How Fathers Can Change the World One Child at a Time
It is a well-known fact that the style of parenting that we received as children automatically repeats itself in our own parenting. Unless we consciously make a decision to parent differently and work hard to do so, we will simply repeat the negative patterns of our parents.
— Quote from the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children
Father’s Day is meant to be a positive, happy holiday. It’s an opportunity to honor our fathers for all that they have done for us. After all, they gave us life. They worked to feed and clothe us. They cared for us and raised us. Virtually all parents deserve appreciation for the positive things that they have done for the world, simply by nurturing children.
But in reality, parenting is far more complicated than these holidays want us to admit. Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. There are an infinite number of ways to parent a child wrong, and if we allow ourselves to truly contemplate that, it is scary indeed.
Let’s use the example of Lily to see three different parenting styles, how they look in action in childhood, and how they play out in that child’s adult life.
Two-year-old Lily has a head full of dark, silky hair and big brown eyes. She has a happy, energetic nature, especially in the mornings. Lily sits in her high chair while her parents are at the kitchen table eating breakfast. In front of Lily, on the tray of her high chair, is a selection of cheese cubes and pieces of banana, all cut to the exact right size for her to pick up and pop into her mouth. On this morning, however, Lily is feeling particularly exuberant. She is trying to get her parents’ attention by being silly.
“Cheese pweeze!” she yells as she picks up a cheese cube and squeezes it until it smashes into a blob which she then drops back on her tray. With her eye on her father, who is looking at the TV, she picks up another cube. “Cheese pweeze!” she yells again.
This scenario, or one very similar, has played out in the household of almost every toddler in the world. There is nothing remarkable or unique about it. However, what makes this scene matter is Lily’s parents’ response to their toddler’s age-appropriate behavior on this morning. Let’s take a look at the various response options for Lily’s parents, and how those responses might affect Lily now and in the future.
Style 1: Lily’s father senses that Lily is trying to get her parents’ attention. Glancing at his wife, he realizes she is exhausted, absorbed in the newspaper, and not aware of Lily’s antics. With laughter in his eyes at his daughter’s mischievousness, he stands up, walks over to Lily and says, “What are you doing young lady? Cheese is to eat, not to play with.” He hands Lily a piece of cheese and watches to ensure that she doesn’t squish it. Lily sees her father’s expression and senses that he thinks that she is cute and silly, but also that he means business. Lily is not to squish the cheese. She begins to eat it.
Style 2: Lily’s mother is engrossed in her television show. She ignores Lily for a while, hoping that she will stop her bad behavior if she doesn’t get attention for it. However, Lily only escalates, yelling “Cheese pweeze!” even louder, over and over. Finally, Mom looks over and sees a pile of squished cheese and banana on the tray of the high chair. “What the hell are you doing?!” she yells loudly, startling Lily. She runs over, snatches Lily from her chair and places her roughly on the floor. “You made this mess. Now you can clean it up!” She stalks off angrily, leaving the wailing Lily sitting on the floor surrounded by a mess of food.
Style 3: Lily’s father is engrossed in reading the newspaper. He says, without taking his eyes off of the TV, “Lily, stop making a mess of your breakfast. You need to eat it.” Lily continues to yell exuberantly, trying to get her parents’ attention. “Eat your breakfast or I’m going to give you a time-out,” Dad says absent-mindedly. After a few more efforts to get her parents to pay attention, Lily realizes that they are not going to notice her and engage. She grows tired and hungry and begins to quietly eat her breakfast instead of squishing it.
In these examples, it is probably fairly easy to see that Style 1 is healthy, nurturing parenting and that Style 2 is abusive and will, sadly, likely cause some enduring damage to little Lily. Style 3, however, isn’t quite so clear. It is not abusive, and it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable in any way. Actually, it probably mostly seems like a loving but tired mom who just needs to get breakfast done.
