Stepping up to the role of carer: the greatest gift a parent can give

On Sunday in Starbucks a man appeared on the table beside me carrying a whingeing, sullen four-year-old. Once deposited, child slid down the chair like some kind of slippery mollusc and cowered beneath the table on the floor, moderately self-conscious about other nearby adults. Man, possibly not child’s biological father, seemed helpless. He made some attempts to reason with child but lingered on foot, anxiously awaiting his partner’s arrival.

She came with provisions and another child strapped on. The child on the floor scrabbled up for mother’s attention and was duly rewarded with a cuddle and playful cajoling. Man looked on, feebly.

What was it about the child disobediently moping under the table that warranted maternal comfort? In all seriousness, the answer is that mother has perceived the suffering of an innocent.

This is the biggest stumbling block when it comes to child rearing. Once you have brought a baby into the world and they are so precious to you, it is hard to see them rationally, as a person-to-be in their own right. It is hard to know if you’re doing the right thing by your child. You want so much for them to be happy. The worry and guilt can be unbearable.

We need to see our children for what they are – children. They will fight and petition to have all of their needs met but if you want them to be a balanced person, the biggest favour you can do is to not meet all of those needs. If you do, they will start to learn that they can manipulate you. They may also learn they can be boss and develop an inflated sense of themselves. Then a lot of the emotion you observe is all for show. Well, it is real in one sense: the child is locked into a negative pattern of expecting and needing parental attention. They become dependent on it and without it, are bereft.

What our children really need is not unlimited cuddles and reassurance. All children, even those who rarely seem to challenge, need the stability of boundaries. They need to be empowered to moderate their own behaviour and manage their own needs, just as we have to as adults. They need to know that you will step in and stop them from wanting too much and losing control. Without this foundation, how do they begin to take responsibility for themselves?

Even if you have got to a ‘bad’ place with your child, it is never too late to change things. You must simply believe in what you are doing wholeheartedly – know that you will stick obstinately to the rules you made; know that you will always win the battle. And know that you are doing it because you have their best interests at heart.

This is not personal and it certainly isn’t mean. It is about your stepping up to your role as carer. It is the kindest thing and the greatest gift you can give to a child. Cut the cord of subjectivity. Your child is a precious creation. Marvel and wonder at them but know that they are not your possession. You cannot parent them forever; their life will one day be their own.