Dear Dr. Debbie,
Would good parenting make a difference for teaching a child to honor his or her commitments? I only have a small pool of sitters to rely on, mostly teen-agers and one who is forty-something, and a few have repeatedly caused me to scramble at the last minute to find a replacement or to have to back out of my own commitments. I’d like to think my children will be people who can be counted on.
Don’t miss last week’s column Introducing a Post-Divorce Beau — Good Parenting
There may be periods in one’s life – end of semester deadlines, for example – that could cause a person to be unreliable. But if an individual perpetually lets you down, there could be parenting shortcomings from the sitter’s own early childhood that could explain this personality flaw.
An infant depends on her caregivers for safety, comfort, and food. When all her needs are routinely met, she comes to learn that she can depend on being safe, having her strong emotions soothed, and getting her belly filled. Contrariwise, she does not experience stability if her caregivers cannot be counted on to understand her needs and respond quickly. Feelings of stability are also in jeopardy if the caregiver is a different person from day to day, and likewise, if a single caregiver is sometimes readily nurturing and at other times not.
In a healthy attachment relationship, in which the caregiver responds appropriately to a baby’s needs, it’s as if the reliability of the caregiver is owned by the baby. Even when she can walk on her own two feet and can take her shoes off if she wants to, a toddler still is at the mercy of her big person for so much of her needs for safety, comfort, and food. In a healthy relationship, the child sees time and again that her caregiver acts on her behalf to keep her safe, soothe her hurt feelings, and assuage her hunger pains. If all is going well for the caregiver, it’s easy enough to take care of these needs. However, food may be delayed or a safety risk may be missed if the caregiver is distracted by other demands including her own unmet needs. If this is perpetual, a toddler doesn’t acquire the confidence that comes from being able to trust the person who has you, at times literally, in her hands.
If caregiving is going well, a young child has a first-hand experience of being the recipient of reliable care. He will also likely see that adult being reliable regarding other responsibilities. Throughout his childhood, his parent will demonstrate that one lives up to one’s obligations. And whenever there is a snag, there are responsible ways to back out of a commitment that one cannot meet. Notify the person who is relying on you and apologize as soon as you realize you can’t do it. Get a worthy substitute to take care of it. Make amends to whomever is affected by your inability to come through. Your examples show your respect for the people to whom you have made commitments. It is also a good model of respect when parents express appreciation to their children and to others. Your unreliable sitters are certainly not showing you respect by leaving you dry. Maybe this is the norm in their families.
The Staying Power of Consistent Guidance
In the early years, guidance is very hands-on. The adult removes and redirects a child from dangers and temptations. The alert adult keeps a close watch to avoid misbehavior in the first place. But when necessary, the adult is there to help a young child to do the right thing. Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, called this the development of the Super Ego or conscience. In other words, the parent’s consistent words and actions enable the child to steer clear of such harm as touching a hot stove so that by around the age of five, the child tells himself the very same words his caregiver has repeatedly used, and makes his own body follow them. In terms of honoring a commitment, a parent continues to guide a growing child to fulfill his obligations to others, playing like a broken record such that even when the now-grown child has left home, that voice is still playing in his head when temptations beckon.
Good parenting builds self-esteem. Any time a caregiver helps a child to be successful, including being successful at honoring a commitment, the child has a chance to feel good about himself. The more a child sees himself as good, the more he will endeavor to hold onto that positive feeling about himself, even if that means persevering despite a challenge. Another lens to look through for this transmission of responsibility through good parenting is “Work Ethic.” Parents can set a standard for sticking to a task, particularly when it will affect other people. If a child grows up this way, the normal thing to do is to fulfill your promises. Inversely, a child who is routinely told he can’t do anything right has little reason to expect anything better from himself. Letting others down feels normal.
A stable, trustable, nurturing relationship provides a tangible model for a child of doing right by others, and steady guidance towards honoring commitments himself. High self-esteem also factors in with good parenting in general, but specifically instills an expectation in a child that he can and should fulfill his obligations. It’s what a good person does; and that’s who he is.
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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.