Parents must be careful about the way they handle the instinct to shelter their children from criticism, from—in your face, no way of denying it—failure, and from being confronted by the successes of siblings. Yes it’s cruel and cheap to cultivate a brutal culture of vying for the parent’s approval or to force them into competitions for your love, but a certain amount of natural, robust competition is healthy and honest and will prepare them for a world that’s not fair.
If nothing else, the refusal to accommodate yourself to their young egos helps them to have a sane estimate of themselves and their abilities and—like the ‘wounds of the faithful friend’ in the book of Proverbs—steps on the proud egg-shells of what might be called egalitarian jealousy. A jealousy that’s incubated by our obsession with making everyone feel happy. An ailment by the way that CS Lewis nailed when he said that the person who says, ‘I’m as good as you,’ wouldn’t say it if it was true.
The dictum ‘all men are equal’ is a useful (and important) fiction for hospitals, parliaments and the courtrooms but how can it be true in that deeper sense when genetics, environment and the accidents of culture all conspire to deal very different hands of cards to every single child on the planet? To assume such equality is, in fact, cruel and does not allow for extra time and assistance, or the special consideration for example, that a visually-impaired child might require.
To attempt to manage these challenges and complications of love by dumbing everything down and doling out indulgent, scripted love-speak evenly to every child is just plain uncreative and a frontal assault on trust and respect. A bit like making them play a game of ’emperor’s new clothes’. Except that the emperor (the child) never asked to be a part of the deal.
On the one hand we fail awfully (even as adults) when we act as if conversation is about saying exactly what you mean and meaning exactly what you say—leave that for the courtroom. We are humans and to try to make ordinary conversation around the home a vehicle of some exact science will only make matters worse. For all of us—children or adults—most of the time the game of conversation must have some sideways element to it because of the inadequacy of language to carry all the nuances of love and joy, hope and faith.
I dare you to try an experiment in conversation by going with the the full frontal approach for a day. You won’t even make an hour most likely. Before long you will feel like your home and dinner table have become school/work discussions or something. The fact is that most of our communication comes via symbols, rituals and stories, not via Q&A and ‘important pronouncements’. If you don’t have such symbols and rituals make sure you pour your heart and soul into creating some that allow joy, hope and grace to permeate your home. I mean, who ever communicated to another that they were a joy to them simply by telling them? Using words for such a communique might well be one of the biggest mistakes you will ever make.
So, if we don’t incorporate symbol, ritual, story and way of life into this process of bringing loving affirmation to our children, we are forced to attempt to cram it all into the cerebral realm of spoken words. Thus the epic problem our secular friends have created for themselves. Witness artworks in regional galleries by secular artists who imagine they can simply manufacture spiritual art for God’s sake! You can get away with it for a while with children but sooner or later it comes back with a bite via lampoonery and jokes.
Children are not fools. If you refuse to look to non-verbal means as the major arterials of joy, your children will eventually feel that something screwy is going on 1. Because your ‘correct speak’ will have a banal* smell about it 2. Because genuine love is always ingenious at not doing that sort of thing. 3. Because (if you are a person of faith) it will have an unctuous** feel to it. So beware the child who has caught you out on all three counts and knows now that that mum and dad are not being on-the-level with them.
Not that cerebral-speak is all bad. For example, one of the greatest compliments a parent can pay their child (at the right ages, stages and moments) is to be graciously transparent with them about their weaknesses and thereby assist them to manage these vulnerabilities and perhaps even grow through them and overcome them. Failing that, they will at least have a sane and honest estimate of themselves.
In the end, if the child never receives any painful feedback from a parent, they have no alternative than to conclude that this is a dishonest relationship and respect becomes a casualty. On the other hand, if you grasp the process nettle, you as a parent will probably realise that some of your old wounds are in the mix too.
That leaves you with the challenge of how this can be best communicated. Assuming that the symbols, rituals, stories and way of life are happening. Such things can also be processed via a long, slow, intermittent conversation that might last two weeks or ten years. Yes, you are approaching volcanic territory and you will need all your wits about you, but this is not a time for denial or procrastination. Both of you are heading into uncharted territory so try to begin like an explorer meeting another explorer (your child) and go from there. And don’t forget to invite the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) to join you both on the journey.
* so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring
** excessively flattering or ingratiating; oily