But there was a reason why we didn’t like it being said to us, and why we remembered it. There’s every chance the child we are saying it to, will remember it one day also. Children under the age of 12 appear to accept life as it is. Adults think, what they say doesn’t really matter, because the child is so young, but the very opposite is true. Think about it. We remember what was said to us!
Children lack the discernment we have as adults, and with it, they are unable to analyse the content, intention or meaning of what adults say. Instead they take it all in. They are more concerned with their survival. They know survival depends on their parents and other adults, so they accept what feels out of their control, and adapt themselves to pleasing others.
Young children mimic those they love in an attempt to ensure their protection, and learn about being judged and punished for doing things adults don’t approve of. They learn that conformity leads to acceptance and belonging, and this feels like they are loved. We see children displaying the qualities they know we like in them, and trying to control or hide the ones we don’t.
No parent wants to be a hypocrite by telling their children to do one thing while they display the opposite. Understanding that children are naturally vulnerable and dependant, they trust in the adults to be fair and just, consistent and reasonable in their interactions with them, and when this doesn’t happen they feel let down.
When parents misuse this trust, don’t act to protect, and are inconsistent, the child feels unsafe and unsure about the outer world. To protect themselves they respond by building walls, withdrawing, rebelling or taking over control. This is how they cope. The impact of our actions are overlooked and instead the child is labelled – naughty and rebellious, aloof and preferring to be alone, a perfectionist, a little mother, or bossy.
Life becomes complicated for the child, as they are torn between trusting and mistrusting adults. They have to trust in adults to meet their basic needs for protection, food, shelter and warmth. At the same time they don’t trust in them meeting their emotional needs, being sensitive to their experiences or understanding what occurs in their interactions with adults.
This disappointment in human nature forms as adults don’t recognise the impact their ‘do as I say not as I do’ has on them.
As a child I gained insight on this lesson when my father said to me one day that ‘his experiences in life meant that he couldn’t do everything he would tell me to do. He would sound like a hypocrite but it wasn’t that, he just wanted a better life for me.’
I never forgot those words, and I loved him even more for having the integrity to own his limitations, and share them with me. I grew up, knowing he wanted me to have a better life than he had. That helped me want to honour his life by making sure I did learn how to do what he didn’t have the skills to do.
After the age of 12 the cognitive development occurring brings with it the capacity to judge, analyse, evaluate and allocate value of good and bad to the young person’s experiences. The ‘teenage years’ carry this challenge as parents fall from the all loving, all perfect mummy and daddy to the ‘uncool, stupid oldies.’
All those ‘because I told you so,’ ‘do as I say not as I do,’ come back to bite as the teenager may interpret the parents actions as hypocritical. The assumption made is that the parents don’t know any better, and the teenager doesn’t want to be like that.
Parents can take some simple steps to minimise the impact of hypocrisy on their children.
- If you don’t have a good reason for your children not to do something, then don’t tell them ‘because I said so.’ If you do have a good reason, tell them what it is, as you tell them how you want them to behave.
- Focus on children learning skills. Even put yourself in the uncomfortable position of learning skills you didn’t learn as a child because your parents didn’t know how to do something. This shows your child that it’s okay to take a risk, to feel uncomfortable and scared, but to conquer the fear and grow. If you can do this together, you will develop a team approach to problems that builds on support, trust and openness with your children.
- Create an environment of sharing knowledge and skills. Spend time having your child teach you something new, and then you teach them something new.
- Be honest about your emotional energy without explaining and burdening your children. Often the real reason we say ‘because I said so’ is due to tiredness, exhaustion and personal stresses. By telling our children that ‘today we are really tired and so we may be grumpier’ they learn about real life and real emotions. It will help them be more honest about their emotions, and the poor behaviours that stem from them.
- Be a good role model. By holding ourselves accountable, our children learn to hold themselves accountable.
The time spent implementing these strategies with children under 12 will be rewarded as those children grow up into teenagers. Much of the rebellion experienced during the teenage years stems from their disappointment in their parents, and their personal need to define who they are.
These strategies allow parents to be human, rather than perfect, while also allowing the child/teenager to develop an understanding of themselves with self-worth, dignity, honesty and respect.
We are always growing and learning more about who we are, as we experience the many different ups and downs of life. Building resilience in our children is vital when facing the intensity of multimedia, advertising, peer pressure and technology present to young people today.
There has never been a more essential time to consolidate family life than now because of the pressure pulling it apart. Lessons of injustice will always exist. It’s not about avoiding injustice but building the resilience, courage and tenacity within our children so they can grow beyond their life experiences. This is the task parents are now charged with.
What can you do, to help build resilience in your children or even grandchildren?