It doesn’t feel so long ago, when I was a child. In fact it was about half an hour ago when my parent scolded me for not turning off the lights.
I’m 31 and as a result of a chance meeting in Berlin, I may have a daughter in Sao Paulo Brazil, a beautiful baby girl. So now, even though I’ve yet to meet and hold her, I think all the time about what it means to be a father and all those movies and shows and comic sketches about kids, hit pretty hard home.
So when I was nagged again as I rent out my house and my car, and crash at my parents guest room while taking a break from a ten year career in engineering, I thought about how they don’t seem to get tired of nagging. At the same time I wondered how it is that I didn’t get tired of their nagging either. That made me pause and think and that is when I realized that I do; but there is a negative trade-off to doing what they want me to do.
You see, my parents are well raised Russian-Jewish kids of doctors, managers and professors and they don’t dole out congratulations for some petty accomplishments; compliments are reserved for special accomplishments and doing well is standard and mistakes are to be highlighted to be fixed. It of course never dawns on them that they require constant affirmation of their good parenting in form of “please, and thank you” but even though they have twenty years more life on me, my accomplishments for tasks entirely new to me no matter how young do not deserve any considerable praise whether it be tying my shoes, playing the piano or getting an A on a paper.
So naturally, when I was young, it served me well to do as much misbehaving I could get away with that would get me attention but not get me grounded. You see, it is a simple mathematical formula: each time I screw up, they nag, which really meant they noticed me and I got attention. If I were to say finally put away the dishes after not putting them away for ten days, I would have gotten eleven comments from them culminating in a grand thank you at the end. Think about it, had I done dishes well the entire time, I would be neither seen nor heard, nor would would I get any acknowledgement at all for not leaving the dishes as that is the expected behavior.
This game works well in their favor too. As a result of their upbringing, they are uncomfortable of giving praise, because they are not sure how to give it and they are afraid to give too high of praise for fear of risking a spoiled upbringing and too high of self-esteem. They don’t know how to talk to me as by this point, I no longer trust their praise as I expect scolding and I wouldn’t know what to do with a compliment. By this time I expect that I will screw up and that in general I am a pretty rotten person. I’m sure they don’t think that, but given that that is the only thing I have heard from them my entire life, that is the impression of myself that I have. So without my constant mistakes and their constant nagging of those mistakes, they would have no way to talk to me.
I have respect for my parents, the people that had to at some point wipe my ass, blow my nose and clean up my mess. I admit that no other adult had had to do that with me and so one must have respect for someone who put up with them and who fed them for no one else would give a crap. But that is the easy part, that is the non-psychological part, that is the non-interactive part. It’s the part one can do without any attention or thinking like with a fish or a cat. The real parenting part is creation of a human, not an animal. Yet even there I am proven wrong. How often have I seen people give constant physical contact and dole out compliments to their dogs for the smallest accomplishments and then completely ignore their children for tasks no dog could ever do as if somehow dogs need affirmation but kids do not. Why does this not occur to more parents that the way to get dogs to be well behaved may be the same way to get kids to be well behaved?
So parents out there that are afraid of spoiling your children, hear me on this, if you want kids that are neither seen nor heard, do yourself and them a huge favor, keep watch on them, talk to them and praise them, at least for a little while. Because when they are older, you’ll have plenty of time ignore them and have time to yourself, plenty of time to not see them or hear them. But in the process of giving them this attention-you’ll get to nag less and be happy more, and so will they, and they will thank you for it for the rest of their lives.