What is a role model supposed to do?
However we look at it, all parents serve as role models for all their children. The reason is children’s desire and ability to cooperate, which I have described in a few books over the years (jesperjuul.com). It basically means that children are copying the inner and outer behavior of both parents, but not 50% from one and 50% from the other. A complex host of factors are involved, such as attachment/emotional closeness, the emotional, physical and mental availability of each parent etc.
Learning from a role model often includes striving for the opposite. My father was an artist at heart, but conservative parents and a dominating wife made him give up his painting soon after he and my mother married. I did the opposite in the sense that I never gave in to any direct attempts to push or manipulate me but steered my own course in life and yet every day I had to struggle with a faint shadow of submissiveness. My father was a very accurate man with a sometimes ridiculous obsession with details – and so am I. I can rise above this personality trait intellectually but never get rid of it.
In todays world where most children spend very little time (compared to what they would like) with their parents and therefore have limited possibilities to acquire the necessary life skills and wisdom through “Osmosis”, observing and experience. Parents and professional pedagogues are trying to substitute this organic learning process by using methods and strategies but with less than convincing results. Worst of all the adults tend to believe more and more in lecturing and preaching to their children and this never worked. Not even in the “good old days”. In this way children will at best learn how to behave but not how to be.
Since children’s need for parents as role models has not changed with the development of society, many children never get the possibility to build an inner foundation – be is more or less solid. As teenagers, young adults and adults we can have valuable role models outside our family, but as children we need adults with whom we have a love-based relationship. Sometimes – but rarely – this can happen with a stepparent, aunt or uncle, grandparent or a foster parent.
In this context it might be very important for parents and others to be aware of the intuitive contact. It will certainly help their children and it will also specify what the significant parent can do and should refrain from doing instead of the more general advice “spend time with your child”.
Five-year old Suzan got involved in too many conflicts in kindergarten. Her younger sister went to the same kindergarten and never got in trouble. For a while it helped to attach a male teacher to Suzan’s group but as soon as he was off duty the old pattern surfaced. The teachers felt that S’s behavior might be related to a problem within her family and the parents agreed to consult with me.
Unfortunately they did not bring the two girls to our first session but two things became clear to me during our conversation:
– The family was under stress because the man and father worked so far from home, that he had to live away from home five days a week. This was a time of high unemployment so he did not really have a choice. He missed his family and felt guilty towards his wife and daughters. As far as S’s behavior problem was concerned the parents had the same theory as the teachers: Suzan was missing her father.
– During our meeting I was wondering if Suzan and her father had an intuitive connection because just missing a parent emotionally should not create such a disturbing change of behavior. Especially since their relationship was close and enjoyable for both of them.
Their second session included the two girls and it was obvious that there was a special bond between Suzan and her father, which everybody agreed to, when I suggested it. It turned out, that the fathers “mistake” was a simple and very loving one: he simply wanted to divide his time and attention equally between the girls when he was at home during weekends.
Every Saturday morning he would go to the petrol station to service and wash his car. Most mornings the girls were playing and he went alone thinking that is was better for them to play. I asked him to do test where he took the youngest one morning and the oldest the following Saturday.
The result was as expected. The little one got bored after fifteen minutes and wanted to go back home. Suzan had the opposite reaction. She was all eyes and ears and absorbed all her father’s jokes and stories, which he exchanged with the other men in the line. She enjoyed a deeply meaningful hour with her most needed role model.
Once the father was able to see and recognize their special connection Suzan’s behavior outside their home changed back to normal. I have no doubt that Suzan would have preferred to have her father available every day of the week, but there was a look in his eyes now (his wife pointed out) when he looked at her, which made her feel connected and seen and this in turn restored her balance.
Our common history is full of “absent” parents. Not only absent fathers who were always working or resting, but also mothers and fathers who had withdrawn into depressive states, drank too much and too often, suffered from various undiagnosed or unrecognized mental disorders. Since the Middle Ages the wealthy, nobility and royalty have left the majority of contact with and care for their children to strangers – wet-nurses, governesses, boarding schools etc.
After World War 2 millions of children have been without fathers because these had to live and work in another country in order to take care of their families economically. Many of their children were not only lonely and separated from the designated parents but also living in extended families where their fathers were idealized heroes. The past few decades we are often meeting very troubled children and youth among emigrants, refugees and displaced people as well as among unaccompanied refugee children. We cannot reunite them with their absent or deceased parents nor make constructive role models out of their traumatized and victimized parents. These children have no existential anchor and rarely a meaningful cultural base and thus their status as social outcasts becomes the only identity.
The current problem for small children is often a deep frustration over the mixed signals they get from their parents, who are verbalizing their love and adoration all the time and are simultaneously preoccupied with smartphones, tablets etc. A similar frustration and insecurity derives from parents who are frequently using Marihuana and Hash or drinking too much. They are in the vicinity but not present and thus not available for what their children need the most: to be seen, heard abd taken seriously. This is much more difficult for children to cope with than physical absence due to work, travel and divorce.
