, this phenomenon is known as modeling. And it is one of the most fundamental dimensions of raising a moral, prosocial child. Children pay more attention to what an adult does than to what an adult merely says. As psychologist Nancy Eisenberg reports, “socializers who preach…but do not model…may have little positive effect on children’s prosocial development.” This, of course, is a common and simple insight, yet it opens up a profound perspective on modern society and its effects on children. For in order to determine what values children are learning as they grow up, we must look first at what adults are doing, not what they are saying; at the way things appear to children, not the way things appear to us.
This is the very simple “monkey see, monkey do” argument…except it’s not so simple. Our brains have actually evolved to copy behaviors more strongly than other primates, and that evolution is key to our shared experience as human beings. From psychcentral.com:
Scientists “have been finding this odd effect where children will copy everything that they see an adult demonstrate to them, even if there are clear or obvious reasons why those actions would be irrelevant,” says psychologist Mark Nielsen, of the University of Queensland in Australia. “It’s something that we know that other primates don’t do.” If a chimpanzee is shown an irrelevant action, they won’t copy it — they’ll skip right to the action that makes something happen…“Perhaps not a game, but certainly, when I demonstrate the action, it’s purposeful. So from the mind of a child, perhaps there’s a reason why I’m doing this…Really, we see these sorts of behaviors as being a core part of developing this human cultural mind, where we’re so motivated to do things like those around us and be like those around us.”
Throughout adolescence, this modeling takes on increased importance. As my kids become more men and less kids, they are venturing off on their own more. They are becoming more independent, which is the goal of every parent. The natural consequence is that I am less physically present to deliver lectures. It doesn’t diminish my involvement, but what they really need is trust and modeling powerful behavior.
Over the past 9 months, I have operationalized this philosophy. My decision to return to baseball was not one I made lightly, or on my own. I shared this with them bluntly and presented explicitly what the immediate future held.
“For the next few years, I’m going to be working…a lot. You’ll see me in the kitchen, on the phone, staring at a computer much of the time. It’s going to be more difficult for us to spend extended periods of time together. I’m going to be traveling quite a bit. It’s going to be tough.”
I then, of course, presented what I’d be doing, what I’d be invested in and why I’d be choosing to spend my time in that fashion. I had considered the upside/downside of the proposition and was convinced that I’d be able to set examples appropriately along the way. In some ways, this was the best of both worlds. They don’t need their dad to chaperone times with their friends, and I’d be provided with endless opportunities to demonstrate the critical skills they’re developing. I would be responding to pressure in their presence, illustrating what it means to be resourceful, to extinguish fires and to manage relationships.
In the meantime, they were and are doing more and more alone and in their own space and time. In the months to come, Dane will be turning 14 and Chase 16. They are men and are exploring the world independent of their father’s work. They are learning through their own personal experiences and through the osmosis that occurs when they spend time with Lisa and me. They don’t need lectures, they don’t need arbitrary rules; they need to subconsciously sponge their respective atmospheres.