We Teach ’em How to Treat Us

Being a parent is tough and even more so when you’ve spent your years giving to the point of exhaustion without getting what you felt you deserved in return. That was Terry’s issue when she called me for the umpteenth time to vent. You see, Terry, a mother and grandmother in her 50s was taught to serve, like most women in that generation (myself included).

As Terry put it, she had spent her child rearing years being nursemaid and slave to 3 boys. And now that they are grown with kids of their own the job continues. It’s not that she minds helping her kids and grandkids, it’s that her needs don’t seem to matter.

As I sat listening to yet another evening of venting I felt the old anger and pain of the many times I felt I have given much and received little to nothing. I also reminded myself that it takes time to change our programming.

Now, Terry and I had been working on the co-dependent attachment she still had for her kids. Like many of us in that generation, we were still of the mind that our family was our world and our value came from serving and keeping them happy, well-fed and content. Terry had come a long way in breaking that attachment; her first step was to stop cleaning her son’s home, (including do the laundry) when she babysat her grandson Johnny. (That was huge!) But the need to “be for them” was still strong.

The Ball Game

Here’s an example of how the co-dependency issue was still in play. Ned and Val, Terry’s son and daughter-in-law had asked her to babysit so that they could attend a football game. (They have been offered last minute tickets by a friend. Terry, still needing to be needed by her kids, changed her plans to accommodate request.

Now, one thing that Terry really dislikes is spending the night at her son’s house, especially since she no longer cleans it and now it stays a mess. Since we had begun working on speaking up, Terry did let let her son know that he needed to be home early enough for her to drive home. But how she did it sent the message that she wasn’t serious.

As fate would have it, Ned and Val rolled in around 1am. Needless to say, Terry was furious, but what really sent her over the edge was her son’s response. Here’s how the conversation went:

Terry: “Why were you so late coming home? Don’t you know I need to go home? You know I don’t see well at night!”
Ned: “Well Mom, you’re staying here.” As he went around the living room drawing the drapes.
Terry: “No I’m not! I’m going home!”
Ned: *Speechless as he watched his mom grab her things and stomp out the door.*

Terry finished her vent and waited for my response. “You teach them how to treat you.” I said. You can’t expect your kids to treat you any different than the way you taught them to.

Furthermore, when you do begin to teach them how to give back, the way you state your needs determines if they will be met along with how cooperative your kids will be. (It was a light bulb moment.)

Terry realized that she had spent years teaching her kids to receive from her. She needed them to in order to feel she had value. That meant that someone must receive. What she hadn’t taught them was how to give back. Moreover she hadn’t been taught how to get her needs met in a way that fostered cooperation and contentment for all concerned.

So the solution was not to be angry with her boys for doing what she taught them, it was to teach them how to give back. To help her understand this next step I explained what needed to be done. Next, I used and the ball game situation as an example.

The Ball Game: Negotiating 101

Ned: Mom, can you babysit tonight? Val and I want to go to a football game.
Terry: Sure but under one condition. You come home by 10pm.
Ned: Why so early?
Terry: I’m going to go home at that time. Now, if you want to stay later, arrange for another sitter to take my place. Agreed?
Ned: Sure. We can do that. Thanks Mom.

Notice a couple of things about this more empowered method.

Terry let her need be known and negotiated for it rather than demanding it. She gave no reasons for her need. You don’t need someone else to approve of your need. Terry got it and like she said, it’s one thing to know you need to speak up, but quite another do it effectively.

In closing, giving to our kids is something we all have learned to do. And we’ve taught them to receive quite well. Now we must teach the next step: how to give back. It’s been my experience with my own daughter that kids want to please, they want to give back; they just need to know what we want. And when we let them know, if we do so by negotiating rather than demands or threats, they are learning a precious and valuable skill, enabling them achieve parental satisfaction with their own kids.