Being too close can hinder a child's development

Author Richard Weissbourd discusses how parents can best nurture independence in their children.

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Author Richard Weissbourd

Many parents struggle to find the right balance between closeness and firm direction in today’s open, non-authoritarian relationships with children. Parents of the 21st century are close to their children, resulting in wonderful benefits along with troubling pitfalls.

In his book "The Parents We Mean to Be," author Richard Weissbourd explores “how well-intentioned adults undermine children’s moral and emotional development.” A child and family psychologist on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and School of Education, the father of three grown children draws from years of research as well as his own experiences. The conclusion Weissbourd makes is clear: Modern parents’ tendency to “friend” their children often creates relationships that can be detrimental to the evolution of character, independence and overall maturity.

Weissbourd will participate in a Nov. 12 panel presentation sponsored by Carolina Parent and Cary Academy. Along with the other panelists, he will address the topic “Why, When and How to Let Go: Nurturing Your Child Toward Independence.” Carolina Parent recently spoke with him by phone about how parents can support their children’s emotional and moral development.

Q: What are the key points you want parents to take from reading your book?
A: First, as a culture, we’re focused on teaching values without understanding that it’s critical for children to deeply internalize these values in order for them to develop their own moral identity.

Second, many aspects of the focus on achievement and happiness are positive, but it can create dangers. A priority on happiness alone can prevent children from taking responsibility and caring for others.

Third, closeness between parents and children is a positive trend in many ways, but becoming best friends can be harmful. In order for children to gain independence, they need to idealize their parents, and this will not happen if they view their parents as equals.

Q: Why are parents today inclined to become friends with their children?
A: Many parents are aware of an emotional deficit in their own childhoods. They’re eager to replace the more distant and remote parent-child relationship they experienced with one that’s closer and more intimate. Studies show that today’s parents have less social contacts and fewer friends than in the past. Fathers are more involved with their children, leaving less time for male friendships that have always been harder to establish for men than women.

Because of career responsibilities and demands on their time, single parents of both genders are replacing their adult friends with their children, often using them as confidants. This type of relationship can spiral out of control very quickly, until parents become hostage to their children’s approval, leading to permissive and indulgent parenting.

Q: Can you explain the importance of “idealization” in the development of a child’s moral core?
A: Healthy idealization of parents occurs in pre-adolescence and adolescence for most children. They see their parents as infallible, and this idealization is one powerful way in which children develop maturity and internalize values and ideals. They need to internalize their parents’ values to make our admired moral skills and attributes their own.

This distinct sense of self is at the core of morality in adulthood. It enables young adults to appreciate and respect others, to engage in mature, reciprocal relationships with other adults, to be caring and to take responsibility for our impact on the feelings of others. This process can become compromised if children relate to parents as friends. It’s obviously much harder for them to idealize us when we “engage” them as equals.

Q: How does this failure to idealize make it difficult for children to separate from their parents?
A: When parents rely too much on their children’s affection and approval, high moral standards and firm discipline can go out the window. Rather than children idealizing parents, the reverse is happening – parents are idealizing their children and their relationship with them. They worry constantly about whether their kids like them and have difficulty letting go.

Children don’t naturally idealize us when they frequently feel the need to take care of us or deal with our vulnerabilities. As a result, they never internalize the parental values necessary to develop their own moral core.

Another group, coined “helicopter parents,” are known for their tendency to hover and micromanage. It’s hard for children to respect or idealize parents who constantly serve them while expressing so little confidence and trust in them. Although we need to continue to assert high moral expectations, we also need to recede to the edge of our children’s consciousness while we enable a child’s peers and other adults to become the focus of their lives.

Q: What are some guidelines for creating the healthy boundaries that allow closeness while encouraging independence?
A: It’s important to get beyond the platitudes about either being close to children or being traditional authority figures, as if there were only two parenting stances. It’s also important to understand that we, as parents, are undergoing pivotal developmental experiences along with our children. The benefits to children of more emotionally available parents are great, but come with tremendous responsibility for parents to accept the inherent separation and loss, along with the ambiguity of what we are doing for our children’s sake and what we’re doing for our own.

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