Lifestyle

Dr. Elaine Heffner: Who’s the boss?

Dr. Elaine Heffner More Content Now
Posted: Mar. 12, 2019 9:24 am

The pattern in relationships between young people these days seems to be one of living together before marriage - or at times no marriage. Years ago, the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead declared that everyone should be allowed one marriage free - meaning an easy divorce if it didn’t last. Her exception was once there were children involved marriage required a different commitment.

Living with someone is itself a commitment, which can be unexpectedly challenging. A young man who was living with his girlfriend told me he had learned the difference between neat and clean. He demonstrated by gathering some papers lying on the desk and putting them in a tidy pile, saying what he did was make them neat, it was not clean. Clean meant throwing away the ones that were useless.

While amused by his girlfriend’s differing definitions, he was proud of having mastered the distinction between them. This led into a discussion about having to learn about differences between another and oneself. Having to accommodate to these differences can be challenging when it may involve changing something about oneself - as in thinking of oneself as neat and discovering it doesn’t meet another’s idea of clean.

In a women’s conscious raising group some years back, the women complained about the theory that men would share in household chores. A man washing the kitchen floor was useless - not their idea of clean - and invariably had to be done over. Along these lines a father complained that he couldn’t handle the baby the way his wife could.

I asked the mother of teenage twins commended by others for their behavior what her secret was. Seeming surprised, she said all she has done is tell them what is expected of them in various situations. When I identified that as setting appropriate expectations she elaborated, explaining that she taught them what the appropriate behavior should be ahead of time.

There is a connection between learning from a mate what is expected and the learning that takes place from parents as young children. From infancy on, parents have the job of socializing their children who begin life focused on their own needs and gradually have to learn to consider the needs and wishes of others. This is a process that at some points confronts both children and their parents with the fact that they may not always want the same thing.

As children mature they develop their own voices and at times may defy parents wishes or assert their own wishes that may differ from those of their parents. Such conflicts are characteristic of the child-rearing years and present parents with the challenge of giving recognition to children’s wishes while maintaining appropriate expectations for their behavior.

The ability to consider the needs of others while still considering your own needs is not easy, and it is even harder to teach to young children who have not yet developed an awareness of the needs of others. The not yet socialized behavior of young children can be provocative and often leads to various attempts at getting their compliance to adult wishes. It would be so much easier for parents to just be the boss and children to obey - or so it may seem.

As parents, being boss and giving orders is often a fallback position with our children and at times this carries over into adult relationships. Having experienced that as children ourselves, deferring to someone else’s wishes may feel as if they are boss.

But considering someone else’s wishes doesn’t mean they are boss. Also, asking for what you want doesn’t make you boss.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.

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