Other Husband & Wife Articles

Children and detachment


By Kevin Aldrich

One of our junior high boys, on his own, will never do a lick of homework. If asked if he has any homework, he’ll say no. If asked if he has any homework slips (notices of outstanding — not in the good sense—homework) he’ll say no. If asked if he has any detentions for not doing homework, he’ll say no. He’ll say no even though the correct answer to each of these questions is yes.

As parents, my wife and I are inclined to blame ourselves. What have we done or not done to form our boy so he acts so irresponsibly?

One of our daughters just turned 8. A day after her birthday, she got a package from her godparents — obviously a present in the mail. That afternoon, when I came into the house, she was sitting at the table doing homework. She yelled, “Dad, I got a package in the mail from my godparents!”

“That’s great, baby cakes,” I answered. “What did you get?”

“I haven’t opened it yet,” she answered. “I didn’t want it to distract me from finishing my homework.”

Hmmm. As parents, should we take the credit? What have we done or not done to form our daughter so she acts so responsibly?

Now in no way am I saying my wife and I do not share responsibility for both of those kids. Parents do form their children. If you want to see your true self, look at your kids.

As far as forming your children goes, I’ll recommend a book that a clinical psychologist recently recommended to me to read: “Don’t Shoot the Dog: the new art of teaching and training” by Karen Pryor. When I grew up, almost all parenting, education and management philosophy consisted in criticizing and punishing bad behavior and ignoring good behavior. Pryor talks about how, to some extent we respond best to positive feedback and shaping of good behavior. 

So, who our children are is our responsibility, but only up to a point — or rather, up to two points.

First, our children aren’t ultimately ours. They are uniquely their own. They are born with a certain personality that is not likely to change much. Why did our first child cry practically non-stop the first year of her life and why has she remained high-strung ever since? Why was our second child such a calm and mellow baby and why has she always been pretty unflappable?

Besides temperament, each child also has free will. As you may have noticed, each one begins exercising free will very early on. Lately, our going-on-3-year-old and I have been playing a game. I keep a chocolate bar behind my computer. Each afternoon, I break off one square. I say, “I’ll break it and you pick.” It is impossible to break the square perfectly in half. For the first week, as I held up the two pieces, she infallibly picked the bigger piece. I thought, what a smart kid. She already knows bigger from smaller. When I asked her why she always took the bigger piece she answered, “Because me want it.” But beginning last week, something odd happened. She started to pick the smaller piece and let me have the bigger one. I asked her why she picked the smaller one. She answered, “Because me big girl now!” Free will at 3? Who would have guessed? Our children for better or worse are ultimately responsible for themselves.

Second, our children are not ultimately ours because they are God’s. God created them and infused their immortal, rational souls. They have come from God and God is their last end.

Contrary to other cultures in which children are seen as property of the parents, clan or state (in traditional Chinese culture, the daughters of peasants didn’t even get names — you might be called something like “Third daughter of Han), the Catholic faith (which still informs all of Western culture) teaches us that our children are their own persons and belong to God.

The point is that we are better off having some degree of detachment from what our children are becoming. Actually, the normal process of maturation does help us develop this detachment. Our children begin their lives completely dependent, but they normally move toward independence, some earlier than others. In terms of their relationships with us parents, they go from idolization and admiration for us when they are little, to the “I don’t know those people” stage of junior high, to the “those people know nothing” stage of teenagers, to the “those folks were not so dumb after all” stage of adults.

The role of a father is to be there through good times and bad.

Kevin Aldrich, a Los Angeles-based writer of novels, screenplays, TV pilots and self-help books, is married for 20 years and has seven children.