Parents truthfully have no knowledge of what our kids should or shouldn’t do. I’m quite certain that most parents would ardently disagree with this statement. And even though I wrote this and wholeheartedly agree with it, I sometimes act as if I do think I know what my daughter should/shouldn’t do. So why, if we parents truly don’t know what our children should do, do we keep up the charade?

We believe that parenting is about teaching our children what to do

Whether you call it “teaching,” “training,” “guiding,” or “parenting,” most of us see ourselves in the capacity of “wise elder” to our child’s “beginner” status. Unconsciously or consciously we see our children as lacking knowledge of how to behave and we feel compelled to build that knowledge base. There are two problems with this perspective:

  1. It casts our children as “less than” rather than whole, worthy, and enough exactly as they are; and it casts us as “better than” rather than simply a child with more enculturation.
  2. It ascribes to us a false sense of authority which can shut down our child’s openness to alternative ideas and also put us on a very shaky pedestal of omniscience.

What I believe that most parents know is how our culture tells us to behave and how we actually do behave. We’ve assimilated the beliefs of our culture and made up other beliefs out of our own growing up experience. We call it by many names — the “rules,” the “way life works,” the “facts” — but the truth is that our shoulds/shouldn’ts are merely beliefs.

“Forgive him, for he believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature.”

~ George Bernard Shaw

As I look at the world we’ve created, I’d say that the ways we’re actually behaving aren’t working well (or at all). And, from a cultural standpoint, it’s valuable to remember that there’s a motive behind all the “shoulds,” and the motive isn’t usually very concerned with the actual well-being of our children (e.g., people should be patriotic so they’ll do whatever their government officials tell them to do).

What motivates our parenting mindset?

Our shoulds/shouldn’ts are just a group of beliefs that we pass off as the unquestionable, universal truth. These beliefs are informed by other beliefs that tend to run our lives because we rarely examine them or ask if they are true. These driving beliefs shed light on what often motivates us to “teach” our children. When we tell our children “you should be nice” or “you shouldn’t tell a lie,” these beliefs are driven by one or more of the following beliefs:

  • Behaving (or not) this way is the “right” thing to do and being “right” is important.
  • Behaving (or not) this way makes me feel better about myself because I judge myself by what you do.
  • Behaving (or not) this way keeps me safe because others are judging me by what you do and they have power over me.
  • Behaving (or not) this way makes my life easier and that’s what’s important.

What can we do instead?

First, tell the truth. Be honest with both yourself and your children. Here are some specific ways to be more honest as a parent.

  • Help your children know that there actually is not a list of “shoulds” or “should nots” that are verifiably true. People, cultures, religions, and institutions (groups of people) have preferences and even claim that their beliefs are true, but they are simply beliefs.
  • Use honest language when talking with your child. Say things like, “It’s easier for me if you…” or “Right now I’m tired and I want you to…” rather than “You should…”
  • Model honesty by refusing to “should” on yourself. Just as there is no way your child should/shouldn’t behave, there is no prescribed way that you have to act either. Start making conscious choices about what you do rather that letting anyone else’s rules run your life.

Second, work with your child to find ways of being that create harmony rather than discord. Instead of relying on the handed down list of “rules,” talk about behaviors that foster respect and connection and those that create discord and separation. Remember that these behaviors are for children and parents alike and not simply parental edicts disguised in gentle language.

Our children learn from us constantly, including those times when we’re not consciously “teaching” them. Instead of relying on inherited lists of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts,” consider leaving all these rules of “right” and “wrong” by the wayside as you parent your children. At first it may seem more challenging to plow new ground, but you’ll find that parenting honestly and creatively will ultimately bring you and your child closer together as you determine how you choose to behave as a family.

“There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving and that’s your own self.”

~ Aldous Huxley