Parenting, Experimentation, and Values. Can You Find Balance?

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There’s an interesting article here about a father whose 2 year old son likes to wear dresses, and the father’s reaction to it (he allows and supports it.)  This got me thinking about the general topic of parenting, and the specific topics of judgment, control, acceptance, and values that play such strong roles in parenting.

There are many factors that contribute to how someone feels about a boy wearing a dress. At the center of course is the person’s general attitude towards sexuality, and homosexuality in particular. If a parent believes that this is fine, then there would be no reason to address this behavior. If a parent believes it’s “wrong” however, then the parent must decide how to react.

Childhood is really one huge process of experimentation. While growing up, children are constantly having victories and defeats, successes and failures. This takes place on a major scale, when the developing child makes big decisions that clearly will affect the rest of life, as well as on a microcosmic scale – each day and every moment, the child is experimenting – trying different things, seeing the effect they have. Every tiny social interaction, every action that has a consequence, no matter how small, is part of the experience of childhood. Learning about what works and what doesn’t, and applying those lessons to achieve success, is what shapes each child’s unique personality.

Making mistakes is a very important part of this process. A child must have the opportunity to make mistakes in order to have the opportunity to learn from these, and gradually adapt as a result. An overprotective parent who excessively shields a child from making mistakes is doing the child a disservice, as this will result in a lack of confidence and independence. The more mistakes a child has the opportunity to make and learn from, the more successful they will likely be in life.

So what role does the parent play?

Simply put, a good parent is a guide and a safety net. Parenting researchers find that the most successful children have parents who use an “authoritative” style. This is a style that maintains a balance between the two extremes of control. One extreme is “authoritarian,” which involves excessive control, punishment, rigidity, lack of flexibility, etc., and which often results in rebelliousness, low self-esteem, anger, and anxiety. The opposite extreme, “permissiveness,” is characterized by extreme lack of rules/boundaries and allows the child to do whatever he/she wants with no consequences – this leads to confusion because the child does not learn rules, and does not feel comfortable or secure in life as a result.

Authoritative parenting sets clear rules, clear consequences for both positive and negative behaviors, and encourages communication between parent and child to establish, understand, and maintain these boundaries. This provides structure without being stifling, and allows for healthy experimentation and growth.

An analogy: a seat belt in a car. A good seat belt will feel comfortable, not too tight, not too loose. When things are fine and the car is operating normally, it is very flexible, allows free movement, and constantly adjusts its level of tightness based on a person’s movement. but if something catastrophic happens and the car suddenly stops short or gets hit, it instantly tightens up and becomes completely locked and immovable, holding the passenger back from smashing forward and potentially saving his or her life.

The authoritative style of parenting allows the child to actively experiment more, because the child knows that the parent is always watching, “has their back”, and will prevent them from going too far. And the more experimentation a child is able to do, the more confident and successful they will likely be throughout life.

Another analogy: this dynamic is similar to a rock-climbing wall: a climber will take more chances and try riskier moves when they are suspended from a safety-rope harness than if they are not. It’s a feeling of safety, and allows caution to be lowered.

To summarize:
 In my view, healthy parenting allows the child as much flexibility as possible  to experiment in all different ways while constantly providing a “safety net” to prevent the child from making bad decisions that can cause serious or long-term damage. Constantly monitoring the child and being flexible to the factors in the child’s life, allowing as much free movement as possible to allow the child to try as many different experiences and mini-experiments as possible, and developing the confidence that comes from experiencing what works and what does not, while at the same time, being prepared to instantly tighten up and use the authority of parenting to prevent the child from making a dangerous decision that will possibly hurt him or her badly.

Another point – parenting requires honesty, no matter how painful. Good parents are honest with their beliefs, and what is really motivating them. Because children are deeply emotionally intuitive and can sense even the slightest insincerity, no matter how unintentional.

For a topic that does not evoke an emotional reaction, it’s easier to categorize a parenting belief and policy: for example teaching a child that stealing is wrong because: 1: God said so, 2: it violates an ethical code that is easy to explain, and 3: society needs rules or else it will implode. With a topic like sexuality however it’s not so simple, because every person has deep emotional and visceral reactions that have nothing to do with right, wrong, God, or anything other than that person’s own life experience. It’s easy to hide it all behind a religious or moral stance, but many times this is disingenuous. When a parent represents a lesson as being for one reason when it is really for a different one, the child will sense this and become confused.

Children crave honesty. Children crave a connection with their parents. A major part of this is seeing their parents as normal human beings that they can relate to, not omniscient perfect beings with no flaws or problems. One of the most valuable lessons a parent can transmit is how to cope with the negative parts of life. When a child sees a parent struggle, deal with problems, deal with their own flaws and imperfection, that’s where the child learns the real lessons of life. Later, when real-life problems come up, those lessons will be put to use, and the child who has seen a parent demonstrate positive, effective coping strategies is the child who is most likely to succeed.

So, whenever a parenting lesson is being taught, it is vitally important for the parent to be honest with the child. If the parent has a feeling of discomfort with any topic, if the parent is unsure or confused, that must be communicated clearly. No parent enjoys telling a child about their own internal struggles and insecurities. But showing the child that it’s ok to have these experiences and feelings, that not every answer is clear, and that struggling to find what we believe is an essential part of life, is really one of the most valuable lessons a parent can transmit. This is not fun. But no one said good parenting is easy 🙂

And, of course, acceptance plays into this dialectic as well. At what level does the parent accept what a child does even if it is against the parent’s beliefs? Clearly there is variability here. As an extreme example: if a parent believes that soda is bad and unhealthy but the child decides to drink soda anyway, it is unlikely the parent will reject that child. However, if a child becomes a rapist, murderer, or something else extremely bad, it is very likely the parent will reject him or her. So the question is where does the parent “draw the line?” If a child chooses a career path the parent does not approve of, if the parent does not approve of a child’s sexuality, if a child rejects some or all of a parent’s value or belief systems – Does the parent reject the child? Accept the child wholeheartedly for who he/she is? Try to find a middle ground of rejecting the behavior while accepting the child?

And getting back to the topic that we started with: even if it is somehow wrong for a boy to wear a dress, should the parent allow it? Or stop it? Does it fall into the category of mistakes that are too severe for a child to be allowed to make? Or is it simply a part of healthy development, and the child should be allowed to experiment and come to his own conclusions?

I hope you weren’t expecting an answer from me! Please comment with your opinion below….



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