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Heffner column: What do our children learn?

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Morning Sun

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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Parents’ wish to protect children from exposure to certain material has become a more pressing issue in today’s world of the internet and cable television. The anthropologist Margaret Mead, once said that when she was growing up her mother censored Horatio Alger stories because the grammar was bad. She used to read the prohibited material under the quilt at night with a flashlight.

Mead’s point was that children will always find a way to subvert adult rules, but that is far different than a newsstand displaying magazines with sexual material on its covers that children passed on their way to school. The distinction she made was that in one instance a parent’s values are made clear, in the other society seemingly gives approval to those kinds of displays.

This issue has become even more pressing as a result of the mob assault on congress by those seeking to stop a legal certification of the new president. In the days since, investigators have identified many who are guilty of breaking laws and using violence to threaten physical harm to those in authority whom they blame for upholding laws against which they rebel.

The controversy about this brings to mind the question parents face about setting limits on children’s behavior. Often the issue becomes one of parental authority, concern about enforcing limits that have been set, how to do this and whether failure to do so will diminish parents’ authority. This is just the point made now about the need to hold those breaking laws accountable for their behavior.

Mead’s point about conflicts between parental values and society’s seeming approval of certain behavior has relevance here because of just this question. There are those in authority who justify or diminish the gravity of the assault in defense of an opposing point of view. Legal authorities, however, clearly define the law-breaking aspect of the behavior in question.

The question becomes more intense when safety issues are involved. Little children will often reach for that which is beyond their grasp with limited understanding of the dangers parents perceive, requiring parents to intervene physically.

The situation is more complicated when children get older and rebel, disagreeing with the parental assessment of danger in what they want to do but are beyond the kind of physical control that was appropriate when small. Parents often consider the threat of punishments as a means to limit behavior.

A familiar outcome is parents setting limits on children’s plans and children seeming to accept the rules then finding ways to circumvent the parental limits. An example is a child being told to return home at a certain time which then doesn’t happen, followed by a range of excuses such as the bus was late, impossible to call.

Children’s evasive behavior in response to parental limit setting is part of the normal process of growing up, spreading one’s wings and testing the parameters of independent functioning. Children pushing back is part of a process that ultimately leads to independence.

Through this process children are learning parent’s values even when they seem to be ignoring them. While seeming to rebel, they nevertheless internalize the standards for behavior that are being set and hopefully, at some point those standards will become their own.

Those involved in the assault on Congress were adults with standards for behavior justifying violence and law breaking as an expression of rebellion. It is such extreme forms of rebellious behavior that concern parents setting limits for children as they develop.

The major breakdown in respect for limits now confronts our society as a whole.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.