The topic of challenging behaviors comes up regularly in conversations about parenting. There are parents who will lament their difficult teen, or share their exhaustion from caring for a high needs baby, or tell you about their strong willed child. On the other hand there are the parents who will tell you how well behaved their child is, how easy their baby is, or how good their teenager is. These parents will tell you how their child doesn't mind doing chores, and sleeps through the night, and doesn't get into trouble. There are children who are born mellow, easy going, easy to get along with, and generally happy to be here. There are children who like order and have a knack for organization. There are children who go to sleep quickly and easily, and sleep soundly until they wake up happily the next morning. I do not question that these children exist any more than I question that there are children who are born sensitive to loud noises, or with a special affinity for chaos, or who do not stop crying no matter how attentive, nurturing and attached their parents may be.
When parents talk about how their child is one of these easy children I wonder, was their child born this way or did they mold their child into this people pleasing, obedient, good child? Many parents will say that they are supposed to mold their children. Some may say they want to raise a well behaved compliant child and if this describes their child they are successful parents. Parents are supposed to mold, shape, control and train children so they grow up to be responsible adults, aren't they? If you are concerned with the mental, emotional and physical health of your children you may want to rethink that idea. When parents are results focused, good behavior from their children being the most important proof that they are good parents, they may not realize what their child is learning in the process.
Humans are born learning. Infants learn from their interactions with the adults who care for them. The parents learn to respond to the baby's body language and sounds. If the parents are attentive and close by the baby will not have to cry to get its needs met. (Some babies cry more than others, I'm not suggesting that all babies won't cry if their parents are responsive and their needs are met.) If a baby is left alone in a room, in a crib, it will generally have to cry before its needs are met. If it cries and its needs are ignored the baby may stop crying. This does not mean it's a good baby, it means that it has given up. This is not a good thing, in fact it can lead to depression and anxiety in the future. You will find an article about the importance of attachment and the damages of learned helplessness Here.
The pattern of ignoring the needs of a baby can continue on in the parent/child relationship. Have you ever seen a mother who bumped into a friend at the grocery store and is now chatting away while her children stand silently nearby? Is your first thought about how well behaved these children are? I was at the store and a friend was walking out. As she started talking to me her children slumped down on a nearby bench. I learned that she was at the store picking up a prescription for one of her children. As she continued talking, I realized that her sick child was sitting on the bench. The children were not being respectful. The children knew that their needs were not as important as their mother's desire for conversation. They had learned that the best thing to do was to sit and wait, even if they were sick, even if they should have been home in bed. Their needs were not going to be met so they had given up trying.
One of the challenges of parenting is separating who we are and what we expect, from who our children are and what they need. Our children spend their lives, from birth or before, internalizing messages that we may not even know we are sending. They may have learned that we need our house to be clean or we get irritable and irrational. They may understand that it does no good to express their fear of the dark and the separation night time brings, because they will have to go into that room and go to bed even if they are terrified. They may know that even though they are painfully hungry they are not going to be fed because "it's not meal time yet."
Because they started learning these things before they remember, before they started talking, and before you thought they were learning anything, it is easy to think that this is who they are: a child who likes to clean up, who goes to bed without fussing and who only eats at meal times. Ultimately they have become a child who does not expect to get their needs met, and who understands that the parent's needs rule the house. They have become an overly compliant child. They have become desensitized to their own needs. They have been conditioned to meet the needs of their parents to avoid negative consequences. They have learned that they do not have control over their life and that they are not capable of getting their needs met. To the casual observer they are every parent's dream child. They do what they are told and often anticipate what they should do without being asked. Eventually this good child is going to grow up. They may make it through their teenage years still bowed under the weight of their learned helplessness. However, it is often in their teen years that all their unmet needs and disregarded feelings, that have been bottled up inside for over a decade, explode as anger and frustration as adulthood looms on the horizon. Then the parents wonder what happened to their "good child" and place the blame on the teenage years, never considering that this is a result of their parenting.
As parents it is vital that we frequently ask ourselves, "Is this what my child wants or is this what I want?" We need to let our children know that we are open to conversations about what they would and would not like to do. In new situations we must be aware of the verbal and non-verbal messages our children are sending. Our children need to feel safe enough in our relationship to tell us what their needs are. We must be open to the person our child is and guard against molding our child into the person we want them to be.
If you find yourself saying "My child doesn't mind...." check to make sure that is true. First you may have to establish a relationship of trust and create new paths of communication, because right now your child may know that telling you how they really feel is not an option.