The most valuable thing a significant parent can do is not really to play with or entertain the child but rather to invite the child into her or his own life – chaws, hobby, work, pleasure – i.e. everything, which gives joy and meaning to the parent’s life. So,
If you like walking in the forest, talk about why and what you experience. Answer all your child’s questions, but do not teach biology.
If you love to bake go in the kitchen and begin. Talk about your passion for baking and do not make special arrangements for the child, just let it participate or watch you however it wants. For your child you and who you are is more interesting than baking.
If you enjoy going to the stadium and watch soccer, bring your child and share your experience.
If you are passionate about art, take your child to museums and galleries.
If you love to spend time with an elderly relative, bring your child along.
The essence is to make it possible for your child to discover how you think and feel, what your passions and fears are as well as your talents and shortcomings. Don’t try to be “child-friendly” and ask it what it feels like doing all the time. Tell you child what you feel like and that you want her or him to tag along. As long as you do this, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing things according to the child’s wishes and desires as well.
Now it gets difficult! As your child grows up and matures you will see behavior, which you recognize from your self and know does not serve your best interests. When this happens, find a quiet moment to share your thoughts and experiences and trust your child to do the best it can to avoid your mistakes. The more franticly you try to prevent your child from making the same mistakes as you once made, the more you pave the way for exactly that to happen.
When you see your child behave in a way, which makes you angry, annoyed, sad or scared take a good look at yourself in the mirror before you rush into action. There is not much, which hurts and confuses a child more than being criticized for being like his parent.
If you want to avoid this, some of these things will force you to change your own ways and patterns and that is after all maybe the most valuable example to set for a child.
Living with and raising children inspires, motivates and sometimes forces parents to change their ways and values. When most successful the same is true for close, love-based relationships with another adult. The challenges and rewards of both make us grow and mature as human beings. I knew a mother with a very troubled son who for her 50’Th birthday wore a t-shirt with this inscription: I’m 50 and my son raised me well! This mutual influence and inspiration has always been a fact of family life but it is only fifty years we began to take it into account. Until then childrearing and education was generally considered a one-way street where wisdom and insights flew from parents to children and never the opposite direction.
As mentioned above, the significant parent, who is unaware of her/his importance in the child’s life, will often have more destructive confrontations with the child. This happens partly because of the child’s longing for the parent’s recognition and validation of their special bond and partly because of the frustration and desperation, which follows when this does not happen. Some children will keep a low profile hoping that the parent will make a move and other children will bang on the door. Old-fashioned psychology would label their behavior as “attention-seeking” which it is not. The child is not trying to draw attention to itself but to the quality of contact, which is missing. For children this is a primary existential need with the potential of becoming an existential challenge for the significant parents. A challenge, which she or he is often innocently ignorant about.
Often these parents are equally frustrated and doubting their own value as parents and tend to react by turning up the volume of their attempts to act like what they believe is good and responsible parents. This is what we all do – regardless of age – when we don’t feel of value in a relationship. The more this happens the more distance is created and the lonelier both of them become.
The rewards on the other hand are numerous. The term “quality time” has become increasingly popular, as parents have begun to spend more and more time at work. In my opinion the general understanding of the term is self-contradictory as long as it means time spend with children on their terms. This just adds yet another entertainer to the lives of children. If we want to use the term at all, it is important to realize that there are only “quality moments” – i.e. brief moments of deep contact and mutual understanding – often silent.
In order to experience these moments, parents must cultivate the soil. In this respect there is no difference between the two parents – or grandparents, friends a.m. There are in fact an infinite number of possible situations and activities to chose from and there are two important phenomenon, which parents must bring on the table: He or she must enjoy the activity or lack of such and be aware that being together is more important than the activity itself. Children know this instinctively and often invite their parents by suggesting mutual. They only become demanding when their need for closeness is not being met.
Here are some possibilities: Read aloud or read together; create a collection of the child’s treasures; look at old family photos; sit on the beach, by the lake or river; sing and play music; find a reason to celebrate; look at the stars or the rain; cook and bake; go fishing; play cards; visit the significant locations from your own childhood. Whatever you do, do it primarily for the enjoyment of the moment. Any kind of educational agenda or objective will spoil it. Your child will learn about the world, mathematics and all that from others but only with you can he learn about you.
Adult couples sometimes enjoy a similar experience, when they suddenly have unstructured and unplanned time together. When everything on the agenda has been talked about, a comfortable silence follows and each of them begins to say things, which they never even knew, they were thinking. This kind of presence and closeness is equally meaningful to all love-relationships between adults as it is to the relationship between parents and children.
