Bright beams of midday sun streamed through the windows of a North Carolina beach house as I sat staring at my mother in 1990. “Mama,” I said. No answer. Her head dipped toward the battered paperback splayed open with one tanned hand. “Mom?” A rivulet of sweat escaped the crease of my folded knee.
“I want to do puff paints.”
Suddenly she sprang to life: “Go find your brothers and leave me in peace,” she snapped, her narrowed eyes daring me to do otherwise. In that moment, I swore never to ignore my own kid, to make them feel less important to me than a stupid book.
I pride myself on keeping promises, but that one? Long, repeatedly, and purposefully broken. As a mother of three, I made a conscious decision that as bad as it felt to have my desires trivialized as a child, to be made to feel insignificant, it was good for me.
This conclusion runs counter to a frequently memed quote I love, but also hate: “Listen earnestly to anything [your children] want to tell you, no matter what.” Author Catherine M. Wallace is credited with saying: “If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.”
I strive to relate to my kids on their terms, to ensure they feel valued, and yet, I firmly believe making any child think their concerns are always paramount is a disservice.
In How To Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims shares lessons learned as former dean of freshmen at Stanford University. “[S]idling right up alongside our kid and making them the center of our world,” she says, leaves them without basic life skills. Overparenting can also do psychological harm, she adds. A 2015 study even suggests that “overvaluing” children can cause narcissism.
Lele Diamond, a developmental psychologist at Symbio in San Francisco, helped tie these pieces together. The basis of self-esteem, she told me, is in feeling able to manage the world with little assistance. When a child or adult behaves in an abrasive way, often “underneath that presentation lie feelings of incompleteness and incompetence.” At the extreme, this desperation can transform the narcissistic tendencies we all have into a disorder; in milder variations, you get self-centered people who feel like crap and want constant company.
What does that mean for parental best practices? Diamond said, “At a certain age, we want children to feel like the absolute center of a parent’s world, but that’s limited to infancy.” Because it’s not possible for a caregiver to discern and meet every need, babies naturally progress to self-soothing which then turns into that “I do it myself” impulse in toddlers.
“Certainly by the time a kid gets to be elementary-aged or even in preschool, you want them to feel like what they want is important, but you don’t want a child having the message that it’s so important it blocks out everything else in your world,” Diamond explained. To do so would communicate, “You can’t manage without me.”
Granting a child’s every request for attention also keeps them from differentiating between “what happens if I walk into a room and act in a demanding manner rather than saying, ‘Excuse me,’ or ‘I need you,’ or ‘It’s an emergency,’” Diamond said. Setting limits, on the other hand, incentivizes children to act in a way that makes them feel good about themselves and helps them build reciprocal relationships.
Of course, “if a kid never gets a ‘yes,’ that can also cause problems,” Diamond added. “The goal is for children to know that different people can want different things, and sometimes their wants will come first, and sometimes they won’t.”
The bottom line, like most else in parenting, is that a balancing act is required. Parents should convey affection and esteem without consistently putting children’s desires first in a way that undermines their development. Not to mention a parent’s own needs, or the impact that being at a child’s beck and call can have on a marriage.
As we boarded a flight from California to New York recently, my 7-year-old caught sight of kits laid out on the first-class seats. I answered her questions about the likely contents of the little zippered bags on our walk back to steerage. When we reached our seats, she asked, “Mommy, can I go ask the flight attendants if they have extra?” After popping down a few rows to the rear galley, she returned disappointed: “They said they don’t have any. Can I go ask up front?”
“Hmm,” I mumbled, as I gave the bag at my feet a shove and turned to stop the 2-year-old from incessantly raising and lowering her window shade. My oldest repeated the question. I looked up the rapidly filling aisle and answered: “Those baggies look cool, and you’re just dying to have one, but folks need to get to their seats so they can get home to their families. You can’t go up there right now.”
“What? Mommy, please. Ple-ease.” She began to softly plead, and then, when that didn’t grab my attention back from my 5-year-old now coloring directly on his tray table (“But Mama, they’re washable!”), she took the volume up a notch. I shook my head in negation and pointed at her backpack, brimming with books and projects. She didn’t bite. For another 10 minutes she fixated, trying desperately to make her priority mine.
Finally, out on the runway with the two younger kids settled and takeoff imminent, I got out my Kindle. In my peripheral vision, I saw her bristle. With the righteous venom of the marginalized, she spat, “You are the meanest mom in the world.”
Because the most important promise was the one I made years after that sandy summer, as my mother stood by the side of a hospital bed, her glistening eyes trained on my pained face. The day my daughter entered the world, I vowed to be the best parent I can be — and that includes producing a human being who knows their emotional world, while valid, isn’t what everyone else orbits.