Parenting With Existentialism and ACT
I recently came across an article entitled, “Dreadful Dads” by John Kaag and Clancy Martin. This article explores how the philosophy of Existentialism can inform modern day parenting. The article is geared toward fathers. As a father and as a therapist who frequently counsels parents on how to best parent their child, this article very much resonated with me. Both Kaag and Martin are philosophy professors, and I find that I often view human problems through an existential-humanistic lens. I also find this type of thinking fits with my main theoretical modality which is Acceptance and Commitment therapy or ACT.
One of the first principles of ACT is that of “Destructive normality” or the view that “normal psychological processes…lead us to suffering…” These theorists would assert that we actually strengthen and intensify suffering by trying to control that which cannot and should not be controlled. Martin and Kaag endorse, “What is at stake for a parent in maintaining the semblance of normality or perfection? It certainly isn’t the mental wellbeing of the children.
In their article, Kaag and Martin assert that to “parent authentically…[it] involves coming to terms with what children are really like. They are not angels or hellions, sweethearts or monsters: they are little people who, as Kierkegaard suggests, are both angelic and beastly.” And much parental suffering comes at the hands of trying to control these little people.
ACT teaches us that this is something we need to accept. That we need to discard our idealized versions of what our children might or should be or what parenting should be and accept what it is, which is something that can be difficult, rewarding, and something that we cannot totally control. As one of the pioneers of ACT, Kelly Wilson, conveys, instead of trying to figure out our children as if they were math problems, we should more view them as sunsets. The famous psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “Perhaps the reason we can truly appreciate a sunset is that we cannot control it.”
Control is a main theme of what Kaag and Martin are expressing in their post. It is also what brings many parents into my office. Kaag and Martin argue that the limits we put on our children for their own best interest are really more about our own anxiety than anything else. “The more we argue that it is about the kids’ safety, the more obvious it is that it is all about us.” And the more control we try to convey due to our anxieties, the more resistance from our children we are likely to incur. This is all the more difficult because as Kaag and Martin say, “parents hinge their self-conception to little beast-angels who are free to self-destruct.”
These struggles for control are most famously encountered by parents in the “terrible twos” and in the teenage years. The “rebellious teen” is just a more mature version of the toddler, however, these battles over control happen throughout the child’s development..
So what to do? The best approach to take is from the book, The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson as they prescribe parents to see themselves as more of a consultant than manager to their children. This is all the more important because as Stixrud points out and Kaag and Martin agree, “We can love [our children], and we surely do, but this doesn’t mean that [they] will act in accordance with our will.” We cannot make our children want what we want. Again, ACT would tell us this is something we need to accept and work with such as when we have to deal with the rain. Nothing we can do will stop the rain short of patience but we can utilize an umbrella or put on rain boots. Trying to control the rain will drive us crazy.
Another prescription Kaag and Martin offer is to “adjust [our] expectations about life or, in this case, life with children.” The psychologist Ross Green who is the author of The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings amongst other books also advocates for us to adjust our expectations of our children especially when our children are continually not meeting our expectations.
Kaag and Martin talk about how when we accept the reality of raising children and adjust our expectations, somehow life with our children can become more manageable.
In Gestalt therapy, there is something called “The paradoxical theory of change”. This theory states that change does not come through coercive techniques of control by the individual or another person. In other words, the more we stop trying to change something, the more we may find out that it does indeed change.
All this is not to say that there should not be any rules, limits, or boundaries. Of course there should be, however, there need not be drama or power struggles or redoubled efforts to control. The rules, limits, and boundaries can still be there without the drama and power struggles. Let them do the work. We can give our children choices and then let them choose. They will not always make the right decisions but they will learn instead of just trying to game a power struggle which in turn has the function of frustrating the adult just as the child who the adult is attempting to control is frustrated.