I wrote this piece in response to criticism mothers often have directed at us about how we raise our children ‘these days’, and in particular to the popular parent-helper Supernanny. It explains the crucial parent/child bond – different to the nanny/child bond – and how this is the blueprint for all later relationships.
A re you tired of hearing how mothers ‘these days’ do not discipline their children enough? It seems that whenever there is an opportunity in the media to comment on modern women’s parenting abilities or to lay blame for something in our society not going quite as had been hoped, people from all walks of life readily point the finger at mothers.
Modern mothers are told that we should be more authoritarian with our children, as was the style in the ‘old days’, and use the supernannies out there – who are making millions of dollars from their sage advice – as role models.
As an information-rich and self-help-book-consuming populace, with many of us being psychologically savvy enough to know that the mother/child bond is a far more complex one than the nanny/child bond, many mothers still feel guilty about how we parent our children when we are presented with an idealized supernanny as a role model for how it should be done.
Yet talk to any parent who has ever babysat, nannied or cared for children as a child-care worker before having their own children and you’ll find that they too could have easily played the super nanny role with other people’s children.
The Mother-Child Bond as Blueprint for All Human Interactions
The bond between a mother and her child is one of the strongest bonds possible between human beings, and also one of the most malleable ones. The mother-child bond is the blueprint for every type of human interaction and it is continually being tested.
In our everyday language we even use phrases such as ‘my child is pushing my buttons’, ‘testing my limits’, ‘exploring my boundaries’ to describe how this bond is constantly being shaped.
It is this bond that makes the process of disciplining or guiding your own children far more difficult than doing so with someone else’s.
This bond, which is necessary for a child to thrive, is also the same process that occurs when any human being gives nurturing to another and receives nurturing from another.
Positive and Negative Bonding Patterns
Most interactions we have with other people involve one person being in the receiving (child) role and the other playing the giving (parental) role.
For example, if I cook dinner for someone, I am in the parental role and the person being cooked for is in the child role. I am taking care of them, being the caring/responsible parent, and they are receiving care from me, being the needy/appreciative child. The feelings flowing between the two of us are good ones in this example so it is called a ‘positive bonding pattern‘.
If, however, I begin to feel resentment about always cooking dinner for someone, then I would take the role of the resentful/irritable parent, while the person being cooked for might feel annoyed that they always have to eat what I give them, and so they now play the role of the rebellious/angry child. The feelings flowing between us have now switched from positive to negative. This is called a ‘negative bonding pattern‘.
In our everyday relationships we flow between many such positive and negative bonding patterns, sometimes staying in a particular pattern with someone for years. Neither are inherently good nor bad as they are simply the natural way that we give to and receive from others.
But a positive bonding pattern, if it is never broken, can be stifling and restrictive for both people as each person is stuck in one way of relating (and it feels like there’s something missing in your relationship).
While a negative bonding pattern, even though it might be painful as the feelings that result are unpleasant, can be liberating as it snaps people out of being stuck in one groove in their relationship and can lead to growth.
In fact, being in a positive bonding pattern for too long is why so many people go through mid-life crisis – they need to break out of the role they have been playing for so long so that they can experience other facets of themselves and feel alive again.
So with the mother/child relationship, when the intitial and necessary positive bond is strong and the emotions expressed through it are positive, it benefits our children.
But once a child has passed infancy and begins to experiment with different behaviours in the process of gaining independence from its mother and exploring its own personality, this bond is also restrictive. It keeps the child in the child role and the mother in the parental role in their interactions with each other.
Authoritarian Parenting – The Supernanny Style
You can always take the authoritative parental role in the bonding pattern with your child, and stay there, and quite easily discipline your children from that position – that is what authoritarian parents and the supernannies do. But this can lead to future problems.
For a child to grow, it needs to break out of the child role or it will never mature. It needs to practice adult roles so that it does not always remain childlike.
Likewise, the mother needs to step out of the parental role regularly to allow the child some space in it, and to experience life on the other side of the pattern so that she can understand how her child is feeling, so she can experience her child’s perspective – so she can have empathy.
If she never steps out, then either there will be a large, ongoing battle if her child becomes rebellious in relation to her authoritative parental self, or her child will be obedient and compliant – at least during childhood.
Such a child, however, will at some point rebel, maybe as late as in adulthood, and could develop resentment towards, and/or fear of, its parents. Usually the relationship ends up being a distant one with little mutual understanding or intimacy.
