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Giving Your Child "Voice": The 3 Rules of Parenting

One of the most important psycho­logical factors in raising a family is giving children "voice." What is "voice"? It is the sense of agency that resides in all of us, that makes us confident that we will be heard, and that we will have impact on our environment. Exceptional parents grant a child a voice equal to theirs the day that child is born. And they respect that voice as much as they respect their own.

How can you give your child "voice"? There are three rules:

It is not easy to follow these "rules." Parents who are still trying to make their own voices heard due to injuries from their past often are unable to do it without help. Indeed, they are likely to impose their voice, and demand children listen to them. If you listen to the subtext of these parent-child relationships it becomes clear that the child is taking care of the parent. Sometimes the child feels like a prisoner, because they cannot say what they really feel, only what their parent wants to hear. Other times, children who have never been given the chance to develop "voice" act out, build walls around them, take drugs as an escape, etc. because they feel all alone in the world, and the anxiety and/or depression they feel as a result is unbearable.

It is extraordinary that the most important job in the world, raising a child, is an untrained position. Many parents deceive themselves about the quality of their parenting skills. Parents sometimes compare themselves favorably to their own parents, and indeed they often do a better job. But what is often necessary is not just doing a better job, but stepping out of the box and seeing the parenting role in a completely different way. Very few parents can do this on their own. This is why counseling is so essential to many parents and parents-to-be. Clients often learn that their voice was not heard, and they are struggling to regain agency by having their children listen to them. Tragically, this "backwards parenting" can be passed on from generation to generation.

It is important to start applying the above rules from the moment of birth. A child begins learning voice early in life, and if the critical period passes and the sense of agency has not developed, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to restore. The ensuing panic, hopelessness, and aloneness can last an entire lifetime. Much of the therapeutic work I do involves the exploration of voice lost or unrealized in childhood.

What do children with "voice" look like? They have a sense of identity that belies their years. They stand up for themselves when necessary. They speak their mind and are not easily intimidated. They accept the inevitable frustrations and defeats of life with grace and keep moving forward. They are not afraid to try new things, to take appropriate risks. People of all ages find them a joy to talk with.

If parents do not enter a young child's world, but instead require him or her to enter theirs to make contact, the resulting damage can last a lifetime. In "Voicelessness: Narcissism," I present one way adults react having experienced this scenario in childhood: they constantly try to re-inflate their leaky "self." However, different temperaments spawn different adjustments: some children, by their very nature, are incapable of aggressively seeking attention. If no one is entering their world, they unconsciously employ a more passive strategy. They diminish their voice and try to please their parents with their lack of demands.

As adults such people are gentle, sensitive, and non-assuming. They are also generous and caring, often volunteering for charitable organizations, animal shelters, and the like. Frequently they feel other people's pain as if it were their own, and are wracked by guilt if they cannot somehow relieve this distress. To most, they seem model human beings. Unfortunately these qualities are the direct result of having little or no "voice," and their voicelessness can cause them considerable pain.

Every parent should strive to give their young child voice. Look at yourselves honestly: if you can't follow the three rules, get help as soon as possible. It is not shameful. With hard work, you can break the intergenerational cycle and give your child (and, ultimately, their children) this wonderful gift.

Richard Grossman, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts.