“Waaahhhh.” The regular yet still jolting sound of a wail from my 4-year-old son Charles draws me into his bedroom. He is playing with his best friend, a little girl just four months younger named Kaitlyn. The elephant tears rolling down his face let me know some injustice has been performed.
“What’s going on?” I ask, his tear-stained face sending my heart rate higher.
“She broke my building,” says Charles. A Lego mess is on the floor. I barely distinguish that the Legos could have been a building. Kaitlyn shakes her head determinedly. She grabs a piece of the building.
“Kaitlyn,” I gently chastise her, “we don’t break other peoples buildings.”
I don’t know what really happened. Who is telling the truth? And, yet, I am on my son’s side, immediately, and without any thought to the context of the situation. Bewildered by my own reaction to the situation, I leave the room. I sit at the kitchen table, shaken by what has taken place. What makes me take my son’s side over his friend, a very sweet girl? What makes me want to roar, beat my chest and give my son the world on a plate, even if it is made out of Legos?
I am a Ferocious Parent. And it leaves me feeling queasy. I could have sworn I was a fair person. I adopted a shelter dog. I volunteer my professional services to religious-based charitable organizations. I sit at my kitchen table and wait for the feelings to dissipate.
Sheepishly, I return Kaitlyn to her mother Ava at the end of the playdate. Would she favor her daughter over Charles? I’m pretty sure the answer is no. Her interactions tend to be just regardless of where her child falls on the side of right or wrong. I want to discuss this phenomenon with Ava, or any parent for that matter, but I feel ashamed.
I turn to Dr. Sheryl Cohen for advice. Dr. Sheryl, as she refers to herself, has a Ph.D. in education leadership with a Bachelors Degree in psychology and is the Director of the Stephen S. Wise Early Childhood Center in Los Angeles. Dr. Sheryl listens to my story. “I think it is more the norm than not.” She describes it akin to a mama bear with her cubs. “I think it is instinctual for mothers, and fathers too, when they sense a threat.”
I remind Dr. Sheryl that I am normally a peace-loving, fair-minded individual who cannot stand injustice. I don’t allow my child to play with toy guns. I recycle. “‘Mama Bear’ is your role,” says Dr. Sheryl. “There is mutual dependency there. He can’t do it without you. It is hard to separate.”
Dr. Sheryl has said the magic word. Separation is the holy grail of child-rearing and inseparable from the instincts of Ferocious Parenting. “You are worried and are trying to care for your child. But when parents fail to recognize their child’s independence and continue in a ‘Mama Bear’ way they are really hurting their child. You are sending a message to the child that says, ‘I don’t think you are capable of handling this conflict and, therefore, there is something wrong with you.’ That is not the message you intend to send.”
Don’t I want Charles to separate from me? Aren’t I constantly teaching him to be self-sufficient, to talk when he gets frustrated and not just grunt? The worst scenario in the situation with Kaitlyn, explains Dr. Sheryl, would be if she started to cry because she didn’t get a chance to explain her side of the story. The powerlessness of her situation could be very stressful and lead to an emotional breakdown.
I ponder Dr. Sheryl’s explanation. I pay particular attention to my behavior the next time I have a playdate scheduled for Charles. We go to a favorite park and meet a boy named Nathanial, a 6-year old, and his mother Beatrice. Charles and Nathanial race for the only available swing. Of course, Nathanial wins. He is bigger by a head. When Charles arrives at the swing his forlorn face says it all.
I feel my face redden and my palms dampen. “Charles gets the first turn, Nathanial,” I dictate, Ferocious Parent in full effect. When Nathanial protests, Beatrice says, “He’s younger, Nathanial. Give him the first turn.” Charles smiles and clambers onto the swing. Nathanial looks unhappy but runs off to play on the jungle gym.
I push Charles on the swing and mull it over. Apparently, it doesn’t matter whether I want to be a Ferocious Parent or not. I am one. Should I be trying to change this? Is it a Darwinian imperative? What about the fact that Beatrice agreed with me by finding a rational reason to comply with my own Ferocious Parenting?
These are small incidents, unimportant situations, if you will. But if this is my destiny, what does this mean for bigger, more complex issues? I call Dr. Sheryl and give her the scenario. “Your friend probably didn’t want to get in a conflict with you. She chose the lesser road. But it taught Nathanial there is no value in being bigger. It discounts his ability and his strength. It took away Charles’ ability to experience disappointment.”
Once again, I didn’t allow Charles to separate, cope with his emotions. I get to the heart of the dilemma with her. “What’s the next level up from this?” I ask. “Does this mean, in the future, should my son commit a heinous crime I’d make the ultimate sacrifice and take the fall for him?”
Dr. Sheryl says this would be an extreme and rare situation. She uses a great metaphor for parenting: Curling – the outdoor, winter sport. “We are all out there with a broom, in front of our children, sweeping. Ultimately, at some point in development the child needs help coping with frustration and disappointment. Our job is to recognize our part in it.”
At our next playdate, we meet Jason and his 4-year-old daughter Bailey. We’ve made a date to go to a free summer concert at The Getty Center. The tram arrives to take us up to the Museum. Charles and Bailey jostle for the best seat, near the window where they can see the tram on its journey up the steep hill.
Jason barks, “Quit pushing, Bailey. Charles was there first. Sorry, kiddo.” I stare at Jason. He’s totally favored my son over his own daughter. Surely, they reached the seat at the same time. What do you call the opposite of Ferocious Parenting? Feeding your child to the wolves?
“This is not the natural instinct,” says Dr. Sheryl. “This is the attempt of a father who doesn’t know how to say it but is trying to assert a lesson on the child.” Ultimately, Dr. Sheryl explains, it is the same thing as too much mama bear. “It says, ‘I don’t trust you to make the right decision. You’re not capable, therefore someone else goes first.”
What about my neighbor Ava who always appears to be fair-minded in these situations with Katilyn? She allows her child to separate and cope with these situations. Dr. Sheryl says she probably has the Ferocious Parent instinct, too, but she’s learned to deal with it more naturally. It’s not as hard-wired. “It’s partly how your brain works and partly your connection to your kid and human nature,” explains Dr. Sheryl.
We need to do a better job of allowing our kids to separate and experience the emotional pain of coping with frustration and disappointment. Dr. Sheryl’s advice: Anything kids think they can do they should try.
So do all the three types of parents cancel each other out, eventually ensuring children find an even keel on their own? That would be a convenient belief, giving parents a free pass. But it’s much more complicated than that. “It’s not easy to be a parent,” concludes Dr. Sheryl. Until I quell my Ferocious Parent, I have to agree.
Thea Klapwald is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and has also written for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and Variety. She blogs regularly at Awkward Travels with Thea.