Children and their parents are often like performers who arrive on stage having learned different scripts. The two scripts contain a fundamental contradiction: the parents’ script says the parents are in charge of the children’s lives, while the children’s script says the children are in charge of their own lives.
One script calls for parents to issue directives and prohibitions; the other script calls for them to offer information, advice, and encouragement. One script calls for parents to motivate their children, with threats of punishment and promises of reward; the other script calls for the children to motivate themselves, with love, with curiosity, and with the desire to create, contribute, and master their world. One script calls for parents to train their children to do as they are told, whether it is right or wrong, wise or foolish, safe or dangerous, and whether they are willing or unwilling, simply because their parents decree it; the other script calls for children and their parents to cooperate.
The two scripts do not work well together. Children who have to contend with directives and prohibitions become less receptive to advice and information. Children who are motivated by others lose touch with their own sources of motivation. Children who are forced to obey lose their inclination to cooperate.
The two scripts are in perpetual conflict. Could they have evolved that way? What survival value would it have? It seems more likely that at least one of the scripts has errors in it. There has to be an easier way to raise children.
In fact there is an easier way. A few small changes to the parenting script can make the whole thing work.
Reconstructing the Original Script
. . . children were venerated on the island for the . . . reason that they were recent arrivals from heaven, the closest thing on earth to messengers from the gods.
- Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu, referring to children on the island of Bali
Kids know how to be kids. They arrive that way, straight off the evolutionary assembly line. They are genetically pre-equipped with reflexes, urges, appetites, and instincts which have been tested and found useful over thousands of generations. Their instincts can become distorted over time, but in the beginning they are very reliable.
We adults are not so lucky. By the time we are old enough to become parents, we have suffered hundreds or even thousands of painful and confusing experiences. Our instinctual scripts have been blurred, erased, and overwritten in so many places that parts of them, including much of the parenting parts, are either unreadable or unreliable. We can’t always trust our instincts to guide us in caring for our children.
Fortunately help is close at hand: Every new child brings with him a fresh and accurate copy of his half of the original parent-child script. We can reconstruct much of our half by comparing the two.
This is interesting detective work. I imagine it to be like reconstructing the choreography for one part of a skating duet by analyzing the other part. If one skater is scripted to twirl high in the air, we know the other skater has to hold her up. If one skater is scripted to spin in a circle almost lying on the ice, we know the other skater belongs in the center of the circle, holding her and leaning to balance her weight.
Everything Falls into Place
When we successfully tailor our half of the parent-child script to match the original half, our children thrive, and our relationships with them can be so harmonious that parenting is almost effortless.
There are pitfalls to this method of investigation—I will discuss the biggest one in the chapter on spoiling—but over all it works very well. Some things can be confusing, but most are crystal clear: when every small child, in every culture, is gratified by a certain parental behavior, we can be sure the behavior belongs in our parenting script, and when every small child, in every culture, is shocked and bewildered by a certain parental behavior, we can be sure the behavior was not part of the original script.
Loving, nurturing, and protecting our children clearly belong in the script. Bossing them and treating them harshly clearly do not.