The kids are getting to the age when trust is no longer a given. Trust to us as parents has to be earned the hard way, like we expect any other adult to earn our trust through their trustworthiness.
Only, with one’s children, it’s not that easy. After all, there is still the parent-child relationship to be taken into account. The guiding role of the one, the following, experimenting, self-defining and rebelling role of the other.
I witnessed a scene today while bringing my eldest back to his dad’s after having spent some days in Rome with him.
My daughter told me that her dad had taken her phone away from her. This means that she can only contact me using her dad’s phone or one of the computers in the main room. In the past, she has experienced him forbidding all contact to me and making communication impossible. This is why she usually hides away to talk to me and still does not dare to call me if he is in the house, for fear that he will turn this way again. She usually writes to me on whatsapp, where she has privacy.
This time, he had taken her phone away because he had a problem with her playing senseless phone games on it.
Only – he has not understood that this punishment will only feed her distrust in him. He has never had a sensible conversation with her. He has this idea that his kids have to earn his trust – but not the other way around.
I personally think that as the grownup in the constellation with my kids, it is my duty to take the first step and communicate from a position of trust, even if I witness the kids doing something that I have explicitly told them not to do. All of them have often heard me say “I need to be able to trust you, just like you need to be able to trust me. It’s the only way we can work as a family. If you show me repeatedly that my trust in you is misplaced, the consequence would be that I have to take total control of you (being the responsible adult), until you can control this yourself, which would be an unfeasible and very uncomfortable solution”. I do not accept the absence of trust. However, I try to understand that they are growing people. Children don’t automatically learn how to be trustworthy. It’s something they learn with time, through recognizing the value of trust and trustworthiness, and it takes time for them to recognize the effect of their own actions within this complex inter-human system.
When they are toddlers, we spend forever and a day gently (and sometimes maybe less gently) explaining the importance of not hurting others. Or sharing. Or not throwing their food onto the floor. Etc. Nobody in their right minds would react by making the undesired behaviour impossible as soon as it shows itself the first time – in the case of hurting others, perhaps keeping the kid in question behind bars until it “is old enough to understand” – providing the behaviour is not seriously damaging. We know from years of research and wacky educational concepts that punishment only generates frustration, fear and in the end, rebellion.
As the kids grow older, they are able to learn more complex things. They go from accepting that parents make the laws of the family to questioning the importance of every single one of those laws. Being trustworthy within the family falls into that category, and is a very complex law indeed.
Because – why indeed is it important that a kid should not be playing games on the phone if the parent has forbidden it? Is there any direct harm? None that the kid would recognize as harm. As a parent, we might see addiction, passive waste of time, the senselessness of it, the hiding away from the real world. An 11 year old will not see this. To an 11 year old, games on a phone are a welcome break when there is nothing else (easy) to do.
In my opinion, our patience with our children should remain the same as they grow older as it was with the toddlers they once were.
Of course they are able to grasp more complex ideas as they grow older. But they are also dealing with more complex situations. Children will repeat mistakes, or misunderstand things, or simply have a changing opinion or understanding of things. Some children will learn certain concepts easily, others will take more time and require more patience to learn the same concepts.
But the important point is, that they won’t learn to understand the importance of the concepts we are trying to teach them if we teach them from a position of distrust. They may learn to hide the offending behaviour, or veil it with something else, but they won’t incorporate the concept if their whole behaviour and personality is inherently distrusted.
As parents we have to trust in our children’s ability to adopt the values we see as being important, but also be open for a discussion of those values. We need to be able to explain why we think a certain concept or value is of importance. We need to live that value, and bring it to the table in the relationship with our growing children.
I don’t mean to say that we should blindly trust our kids, simply assuming that they are doing the right thing because we stubbornly stick to the assumption that they are good people. As adults I think we all know that there is space for good and bad in every one of us – we make conscious and unconscious choices about what we fill the space with, and for most of us, there will be a healthy mix of both, hopefully tending towards the good. I am saying that we should always offer trust to our children, but also confront situations we are unhappy about, or see to be harmful, or wrong. This can be a very difficult and exhausting thing to do, but then – who ever said that being a parent was going to be easy…
Let me give you an example:
A few weeks ago, I had to go out with the eldest late at night for some time. I asked the younger two to get themselves ready for bed and read or play quietly until I would come back, and I told them at what time about I thought they should do that, and when to expect me back.
I expressly told them not to watch any videos or play stuff on the phone, but when I got back, they were both in one bed, huddled over a screen watching minecraft videos.
I was disappointed when I got back, and I told them that. I asked them whether they knew why I don’t like them being on the screen late at night (which they did). I let them know that what especially disappointed and upset me was that they had agreed to not watching stuff, and that they had then gone behind my back and done exactly what they had agreed not to do. I let them know that I expect them to get in touch if they change their mind about what they have agreed to and to let me know. I let them know that of course there is no great damage done by watching a few videos once in a while, whatever the time, but that the real problem and the reason I was upset was that they had intentionally broken the agreement without a second thought.
Next time I have to go out and I ask them to agree to something similar, I will trust them again.
I will not switch the internet off or lock all smart devices up, nor will I call them every 10 mins to check up on what they are doing. I will however remind them that I expect them to keep to what they have agreed to or otherwise let me know and ask whether we can find a different agreement.
I hope that they will learn this way – learn to understand their own choices and in time, that they will form their own set of values which they will stand up for. I hope that being trusting and trustworthy will be one of their choices.
I don’t see that the children’s dad will succeed in having the relationships he envisions with any of his kids with the way he attempting to pull them towards the behaviour he thinks is important. Every time he punishes the “wrong” behaviour, he will push them a little further away from himself.
Trust lies at the bottom of every relationship – and children rapidly develop from trusting automatically, because they are programmed to do so by evolution in order to survive, to independent personalities who make more and more choices about who they are and who is worthy of their trust themselves, blood relation or not.