Most good parents reading Style 3 can probably relate to it quite well. And truly, that is nothing to worry about. In fact, Style 3 is not a problem at all unless it happens enough. If it happens enough to send Lily clear messages that her feelings and needs don’t matter, then Style 3 becomes emotionally neglectful parenting.
Let’s track how Lily’s development will progress if she grows up receiving, overall, the Healthy parenting style depicted in Style 1, the Abusive parenting style of Style 2, or Style 3, the Emotionally Neglectful parenting style.
Style 1 – Healthy, Nurturing Parenting: Lily is a confident woman.
- She knows that she is lovable (because she saw the love in her father’s eyes, even when she was being silly and causing trouble).
- She knows that her needs for attention, love, and care are healthy and normal (because they were met in childhood).
- She is able to give and receive love and care (because she was able to do both as a child).
- She has good control over her impulses (because her father gave her simple, age-appropriate rules like “cheese is to eat, not to play with,” to live by and clear, healthy consequences).
- She is typically able to determine what she feels and why (because her feelings were noticed, validated and responded to throughout her childhood).
- She experiences the full range of natural human emotion and is usually able to manage, name, share and use her feelings (because she learned all of this as a child)
Style 2 – Abusive Parenting: Lily is a traumatized woman.
- Lily doesn’t trust people (because her mother often flew off the handle in a startling, scary way). She has anxiety because of this.
- She feels that if she is not vigilant, others will hurt or take advantage of her (because her mother did).
- She has anger (because she was mistreated as a child) simmering beneath the surface, ready to protect her if needed.
- In relationships and friendships, she can be difficult to get along with (because she is guarded, anxious and angry).
- Generally, she feels beaten-down by life (because she was beaten down as a child). She knows that if she wants something in life, she will have to fight for it.
- Lily does not know what she is feeling or why, much of the time (because her emotions were not considered as a child; in fact, her basic emotional needs, such as her need for attention from her mother, often led to punishment and hurt).
- She experiences the full range of natural human emotions, but often very intensely (because she grew up in an intense household where emotions ruled the family).
- Lily does not have good control over her feelings and impulses (because her mother gave her excessively harsh punishments when she was a child instead of giving her simple, age-appropriate rules).
Style 3 – Emotionally Neglectful Parenting: Lily is well-adjusted, but feels empty inside.
- Lily thinks that she is lovable, but she is not sure (because her parents didn’t look at her with love in her eyes enough).
- Lily tries not to need anything from anyone (because her basic emotional needs were not met enough in her childhood).
- She typically does not know what she is feeling, or why (because her feelings were not noticed, validated, named or responded to enough as a child).
- Lily often feels empty and numb inside (she has pushed her feelings down and out of her awareness because they were not accepted or noticed by her parents).
- Secretly, Lily feels that something is wrong with her (because she lacks access to her emotions, and she knows that something is missing in herself and her life).
- She feels alone no matter who she is with (because she lacks the emotion that would connect her to other people in a meaningful way).
- Lily looks at other people laughing and talking as they walk down the street and wonders, “What do they have that I don’t?” (Because she can see that other people are living a richer, more meaningful life than she is able to have without access to her own feelings).
Of course, we all know that no parent is perfect. The majority of parents strive to do their best. But some parents do not. And even of those who try hard, some fail their children in ways which will cause pain in their children throughout their lives.
Over recent decades, fathers have become more physically present and emotionally aware. Dads are just as able to show their children emotional attachment and validation as parents. Dads have the power to change the world, one child at a time.
As children and as parents, we all have choices. Will we pass on the abuse or the emotional neglect that we grew up with to our children, who will, in turn, pass it on to theirs? Or will we face our own missing pieces and hurt and pain? Because that is the only way to offer our children the healthy parenting they deserve.
If all of the parents in the world could work to heal themselves, then all of the children of the world could grow up receiving an improved, healthier version of parenting than their parents got. And in the next generation, the world would be a healthier, happier place for all of us.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how to heal yours, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn how to stamp out Emotional Neglect in your parenting, your relationships with your parents, and in your marriage, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article first appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.