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Do You Really Want Your Child to be Well-Behaved?
by Morty Lefkoe, author of Re-create Your Life: Transforming Yourself and Your World and founder, the Lefkoe Institute
Remember the last time you heard a parent say: "My kids are wonderful. They always obey me." Or, "They never talk back." Or, "They are never a problem." Did you sigh with envy and say, "Oh, I wish my kids were like that"? Think again. What would children have to believe about themselves to always obey, never talk back, or never be a problem?
My wife and I started out as typical parents who sometimes envied those parents with "perfect" children. Then fourteen years ago I developed the Lefkoe Belief Process, a technique that assists people to identify the specific beliefs that are responsible for any dysfunctional behavioral or emotional pattern. Examples include eating disorders, chronic depression or anxiety, being obsessed with what others think of us, and relationships that don't work. After the beliefs are identified, the Lefkoe Belief Process enables people to quickly and permanently eliminate them. When the beliefs disappear, the patterns do also. In our private practices my wife, Shelly, and I have seen thousands of times how the decisions we make in childhood determine how our lives turn out. And how the beliefs that lead to "good behavior" as a child are not necessarily the best beliefs to have later in life.
Most of us would be thrilled if we called our child and told her dinner was ready and we found her sitting at the table seconds later. But what would she have to believe if she was playing when we called and she immediately dropped what she was doing to come to dinner? She would have to consider what we want to be more important than what she wants, which might result from such beliefs as What I want doesn't matter and I'm not important.
The biggest problem many of us have with our younger children is getting them into the car when we have to leave the house. A child who was always ready to leave would bring joy to any parent's heart. But, again, what beliefs would a child have to have to act that way? In addition to the two just named, another belief might be The way to be accepted is to make people happy, to never upset them.
What are the long-term consequences of such beliefs? My client Joan always did what her parents wanted when she was a kid. Her parents described her as "the perfect child." Two of the beliefs that made her compliant as a child were What I want doesn't matter and I'm not important. As an adult these same beliefs led to passive behavior and a sense of victimization. Larry, another client, had concluded early in life: The way to be accepted is to make people happy, to never upset them. His problem as an adult was an obsession with what others thought of him and a fear of expressing his own opinions.
In session after session, hour after hour, I have heard over a thousand clients describe the experiences they had with their parents that resulted in the beliefs they were trying to eliminate as an adult: "My mom and dad always did ..., they never did ..., they always said ..., they never said ...." In my book, Re-create Your Life: Transforming Yourself and Your World, I explain in detail how what parents do and don't do, say and don't say, provide their children with the experiences that the children interpret into beliefs. As Shelly and I began to see how our behavior as parents led to our children forming beliefs that then determined the rest of their lives, we began to question the long-range implications of having children "obey."
Maybe getting children to behave is good for us-as parents, but not necessarily good for our children. It might make our lives easier but what does it do to them? We asked ourselves the question: If we succeed in getting our children to do what we want, and, as a result of our interaction with our child, they form negative self-esteem beliefs-such as, I'm not good enough or I'm not worthwhile, or other negative beliefs, such as, What I want doesn't matter or I'll never get what I want-is what we achieved short term with our children worth the long-term cost?
I'm not saying that our children's behavior on a daily basis is not important. Of course it is. There are some things that children need to do for their health and well-being and there are some things children need to do for our well-being. We clearly would be remiss as parents if we took a totally hands-off attitude and allowed our children to do whatever they wanted. We need to learn parenting skills that enable us to influence our children's behavior when necessary, without leading to negative conclusions.
For example, instead of calling our children just when we are about to sit down to dinner or two minutes before we are about to leave the house, expecting them to drop whatever they are doing because our schedule requires their presence, we can give our children ample warning. Fifteen minutes before we will need them we can ask them what they are doing, acknowledge that it probably is very important to them, and then ask them if they can complete whatever they're doing in fifteen minutes because dinner will be ready, we will be leaving the house, etc. If we treat them with dignity and respect what is important to them, the odds are good they will respect our needs-without forming any negative beliefs about themselves.
And that is the crucial point. The single factor that has the greatest impact on whether or not our children achieve happiness and true satisfaction in life is a healthy self-esteem, a positive sense of life, and other positive beliefs, for example, Relationships work; It's safe to express feelings; and People can be trusted. Nothing they do, learn or feel as children will have as much influence on their adult life as the fundamental beliefs they form as children and take into adulthood.
Given that fact, what do you think that the major role of parents should be? Getting children to behave-or assisting them to create positive decisions about themselves and life?
If you chose the latter, the best way I know to insure that you are getting your job as a parent done is constantly to ask yourself the question: What is my child likely to conclude about him or herself and life as a result of this interaction we just had? If it is a positive decision, congratulations! You got your job done. If it is a negative decision, go back, apologize and clean it up.
After we've changed our focus as parents, from getting our children to obey, to assisting them to create a positive attitude about themselves and life, we may no longer consider the ultimate parenting accolade to be: "Your child is so well-behaved." We may come to prefer: "Your child has such a positive attitude about him or herself and life."
copyright © 1997 Morty Lefkoe