Yes, we do not want to neglect our kids. Yes, we do not want to hurt them and break them. That doesn't seem like rocket science, does it? We all, as parents, want to the avoid those obvious errors. Kids need nurturing, and they need to be able to feel safe in their home, so neglect, verbal, emotional, and physical abuse, and a home filled with strife and hostility are things all of us want to avoid for our children. I hope we're all on the same page so far, right?
But I have learned the hard way that the opposite error is also quite damaging to them: walking around, feeling bad for them as though they are deprived, fragile, neglected victims. "Poor little Johnny", resonates in our minds, even unconsciously, impacting the way we treat them and, in turn, how they act and see themselves in this world. We feel afraid for them... afraid that they are or will be damaged because of something that happened. We feel bad. We feel guilty.
So we over-indulge them, we expect too little of them, we are inconsistent with consequences and discipline, we have no boundaries with them, allowing them to walk all over us, we fear raising our voices so as not to damage their fragile little egos, and we treat them like they are poor little babies who missed out on or lack something. Maybe we feel guilty for our own failures, real or imagined. Maybe we feel bad because of unwanted circumstances that we could not or cannot presently do anything about. Whatever the reason is, when we act in this way toward them, a number of very, very bad things happen.
First of all, we are suppressing our true selves. For example, we are suppressing the good anger we feel when they act out, anger that could manifest itself in healthy correction and instruction. We are instead presenting to them a one-downed, milquetoast version of ourselves that is easy to manipulate and always afraid of doing anything that might cause a bad reaction. And because of that, the burial of our feelings only lasts so long... until we blow up on them. After our angry explosion, we feel guilty and bad for them even more, only perpetuating this destructive cycle.
Second, we are treating them in a very harmful way. Kids who are treated like they can't do anything for themselves believe they can't do anything for themselves because that is what we are teaching them. Kids who are treated like they are fragile believe they are fragile because that is what we are teaching them. Kids who are treated like they are victims believe they are victims because that is what we are teaching them. Kids who are treated like they are deprived believe they are deprived because that is what we are teaching them. And if that isn't bad enough, still more might happen... you wind up with a child who is not just sullen and insecure but a monster: an angry child with an overbearing sense of entitlement, believing that the world is unfair because it should always help them out, feel bad for them, running to their every request, and coddle them like an over-protective mother.
The best thing you can do for your kids is to stop feeling "bad" for them. If you put that on them they will use it. They will either fulfill the role you put on them as the fragile, insecure victim or they will learn to be manipulative tyrants or both.
Whatever it is that makes you feel bad for them, let it go. They best thing you can do for them is to be consistent with age-appropriate expectations and consequences. Treat them like the equal they are becoming. Treat them like little people who can learn, can face adversity, can bounce back, can make decisions, and most of all can be expected to act kindly and responsibly for themselves in this world.
Yes, I expect you to listen to me.
Yes, I expect you to not yell.
Yes, I expect you to not hit, stomp, and throw tantrums.
Yes, I expect you to pick up after yourself.
Yes, I expect you to be able to do things by yourself and not need constant attention.
Yes, I expect you to be able to get along with others.
Yes, I expect you to help out around the house.
Yes, I expect you to understand that you cannot always get what you want.
Yes, I expect you to understand that I (and others) cannot and will not always drop everything to run to your every request. You are important to me, but the world does not revolve around you and that is ok.