I'm Okay, You're A Brat: Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing You From the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood

Last Editorial Review: 11/12/2004

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Event Date: 08/09/2000.

Many parents blame themselves for the seemingly non-stop conflict with their children; Dr. Susan Jeffers shows you how to overcome guilt for more effective and less stressful parenting.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the guest's alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live's Pregnancy and Parenting Auditorium. Today we are discussing I'm Okay, You're A Brat: Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing You From the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood, with Susan Jeffers, PhD.

Dr.  Jeffers is recognized internationally as an expert on relationships and helping people move forward in their lives with confidence and love. She is the author of many self-help books, including the best-selling Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and End the Struggle and Dance With Life, and is also a popular speaker and media personality. She is the mother of two grown children and two grown stepchildren.

Moderator: Dr. Jeffers, thank you for joining us on WebMD Live. This looks like a whole new breed of parenting book, very politically incorrect. What kind of reaction have you received?

Dr. Jeffers: Better than I could have ever expected. As I suspected from my own experiences, from my own friends, so many people were very very unhappy with their experience of parenthood. One of the key elements of their discontent was the incredible sense of guilt that they felt because of the atmosphere of our culture today which tends to blame parents for everything. There is no evidence that I can come up with that says that a parent is totally responsible for how a child turns out. I talk about a child's circle of being. Of course their parents, their schools, teachers, television, the whole society in which they live affects who they are. I have seen children given the worst you can offer and they grow up fine, and the reverse is true. Even two children in one family, one can grow up great, and one horribly. We do the best we can, given who we are as human beings, and let go of our expectations about the future.

alicia18_msn: I have a four-year-old little girl and I did use cocaine during my pregnancy .I have been drug-free since she was born, but I am having a lot of trouble with her being very mean to me and her dad.What should I do? She screams all day and says she doesn't love us when we try to discipline her.She is very smart and seems to only have behavior problems.What should I be doing? We don't have her in daycare. She has been home with me since birth.I have a lot of guilt for using drugs, but I need to learn how to deal with her fits.

Dr. Jeffers: Obviously I can't answer anything relative to physical problems, but be assured that many parents who have never used drugs experience the same kind of negative behavior in their children. Number one, don't feel guilty. Second, why not try daycare, indeed? Again, evidence shows that daycare is very good for children. There are what I call "guilt gurus" out there who tell you you must be home with your children from the minute they are born, but evidence shows that children can grow up beautifully with daycare experiences as well as if parents are home. We have to honor who we are as human beings. If we're not comfortable being home, it is important to fulfill ourselves outside the home, so when we are with our children, we are happier human beings. I believe the happier the parents, the happier the children. I think getting a break from each other might be a very good thing. Certainly try it.

alicia18_msn: Maybe I will. She says if I leave her at daycare, she will bite the teacher's ear off! Help!

Dr. Jeffers: Maybe she has to learn some discipline. It's very difficult for parents with children who are not easy personalities. We must get other people to help us so we don't lose our temper. The "village" is gone. It's not natural for a parent to be with a child 24 hours a day without someone to help when the child becomes difficult. It is shocking to me that what is not reported is that from 65% to 83 % of child abuse under the age of eight years old is done by mothers. Only two percent to three percent is done by child-minders.

Moderator: Is it done in moments of rage?

Dr. Jeffers: Very varied reasons. The point is, mothers need help. It's not that mothers are bad people, it's just that they need help. I don't think  there's ever been a time in history where so much is expected of parents in terms of time and energy. Not to feel guilty, to say it's okay to take charge of my life and get help with this child. "I have to fulfill myself in some way so I can be strong and healthy for my child and myself." By the way, this book was written as much for people thinking about having children. I lay out what it gives, but really what's never been put in print before, what it takes away from your life. For some people, children are wonderfully fulfilling, but for others they are not. One of the huge myths of parenthood is that having a child is fulfilling for all people. This is simply not true. People adore their children, but don't like parenthood. Not everyone, but for a lot of parents this is true.

alicia18_msn: She isn't crazy at all, very smart, but way too mean to her dad and myself. Should we be spanking her when she says these things or ignoring them?

Dr. Jeffers: I think it's best if you are having difficult problems, to seek professional help. Also to get some help. Discipline is a wonderful thing. We're frightened in today's world to discipline children because the pendulum has swung so far to the extreme to protect children, that's it's difficult in today's world to do appropriate discipline. My own opinion is that everyone has to do what's right for them. When my children were young -- they are now 42 and 38 -- but I spanked them in a controlled way. For those who are younger than six, this certainly can work to stop children from hurting themselves, or behaving badly. The reason spanking is looked down upon, is that some times parents lose control and they can hurt a child. But if you are controlled, appropriate spanking, to me, is very effective when words don't work. But again, society today makes it very difficult.

jesterz_webmd: I'm scared to have children because I'm too logical a person, and I get frustrated when people don't respond to me logically (like children usually do). Is there a way I can prevent this or help this?