On the other hand, if the mother steps out of the parental role permanently, then her child will control her.
The roles will reverse and the child will take the parental role and the mother the child role. The child will either be a ‘controlling parent’ to its own mother or, in some cases, often when the mother is needy in some way, the child will play the role of a caring parent.
It is the more common scenario, where the child controls the mother, that is exploited in television shows such as Supernanny, where the nanny is brought in to help the mother take the parental role again – but only the authoritarian one.
An Alternative Parenting Style: Conscious Parenting
If mothers spend some time in each role – like most mothers naturally do, then their relationships with their children will be characterised by mostly little ups and downs, with some large ones from time to time, as they both navigate together – for share it they must – the rough road of parenting and the child’s maturation into adulthood.
Throughout this process, the child will work out how far it can go with various behaviours before it senses either the subtlety of emotional withdrawal by its mother or the directness of a slap, or anywhere between the two – bribery, reasoning, pleading, demanding, and so on.
Obviously all mothers are unique in their own psychological makeup so each will deal differently with their child, and even differently with each of their children as they respond to each child’s unique way of relating to her and finding its place in the family system.
In other words, the bonding pattern between each mother and child will be unique, because the type of parental and child roles each identifies with will depend on the psychological makeup of each person.
Most mothers have their children’s best interests at heart and mothers these days are more aware of their children’s emotional lives than previous generations of mothers have been.
This is simply a consequence of more public awareness of, and education about, our emotional lives generally, as a result of school curriculums, books, magazines, websites, social media, and television shows such as Oprah, and hopefully also a result of the evolutionary process.
This emotional awareness means that mothers are more concerned about their children’s emotional and psychological well-being than mothers might have been in the past.
How many mothers today would remember their mother asking how they felt at school rather than how well they did? This constitutes a shift in how we measure parental/child-raising success. And, as with any shift, there are new rules and techniques to learn and mistakes will be made.
Thus some mothers will have a problem with discipline as they sit on the side of the bonding pattern of being more concerned with their child’s emotions rather than behaviours. Some might reject the necessity for concern with emotion and follow the Supernanny approach of a more impersonal and authoritative attitude. Neither of these options is inherently good or bad – they both have their place.
Emotional Connection (Leading to Empathy) and Boundaries
It seems obvious that children need their parents to be both emotionally connected to them and to have the ability to step back and create boundaries when they need to.
Both ways of relating are required to raise a child without major problems with discipline or with their emotional well-being.
Yet this is not an easy mix to master. Most parents are more comfortable with one or the other approach, depending on their own personality and history, and their own awareness that this process is even going on.
For critics to harp on at modern mothers about their inability to discipline their children and the necessity of following the rules of a nanny who has never even had any children of her own and therefore has never experienced the strong emotional bond between mother and child, nor the difficulty of parenting 24/7, is punishing mothers for moving forward, for evolving, for caring for their children enough to try something new, in the hope that they will have close relationships with their children throughout their whole lives, and that their children will benefit from having their inner life taken seriously.
It is no secret that so many people are in therapy and experience all kinds of relationship problems largely because of the suffering they have experienced in their relationships with their parents.
Has it occurred to those advocating a return to the ‘old days’ of exclusively authoritarian parenting that the adults such an approach raised might need all this assistance because of how they were parented?
It is a good thing if each new generation evaluates their experiences as children, and when they have their own children they try to do it better than their parents did.
That’s not to say that new parents throw out everything their parents did – most parents will in fact copy what their own parents did, often without even realising it, and most parents, no matter what their parenting philosophy is, do a remarkably good job.
But human consciousness is also continually evolving and so we should expect that as time goes on we will have a better understanding of how we work and therefore of how to better parent our young.
It is entirely possible that the next generation of adults – those whose parents tried a different approach – will have fewer problems, and will be able to devote less time and money to healing their emotional wounds and trying to sort out their relationship problems, and therefore be more productive and happy adults.
All because they will have gained a strong sense of self-esteem and inner worth due to the attention their mothers paid to their emotional well-being.
Conscious Parenting Resources
For more information about bonding patterns, read this article and read this article on how connection between people works.
This article from Alfie Kohn is also about the Supernanny approach to parenting and its dangers.
And if you haven’t yet read Enlightenment through Motherhood, read it now!