Cornering a Slippery Child

Difficult children play a shell game shifting between 3 reasons it's your fault.

Posted Aug 06, 2017

Child-rearing is paradoxical. You have to love your child unconditionally but hold them to high standards, set them free but impose firm boundaries, let them become who they will but prevent them from becoming unacceptable adults. You have to hold them responsible while remembering that they’re not fully responsible. And all of this while tracking a moving target, guessing what at their current state of development can be expected of them.

None of this is difficult with an easy child, one who comes by a moral compass on schedule without a lot of coaxing. Having easy children is largely a matter of luck. You might as easily get a child who, despite your best efforts makes only sluggish progress in maturing beyond the terrible twos.

I have one of each. With the harder child, whenever I set a fatherly standard he had three basic responses:

  1. Cut me slack. I’m trying my best and can’t meet that standard.
  2. Stop being prejudiced against me. I’m meeting your standard and you refuse to acknowledge it.
  3. Broaden your mind. I shouldn’t have to meet your old and narrow standard. I just march to a different drummer.

Each of these responses shifted responsibility to me. He’d pull out whichever one he intuited was the shortest escape route from taking responsibility. No matter which of the three he favored in the moment, he presented it with supreme authority, tutoring me on the right way to parent him.

For years I’d lie in awake bed after an exhausting day working it out with him. I’d pour over the details of our conflicts, his advice, the advice of others, therapists who thought it was this, that, or the other thing. Those nights gave me time enough to distill the guidance down to my three self-scoldings, and then to see beyond them

1. He can’t do better. I should cut him slack. He has a deficit. It’s unconscionable to expect a handicapped child to do what’s beyond him. You don’t berate your blind child for not seeing. Shame on me.

2. I’m too hard on him. He’s doing fine. Our years of conflict have prejudiced me against him. Shame on me. Where’s the unconditional love? Praise him for his accomplishments and he’ll only improve.

3. I’m too narrow-minded. The world is changing. He’s on his own path, different from mine, but no less valid. Set him free to march to his different drummer. Shame on me. It’s ego to think he has to meet my narrow standards.

Decades later, my son is marching to his own drummer, I suppose, though he’s not happy the results. Occasionally we’ll have a few months in which we can talk like two adults, but it doesn’t last. More often our interactions are a litany of reasons why I ruined his life.

I know the feeling. For years, I didn’t think my life was going so well. I was in therapy trying to figure out what went wrong and was too fragile to take any responsibility for it, so I too scrounged around for evidence that my parents had raised me wrong.

That ended when my life started to feel on track. I never answered the question “why did I turn out this way?” I got over it. When you’re on track, you no longer ask “why am I off track?” My son, now middle aged hasn’t stopped asking because by his own standards he’s off track.

I still get the shell game from him, the three alternating excuses for himself that lay the blame from the three directions always at my feet, and now with the added excuse that I’ve never been willing to admit my errors, despite countless conversations in which I inventoried my mistakes.

These latest bouts have me thinking about the consequences I should have imposed when he was younger.

1. If you can’t meet the standards, I’ll lower them for you. I’ll regard you as handicapped and you’ll live with that just as a blind child lives with his blindness. I won’t humor you any more than the parent of a blind child pretends the child can see. If you don’t want to admit you have the handicap, you’ll get no enabling from me.

2. If you claim you’re meeting the standards, when I’m confident that you’re not, you’ll lose credibility with me and will pay that price. I will not be tutored on how to trust your impulsive self-justification over my careful assessment. I’ll hold you as perfectly capable of doing the right thing, not handicapped, but self-serving. And I’ll make sure you pay the price for not meeting the standard. You’re not handicapped; you’re indulgent and will pay for not meeting the standard and for lying about it.

3. If you say that you shouldn’t have to meet the standard because you are from another culture that I, in my narrowness, can’t understand, I’ll take your word for it. The world is wider than any of us know. There are many standards. Mine are local and I know it. Still, if you make a different lifestyle bed, you sleep in it. Place any bet you like on how to live knowing that if, by midlife you regret it, I won’t be there to bail you out.

The other night I was thinking I should have cornered my son with these three shell game consequences. To that end, I rewrote the children’s story, Henny Penny:

Henny penny wanted help baking some bread so she asked her neighbor Donald Duck.

“I can’t help you today, I’m
soooo sick” said Donald. 

OK” said Henny Penny. “Maybe tomorrow.”

The next day she asked Donald again. 

“I don’t like bread,” said Donald. “You know, not everyone has your tastes.”

“Hmm…” said Henny Penny. “OK, but you could have told me that yesterday.”

So Henny Penny baked the bread all by herself. It was very good. 

Donald came over and asked if he could have some. 

“I thought you said you don’t like bread,” said Henny Penny.

“I like bread a lot!” he said. “I told you I was sick and couldn’t help!”

“That was two days ago,” said Henny Penny.

“But I did help!” said Donald.

“Really? What did you do.”

“Don’t you remember? Yesterday. Um…, I made suggestions for how to bake good bread.”

“Actually,” said Henny Penny, “Yesterday you told me you don’t like bread.”

“You must have misunderstood me,” said Donald. “So can I have some?”

“Well if you had helped I would give you some but since you didn’t help, no.”

“What?!” said Donald. ‘That’s so unfair! You’re not going to share with someone who was sick and then helped? You should be more generous.” 

“Maybe next time if you help,” said Henny Penny.

“No thanks,” said Donald. “I hate bread and especially yours because here I am asking perfectly nicely, and I couldn’t have helped anyway because I was sick. And 
besides, I did help. You’re just mean.”

“Hmm…” said Henny Penny, munching her delicious bread.