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John Rosemond is America's most widely-read parenting authority! He is a best-selling author, columnist, speaker, and family psychologist.

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No such thing as a problem-free child

It is not the responsibility of parents to make sure that a child enters adulthood problem-free. That is in fact an impossible dream, yet it seems many parents believe that is their job.

This was brought to mind by a conversation I recently had with the mother of a 15-year-old girl. The child was moody, negative, pessimistic, and seemed to believe she could not do anything right. Nevertheless, she made reasonably good grades, had a reasonable number of steady friends, and was thought reasonably well of by other adults. I pointed out that the girl seemed to be doing okay. That fell on deaf ears. Mom wanted me to give her some formula for changing the girl’s attitude. It’s worth mentioning that the attitude in question was not some adolescent hormone-thing; rather, it seemed to the mother that her daughter had been this way since she was very young.

“Is this a discipline issue?” Mom asked, to which I replied that she was describing a personality, not a behavior problem, and personalities do not respond to traditional discipline.

“On the other hand,” I said, “if your daughter’s negativity produces anti-social behaviors—offensive manners, for example—you can discipline those, but attempts on your part to change her personality are doomed. In fact, such attempts are very likely to make matters worse.”

Mom admitted that both she and her husband talked to—lectured, most likely—their daughter on a fairly regular basis about her attitude. I pointed out that one cannot talk a child out of one personality and into another. Could their parents have talked them out of their personality defects? No. Has any parent ever succeeded at this? No. Does everyone attain adulthood with defects? Yes. Whose responsibility is it, pray tell, to deal with these defects? Why it is the child’s—now an adult—responsibility! Reality is the Great Therapist, but even reality is not omnipotent. Some adult children come to grips with their defects and resolve to correct them; others deny they have any defects to come to grips with and spend their less-than-happy lives blaming others for every problem they pull down upon themselves. As the late, great George Harrison put it, “And that’s the way things go.”

Many of today’s parents think they have failed if their children have problems. They think this because they believe in psychological determinism—specifically, that parenting produces the child. This is absurd. Parenting is an influence. It is not the be-all, end-all influence at that. The other influences include peers, genes, diet, teachers, siblings, and accidents—things over which no one had any control. But the greatest influence of all is the child’s own free will, the decisions he makes, many of which have nothing to do with anything his parents, teachers, or peers have done, and nothing to do with anything he has inherited or eaten either. This is why everyone knows of a child who grew up in a “good” home who went astray as a teen or young adult and seems hopelessly lost to this day, much to his or her parents’ dismay. It is also why everyone knows of a child who grew up under highly disadvantageous circumstances—abusive, alcoholic parents who moved from one hovel to another to stay ahead of the rent collectors, for example—who has made a spectacular life for him- or herself as an adult. That’s the way things go.

Accepting that there are things about your child that you cannot change will make for a parenthood that is significantly less stressful, ridden with guilt, and frustrating—a much happier parenthood, in other words. It’s as simple as accepting that you are not a Supreme Being.

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