There is a joke about parenting that goes like this: “You spend the first two years teaching your children how to walk and talk, and the next sixteen telling them to sit down and be quiet.” Yes, once they can say what they want and go where they want parenting becomes a much greater challenge.
One of the images I frequently use in therapy is from Isaiah 64:8: “I am the potter, you are the clay.” As parents we are a powerful first experience for our children of what it means to be in a relationship with God, but we certainly are not omnipresent and all powerful as is God. A scene from the movie “Ghost”, where Demi Moore is working the pottery wheel with the ghost of her deceased husband, Patrick Swayze, embracing her hands as she works, is a beautiful image of this reality. It speaks to our relationship with God, and to our relationship with our children.
Would that parenting were so simple! To paraphrase Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book title, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, parents often come to therapy with an overriding sense of – How Do Good Parents End Up with Problem Kids? It’s not that the children are essentially bad, they are just not living the kinds of values that their parents thought they taught them. Parents ask: “How come it didn’t take? What did we miss? Where did we go wrong? Why is this one so different from his/her siblings?”
What parent hasn’t had such thoughts run through his/her mind at least for a fleeting moment? What I consistently point out is that while their pottery techniques and skill may be great, the consistency and quality of the clay is different for each piece. The intrinsic nature of the clay is a given. Some are moist and malleable. Some clay can be very hard and compact. And some with sharp pebbles and shards of glass imbedded. Squeezing and forming each results in different productions. Clearly the end product is not simply due to our pottery skills, for the effect of our skills is limited by the nature of the clay. And to top it off, many parents are molding two, three, four or more lumps of clay at a time!
To mold clay with pebbles and shards of glass one has to wear very tough leather gloves. That limits the finesse with which one can mold the clay. Then one has to turn to the clay that requires soft, gentle hands for the best results, but wearing gloves causes pain and damage to that piece. So the gloves quickly come off to accommodate. And then the clay that needs something else calls, and we must adjust again. Always adjusting, changing, and trying to meet a variety of needs – often simultaneously, when we can only be at one place at a time. We’re just not God.
Helping parents acknowledge and accept that their children’s behavior is not simply the result of their own parenting styles is one of the main tasks of the therapeutic process. Taking this posture helps free parents from the burden of inappropriate guilt, and enables them to refocus their parenting skills more directly on the issues at hand. It also helps them shift more attention onto helping their children acknowledge and accept responsibility for their own lives and behavior. After all, we cannot let them sit on the pottery wheel their whole lives.
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