The Congruent Child
Having raised two children who are now out in the world, I am particularly attuned to the perplexing and often vexing issues of adolescent parenting. As I listen to other parents sounding frustrated, angry, desperate, worried and stuck in the literalism of their role as parent, I think about the need to re-imagine this sometimes un-gratifying role with new thinking and imagination. One of my concerns about parenting is how limited our options become when we become rigid and trapped into following all the classic parental rules for child rearing: endlessly enforcing rules, creating boundaries, disciplining, assigning chores, cleaning rooms and on. Parents understandably are concerned with enforcing their rules, asserting themselves as the authority figure and finding ways to teach their children how to behave. But unfortunately, this structure often serves to reinforce a dry and unrewarding relationship with an adolescent. The principles of Carl Rogers, the renowned psychologist and the pioneer of Person-Centered Therapy, offers an approach that is beautifully suited to raising engaged and “congruent” children and provides a rich alternative to the unrewarding role of parental authority figure.
Carl Roger’s important concept of “unconditional positive regard” fosters uniqueness and self-direction and is different from the concept of “unconditional love.” Unconditional positive regard suggests that we behave toward our children with trustworthiness by demonstrating faith instead of fear and by creating the necessary environment that encourages rather than discourages child participation in solving the issues they confront in their growing process. How do you begin? Shift your perspective to one of curiosity as opposed to correction. A simple opportunity for this gesture might be in a moment when your child is sharing a controversial issue or event. Notice your tendency. Rather than jumping in and correcting your child’s viewpoint (i.e., feelings), you might say, “So what do you think that means?” “You usually have good ideas so I would like to hear your opinion and then I’ll give you mine. Then we’ll talk about solutions.” A child/teenager who is encouraged to be honest and is then accepted for his honesty begins to build “congruence” in his self-concept. Congruence means “harmony and agreement.” Congruence feeds our true natures and creates an inner and outer agreement as to who we are. Incongruence, on the other hand, builds the foundation for a false premise of self that we use to filter our “selves” throughout our lives. Children build false selves when their true selves are not heard with compassion and acceptance. When parents refrain from making unconditional positive regard contingent upon their own anxieties over having their personal expectations fulfilled, children are free to build a life that is truly their own—authentic and genuine and that naturally moves in the direction of self actualized growth. They have been affirmed for who they are. You will see evidence of congruence in your child as they become older and you begin to notice that his/her external actions match those of his/hers internal motivation and there is very little, if any, ambivalence. Their inner resources have grown strong and their vision of themselves is coherent.
Unconditional positive regard is an attitude of allowance, acceptance and respect for another person’s worldview. There are many ways to begin this attitude shift. Get curious. Spend time occasionally asking your children for advice, give them choices and not mandates, get to know their logic and respect it, honor their point of view by recognizing the depth of their feelings, explore your own evolution as a person and humanize your role, know your child’s cognitive limitations and treat it with compassion and understanding. Use your imagination. In children, the most rewarding aspect of building this rich, child-affirming foundation is how the respect and goodwill will eventually all come back to you, reciprocated.