Living with Children: Model emotional control for your kids
As I crisscross the country in public speaker mode, I poll people in various demographic categories. I ask how they were raised, what their parents were like, how their parents disciplined, how they raised their own kids, their perceptions of how their kids are raising their grandkids and so on. Most of the folks in question don’t have any idea I’m polling them, which I think generally results in answers that are spontaneous and forthright.
One question I ask of people across the age spectrum: “Did your parents talk to you much about your feelings?” If yes, I then ask, “Did they seem to feel it was important that you got in touch with and expressed your feelings?”
Most folks in the below-45 age group answer yes to both questions. By contrast, I’ve yet to meet someone around my own age (1940s or 1950s baby boomer) who has answered yes to either question. Boomers, especially the older ones, think the questions are funny, in fact.
“Are you kidding?” is a typical response.
I have a decent memory of my childhood and I don’t remember my parents ever having a conversation with me about emotional matters. On those occasions when I was emoting about something, they’d usually tell me that crying or moping or whatever I was doing wasn’t going to help matters, that I needed to think clearly and figure out how I was going to solve the problem, whatever it was. In that regard at least, my childhood experience seems to have been the norm.
It was not even unusual for a child in the 1950s to occasionally hear, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about,” usually said in a gruff, masculine voice. Mind you, I’m not promoting that policy, simply reporting it. A better way of saying the same thing: “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. When you can get control of yourself, we’ll talk about it.”
Mental health professionals, as their perceived cultural significance began to wax in the late 1960s, seized upon this to make the case that kids raised prior to the advent of what I call “psychological parenting” — including yours truly — were not allowed to express feelings freely. That is correct. We were being trained in responsible, pro-social behavior, and it goes without saying that adults who feel entitled to express their feelings freely are not desirable as next-door neighbors, friends, spouses or even seatmates on cross-country flights. The habit of expressing one’s feelings freely is typical of people who are known to “suffer” from inflated view of self disorder.
We boomers were taught that emotions are private things, to be kept under wraps for the most part. Our parents, by and large, were able to recognize feelings that needed to be affirmed and those that did not. One of the most important of all understandings concerning feelings has to do with the fact that the authenticity of a feeling and the power of a feeling are not one and the same. Powerful feelings can be and often are self-destructive as well as destructive to relationships.
Thinking clearly is more important than “being in touch” with and expressing one’s feelings, and thinking clearly requires good emotional control. That’s why it is so vital that parents model excellent emotional control and insist, lovingly, upon the same from their kids.
Start early. In the example of a toddler who throws fits when things aren’t to his liking, assign them to a “tantrum place” — a benign, neutral place where tantrums can be isolated and run their course. My daughter’s tantrum place was the half-bath (aka powder room) downstairs. We began using the tantrum place when she was approaching her third birthday, the understanding being that she could let herself out when she had restored self-control. From that point on, her tantrums were far, far fewer and lasted no more than a few minutes. A fair arrangement, I’d say.