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Parenting: When you personalize it

I am traveling for the rest of the year on what I‘m calling a working vacation. This is to say I’m working remotely like always. I love traveling, for the exposure and education it provides. Worlds you may have never experienced otherwise become accessible. Even when you revisit a place you've been before, you experience it differently if you pay attention. After all, you are a different person from who you were the last time you visited.

Right now I’m in Lagos, Nigeria. I have been in Lagos several times since childhood but this is my first visit as a parent coach and licensed psychologist. I find that I wear this coach/therapist lens a lot, as I observe citizens going about their business. I’m often putting myself in their shoes and troubleshooting possible challenges. It’s hard not to do that in a country like Nigeria. This is my country of origin, so I am fairly intimate with all her issues. My analytical mind can't help but map the path to change.

Of course, through this lens, parenting activities are exigent. As with all natural observation, I have noticed a few themes. One is how commonplace it is to threaten children with violence. Even I have had to monitor myself after long exposure. We (Nigerian parents, of whom I am one) threaten violence as soon as a child's behavior is out of line. It is practically a reflex. I also know from personal experience and various conversations that many of us follow through, especially at home. I will not even speak of the violent ripples (we are plagued by aggression and violence at every level) that this form of parenting has created in our society, because that is not the point of this article. What I will say is that my policy has not changed. Violence against children is not to be condoned. Nigeria may be late to the game but the new rules of parenting remain: We will no longer normalize violence in any home that houses a child.

I also find it noteworthy that, like most across the globe, parents here love to report their children's achievements. It is not uncommon to hear accolades drop, as we proudly talk about our children. The flavor of one-upmanship and keeping up with the Joneses is palpable. I am not saying that there is something wrong with celebrating a child's successes. I am saying it is obvious when this celebration is really a parent's self-exaltation. Again, self-exaltation by itself would not even be problematic if it were stated directly. This kind of "humble brag" parenting culture (and this is rampant in the U.S. as well), shifts focus from how the child may feel to how the parent wants to feel. It sounds pretty harmless to praise a child's achievement, and it is. That is why this one-upmanship can be such an insidious problem. This kind of motivated praise is really a way of making an identity out of the child's achievement (for both parent and child). If this is the case, then what are we to do when the achievement changes? Do our identities change with it? Do we go from successful parent/child to failed parent/child? How about when that changes again?

There is a common theme between the reflexive threats and self-aggrandizing praise. That theme is personalization. These are parenting behaviors that can only come from personalizing the child's behaviors. Even this personalization itself is a reflexive reaction that has been conditioned by society. We "blame the parents" as soon as a child behaves badly and congratulate the parents once the child achieves. We constantly send the explicit message that the child's behavior "reflects on the parent", so that every parent feels justified in thinking that their child's behavior has truly to do with their identity. This is a disservice to both parent and child. It reminds me why I have come to believe that the work in parenting is about the parent and not the child. If we take a moment to reflect on our personalization of children's behaviors, we may notice that this is not the only place we make this mistake. Again, we are socially conditioned to always look outside of ourselves for identity and meaning. We were likely already doing this before becoming parents and are now teaching our children to do the same.

Here is the point I want to make: If you personalize your child's behaviors, you will always overreact to their behaviors. The moment you make something your identity, any change in that thing is a threat to you. We will therefore react to children (with threats for that matter) as though we are being threatened. It is easy to see how this can spiral into unconscious violent behavior that is handed down for generations.

Parents often ask me, "what can I do to control my child?" I always respond, "Nothing". Your child is not an instrument for you to control. You have no power over their free will. You can only teach them to choose, by making favorable options available. What I mean is that the control of another person's choices is not within the purview of any human. However, with your children, you have maximum control of their environment (including yourself). The best results depend on how well you control the environment they interact with (emphasis on your reactions), so that the preferred behaviors are likely to be chosen. In short, you can only affect a child's behavior by creating an environment that encourages more of the behaviors you want to see. Provide kindness where you want them to be kind. Speak quietly when you want calm. Refrain from personalization. Only your own behavior can speak of you.

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