My friend Bill O’Hanlon likes to tell about a marriage counselor with a popular parenting course, called “Four Rules for Parents.” People loved it and he was wildly successful. He wasn’t married and had no children, but nevertheless . . .
Then he found his soul mate (always a dangerous move, marrying your soul mate!) and they had a child. After a year or two he changed his course to “Two Rules for parents.” It was still successful.
He and his wife had a second child. After a couple of years he changed his seminar to “Some tentative hints for parents.” That version was successful, but the Universe wasn’t done teaching him. They decided to have another child. After the third child, he abandoned the seminar altogether.
This year my wife and I saw our youngest child married off. All four are now well-married, out of the house, and creating their own futures. So maybe I can offer my rules. There is little doubt, given how unreliable our memories are, that what I offer is mistaken and even irrelevant. Nevertheless . . .
Rule number one: Be lucky. Genetics play a huge role in children’s behavior. If you have a child eagerly riding the Greased Slide to Hell, be at peace. Every family has a few genes from scamps and scalawags and sometimes that is what shows up. I don’t know why Mother Nature has a soft spot in her heart for those scamps, but she does, and they do show up. Given time, those scalawag genes may run their course and you might end up with a decent relationship, at least if you are lucky towards the end of the journey.
Rule number two: Kids need to Do Stuff and Have Fun. The stuff they need to do is sometimes fun, and sometimes it is cleaning up the dishes after dinner and taking out the trash. One hundred years ago we called these “chores” and they involved feeding and milking cows, gathering eggs, and bringing vegetables in from the garden. These chores might not have been much fun but we did them so we could eat. Today we still need to do chores, things that aren’t too fun. So there is some tension between doing and emotional well being.
What that implies is a two-factor approach to parenting: Connection and Compliance. I borrowed that idea from research on leadership effectiveness, mostly based on The Managerial Grid® by Blake and Mouton, a tool for making organizations more effective and efficient. We learn from Blake and Mouton that the best leaders have two simultaneous focuses, or foci if you prefer. Frankly, most of the research on leadership is on these two dimensions.
First, we have a focus on a positive emotional climate. Great leaders make people feel loved. In the Bible, St. Paul taught that love is the most important gift for us, and without love we are nothing. Even so, with children your job is to find them fascinating and a fountain of delight. Sometimes you have to do some searching to find your love for children, especially in the teen years. That is understandable. After all, entropy, or the law that says things tend to run down and become disorganized, is children’s main principle. “As careless as a child” is a simile that all parents endorse. Children innocently destroy, and that which they don’t destroy, they put into weird places and you won’t see it for a year or two.
Second, reversing entropy means shaping children’s behavior toward order, trustworthiness, self-control, compassion for others, and all sorts of similar attributes. That is to say, our job is to help these entropic creatures become resources of order and social contribution. In other words, we teach children to achieve and produce, to contribute to the happiness and well being of others.
Now imagine these two jobs are somewhat at right angles. That is, imagine a horizontal line. On one end is a cool, distant, and even apathetic. It is unlikely but possible that a parent feels nothing for a child, almost in a lizard-like fashion.
On the other end of this line is deep and unmistakable love. This is a parent who, in a heartbeat will give his or her life for the child. They find that delight and appreciation and warmth that is our manifestation of love.
Now you can see that love is not enough. Why not? Because love might not give the grit and self control necessary for the child to be truly happy. Being loved, as you know, is wonderful but it doesn’t pay the rent. When the Beatles sang that love is all we need, they had put in tens of thousands of hours in practice and performance, mastering their craft of popular music. Therefore, they were rich and could pay the rent, unlike Lady Madonna.
So we have to show up. We have to work and produce. When we are helping other people, they give us money, which you can use to buy stuff and do things. A child who learns to work and produce is happy, because she sees that what she does makes a difference to others. All of the discipline and self-control pays off.
So the child’s task is to learn to do hard things, and keep doing them when it isn’t fun any more. The child’s task is to set goals and achieve them through hard, persistent work. The parent’s job is to find ways to motivate the child to do hard things.
Now suppose a vertical line. On the bottom of the line is a child raised with no self-discipline and emotional control. He is at the mercy of momentary impulses. Lacking self management, he lacks the ability to be of value to society. He gets no money and having stuff and doing things is out of the question unless he has a trust fund or squishy parents. Such a one is unhappy because he recognizes, at a deep inner level, that he is of no value.
So now we have a two dimensional map. If we have a 1 – 9 scale on both dimensions, we can see that one could be low on both love and performance, or 1, 1. That is, the parent is both passive and also uncaring. A parent could be high on love and low on performance (the map reading convention I am using is over, then up), or 9, 1. Here are the four quadrants.
One could be high on love, and low on productivity or obedience, or 9, 1.
One could be low on love and high on productivity or obedience, or 1, 9.
One could be average, only moderate on both dimensions, or 5, 5.
One could be both high on love and productivity, or 9, 9.
You can download a PDF version of the graphic below below here: graph; all thanks to Jeff, the noble son on my left, above, your right, who created this version of my original text.
You can quickly see that the strategy of a 9, 1 (low love, high performance) parent is likely to lean toward coercion and punishment. After all, if concern about love is very low, punishment gets people’s attention.
Of course, it also fosters avoidance and lying in children. Punishment is a risky approach. On the other hand, to set a rule that one must never punish means one is acting more like a 9, 1 parent, high love, low performance. The problem is that our happiness comes significantly from being helpful to others, so that child is not going to be a happy one. Rather, the child soon learns to act unhappy so as to get what he wants. This is called “instrumental conditioning.” The child isn’t conscious that unhappiness is his strategy for success. But it is there. What an irony! The parent desperate that the child not experience any unhappiness ends up training the child to constantly experience unhappiness.
That’s enough for now. I’ll follow up on this with some more notions of my own. I worked hard on this, and I have not seen anyone use the same concepts in regards to family happiness. Return the favor: Please leave a comment below. If you like this concept, share it with friends and colleagues.
PS: The photo above is at the end of riding the White Rim Trail, a famous 3 day mountain bike ride through fabulous terrain in Canyonlands National Park. Look it up and put it on your bucket list.