Sacrificing for Our Children

A friend of mine was puzzling over her daughter's lack of consideration for others. "I try so hard to model being considerate of her. I listen to her, take her wishes into account, bend over backwards to help her get things the way she wants them. I thought that if I did that for her, she would just naturally do it for others. What's wrong?"

I didn't know what to say--because that's been my philosophy too. And, while I can't stand my children's lack of sensitivity sometimes, on the whole they function pretty well in social contexts. Yet my friend was right. She was clearly putting a ton of thoughtful attention in her child's direction--and her child clearly had very little awareness of others. It stayed in the back of my mind as a puzzle.

I could no longer just say, "If you model thoughtfulness toward your children, they will naturally learn to be thoughtful." There was something missing. But it was true enough and important enough that I wanted to be able to say it. What was the missing piece that would make it complete?

When it finally came to me, it was very simple. My friend was doing a terrific job modeling consideration for her child, but not for herself. The message her child was getting was that the needs of the other person in the interaction were not important. The norm she was learning was one of people bending to her wishes and sacrificing (willingly, it is true) to let her have her way. Of course. No wonder she wasn't in the habit of thinking about other people, what they wanted, and the effect she had on them.

At first glance, it seems like a hard dilemma. Either you put yourself first, and use your adult authority to require the children to adjust and conform to your needs and wishes--with the small comfort that one day they'll be grown up and have the chance to do the same to their own children. Or you put the children first and they grow up inconsiderate, ungrateful brutes. If we have any glimmer of a sense that children are complete human beings who deserve to be treated with respect, then it seems like a terrible pair of choices.

If we think, however, of modeling respect for all the human beings in our environment, our children and ourselves included, then we can find a third way. While the best response to any given situation may not be clear, at least we are on solid ground. Sometimes, of course, our needs or wishes will be in conflict with our children's. Then we will have to choose. But, so long as they don't see us always choosing in the same direction, they won't get a lopsided view of who is important and who isn't.

We each get to figure out which side we tend to overbalance on. For some of us, the struggle may be to think of the children first--even though we know exactly what we want for ourselves, and they are squarely in the way. For others of us, who feel like we would sacrifice anything to make our children's lives go well, the challenge may be trying to figure out what we want for ourselves--even though we're not in touch with wanting anything--and going for it. Although it may feel like the children will suffer, any suffering will be outweighed by the value of seeing us treat ourselves with respect.

Our children need us to treat them with consideration and respect. They need to see us putting them first. But they need to see us putting ourselves first too. After all, we're their models for what it is like to be an adult.