Martyr Messes in Parenting

Spiral Stair

image courtesy of Trey Ratcliff-

When I was in my early twenties, I had a personal epiphany. I credit this to Harriett, my incredible roommate at the time. She was a youth counselor and a wise friend to me and after living with her for a year or so, I made a decision based on that epiphany that would change my life forever.

I decided to help other people, whenever and however I could…as long as it did not make me feel like a martyr.

I had no idea at the time that I had just written my first personal mission statement. You see, I had observed the acidic nature of martyrdom in other people through my life. People who did something for someone else, but at such a personal cost that they either suffered in silence or more often, gave a big guilt package along with their service that crushed the recipient. I decided not to go there.

While parenting, you do everything for your child when they are infants and toddlers. As they grow, they (hopefully!) become more independent, make more choices for themselves, and change your role as they mature. You move from constant caregiver, to supervisor and teacher, and ultimately to mentor…if you do it right.

What are the “martyr messes” that parents can get themselves in if they aren’t careful? There is a simple test you can apply. When something comes up that you have been asked to do, think it through and be aware if you are feeling angry, put upon or depressed by the task. These aren’t necessarily deal killers, but it does alert you to the possibility that you may give a guilt package to the person who receives your service. If that is true…please do not do it.

Guilt is so toxic when misused by parents and feeling like a martyr is not a great place to do your parenting from, either. Think twice about the bill you or your children will be paying when you put yourself out so much that you resent it, and either deal with those feelings yourself and go on, or don’t do it. It is not usually worth the price.

Here is where I send you to the resources I used as a parent which taught me how to move more gracefully from doing everything for my children to doing the right, necessary and appropriate things. I highly recommend “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. They also wrote a version for teens, so check it out if your children are older.

Faber and Mazlish were fans of the great wisdom of Dr. Haim Ginott, who wrote the classic parenting book, “Between Parent and Child,which introduced a respectful way to raise children. They took Dr. Ginott’s revolutionary ideas and turned them into an easy to read, easy to understand “how-to” manual for raising kids who not only respect you, but respect themselves.

When children respect themselves, the benefits are obvious. When they respect you, you will feel comfortable having a frank conversation about how their request for service makes you feel. You can express why you have decided not to do that particular thing because it puts unreasonable stress on you. You can ask for their ideas on how they can get this service in other ways, or negotiate limits that would lessen the stress on you. Yes…you will treat them like people you respect.

This is how we communicated with our daughters, giving them the same respect that we would give co-workers, employees or employers in our business careers. Using the techniques in Faber and Mazlish’ books, we were able to demand respect for ourselves, keep from using guilt as a motivator and opened the doors to a healthy, maturing relationship.

People who consistently make you feel guilty become people you dislike or avoid. Is that what you want in your family? Think about it, talk about it and make a family policy that nips martyr messes in the bud.

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