Preparing the ground for these moments between a child and one or both parents is the responsibility of the parent(s) and especially for the significant parent it is important to demonstrate initiative and leadership. So asking, “Would you like to go fishing with me?” is not such a good idea, simply because the parent is hiding her or his own feelings and desires behind the question. It is much more productive to say, “I feel like going fishing tomorrow and I would like you to come too”. In other words: say what you want and pay attention to the child’s reaction.
When the special contact is recognized there is another kind of “quality time”, which is when the parent includes the child in her or his own world, whether it is thoughts, personal experiences, favorite activity or dreams in life. It could also be taking the child to the carwash, visiting your own family, invite it to spend time with you at work or helping you when you paint the house or work in the garden. This is the ultimate way for a child to get to know its parents, whether or not there is an intuitive contact.
As a significant parent your huge potential for supporting and helping your child through rough patches in life is not only valuable for your child and your family, it is also a very privileged position where you can enjoy and grow from the ultimate experience of being of value as one human being to another.
When parents divorce
My main reason for not writing about the intuitive contact has always been my fear that parents might use it against each other and their children as part of the divorce process. Some parents tend to forget that what they are doing in order to hurt each other always hurts their children as well. Some divorces get so mean and ugly that the parents – in my professional opinion – should be denied the privilege of living with their children until the can behave civilized. Others are just messy for a while and most are okay in the sense that parents are mature enough to avoid fighting about the children and able to come to reasonable decisions based on the best interests of the children. For this majority of parents the awareness and recognition of the intuitive connection can become a very constructive element in everybody’s future.
Sometimes parents need the help of their child in order to become aware. They make the best possible decision about the child’s future living conditions and contact with each parent and talk it over with the child. Loosing their family, as they have always known it is painful for children regardless of age and they must go through a grieving process, which for most children is characterized by alternating periods of sadness and low energy and periods of balance and energy.
It happens fairly often that a child becomes more permanently sad and looses its former vitality. Getting behind those obvious reactions to what is really going on can be almost impossible for parents because children come to their own conclusions about which kind of cooperation and loyalty the new family situation demands from them. These conclusions are far from always correct but they are what they are and they change only slowly, because they simply define for the child itself how it can be most valuable to each parent and the whole family situation including the well-being of siblings.
Sometimes this reduced vitality is accompanied by outspoken desires or complaints like, “Why cant I live with my mother/father all the time?” or “I don’t want to visit my father so often because his new girlfriend dislikes me.”
It takes a lot of moral integrity and empathy to ask your own child (living with you most of the time) if it would prefer to live with your ex-partner and the child’s answer is not always easy to interpret, but the invitation to verbalize is in itself a relief for the child. A door is now ajar and the child is free to open it if need be.
In my experience it is very difficult for many children over five to get what they need from the significant parent on a part time basis. It seems to be easier for children when parents have decided for a 50/50 and even 40/60 settlement when they were between one and five years old. I could very well be wrong about this because I don’t have enough statements from adult children, who have grown up under these circumstances.
The important question is of course, what significant parents and their children can do when circumstances does not allow a continuous flow of input between them. At this point in time I know very little about how the use of Skype, Social Media, Chat etc. might help.
According to my experience the best thing to do is to be open and share the thoughts and feelings related to this unfulfilled need for sharing the same space and breathing the same air. When the other parent who is living with the child on a daily basis is willing to recognize and sympathize with the child’s feelings of longing, emptiness and frustration it is a big comfort for the child. It can now be allowed to have those emotions and share them without feeling disloyal.
As Charlotte in Example 3 proved by her fast recovery it’s a lot easier to deal with a loss when we know what we have lost. The sharing of thoughts and feelings, which I recommend, does in no way compensate for the loss and the pain, but it sets the child free to seek meaningful connections with other adults. It also frees the child from the burden of feeling different and maybe even “sick” because many of its friends whose parents also divorced seem to cope much better.
We never knew
In my experience most people over forty or thereabouts have grown up without a mutual realization of the special connection with their mother or father. I did and survived. Without any conscious deliberation I managed to connect in very meaningful and mutually beneficial ways with four very different men, who were twenty – thirty years my seniors. I never thought of them as “substitute fathers” as Sigmund Freud might have said. They were teachers, friends and adversaries in their own right and from each of them I was able to pick valuable material for the foundation under my own life. They were real role models in the sense that I got to experience them at their best as well as their worst. Compared to the optimal scenario this meant a thirty years delay and that is okay with me.
Over the years I have worked and talked with many adults who have suddenly realized what was missing and what they had been yearning for all their lives. After a good cry most of them were able to point out several very creative, wise and helpful choices they had made in terms of friends, teachers, spouses and careers. For some the most revealing realization was the fact that they had been able to find the closeness and profound inspiration in relationship with their own children.
My conclusion is that no matter how valuable it is when parent and child are both aware of and able to utilize the intuitive contact, it is fully possible for the child to create a good life without this mutual recognition. At this point I don’t know enough about how the same phenomenon affects the quality of life for the mothers and fathers.