Dr. Jeffers: I think that it's very important to read this book (laughs) because I talk about exactly what life becomes, and again, some love it, but some are shocked at how it upsets one's life. There's nothing logical, or predictable, or even about having children, so if you have a certain personality and you know that this is going to be very difficult, of course, a wise decision would be to not have children, but you wouldn't be alone. Today 25% of the population is deciding not to have children. In a way, this is a very encouraging sign that people who want to be child-free, and I call them the "cheerfully child-free," are not being criticized as much as they used to be, even though it's still, the criticism does exist. It is not selfish to choose to be child-free. There are many many ways to put love into this world and giving love to a child is only one of these ways. God said to be fruitful and multiply. I was wondering if he meant fruits and vegetables, not necessarily children in a world that is overpopulated and becoming more so. I say this jokingly.

curly31_webmd: My children are involved in so much and I try to give them all the opportunities that I can, but I am sacrificing myself in the process. Is there a happy medium for everyone involved?

Dr. Jeffers: The first bit of advice that I can give is don't sacrifice yourself. This is very very important. I take offense where people in today's world expect that women in particular give up their fulfillment in life to raise children. It' s not necessary. We must fulfill ourselves and be a model to our children and become happier people. That balance has to be created and everyone does it in a different way. You don't want to say to your daughters, "Dream on little girl, but remember you ultimately have to give up your dreams when you have children." We don't want to say it to our daughters, so why say it to ourselves? Children grow up beautifully with parents who fulfill themselves outside of the home. I think that it's a myth to say that we have to give all of our attention to our children. Children must be a part of a bigger life. They can't be, in a healthy way, our whole lives. When we make a child our whole life, it's not healthy for them or for us. The book is titled I'm Okay, You're a Brat. It's available at amazon.com or Barnes and Noble,  whatever you use.

Moderator: Your book talks about the mad myths of parenthood. Can you give us a few of those myths?

Dr. Jeffers: One is that having children is the ultimate fulfillment in a woman's life. So many women are depressed for a very long time after a child is born, and there is a conspiracy of silence that keeps women from telling their truth. It's interesting the venom that people spew today at parents who do tell the truth, such as they're failed parents, or they're cruel, or whatever. And women have to support each other more, I believe. When I interviewed some women initially, they talked about how wonderful it was to be a parent. When I revealed that I found staying at home with a child to be very difficult, as I did for my first child 42 years ago, then the people I was interviewing broke down and started to tell their truths to me. Some broke down in tears talking about how miserable they were. Having children is the ultimate fulfillment for some, but certainly not for everyone, and we should not feel guilty if we don't love it. Stand tall, and find fulfillment outside the home, as I did, and then come home to your child as a happy person. Women are made to feel very guilty when they don't stay home in the beginning, which leads me to what I consider a myth, that the so called "bonding" and "attachment" are essential to the well-being of the child. I certainly don't think, in normal circumstances, that these things are really suitable for normal families today. People love their children whether they work or stay at home. They can create wonderful relationships with their children whether they work or stay home. There is no research available today that supports these theories of bonding and attachment. 

People have to understand that parenting styles change. When my mother raised me, childcare experts of the day said, "Don't pick them up. Let them cry themselves to sleep." "Multiple caretakers are essential, so they don't get too attached to the mother." "Breast feeding is not necessary." And on and on and on. This is how my mother raised me. And today, everything has gone to the other extreme. Now, you must pick them up, hold them, cuddle them, sleep with them, breast feed them, and on and on. Who knows what the next fad will be. When Dr. Spock died, he said he felt that he was mistaken, and that in truth, nobody knows how to predict how a child will turn out. There are no rules that work about a creating healthy children.

What is the answer then? Parents must learn to trust themselves. If it feels right for you, that's right. If it feels wrong to you, then it's wrong for you. And breast feeding is a perfect example of this. I've seen so many women distressed at the difficulty that they are having breast feeding. So I say stop, and they're guilt ridden. In truth, my whole generation grew up with bottles and formula, and we're fine! (laughs) I'm sure if you choose to bottle feed, your child will be fine. If you choose to breast feed and you love it, that's fine too! It's so easy, I don't know why we're making it so difficult. When I say easy, I mean we must honor who we are and trust that. Trust the child more. 

We have an era of what someone called "helicopter moms." They hover. In 1946, a Dr. Strucker talked about "momism" where the parents, particularly the mother, exerts too much control, too much influence over a child's life, not letting the child make her own mistakes and learn from them, and grow as a result.

lexx1_webmd: My question is how do I get my children to begin their own lives and to let me go? They are 24 and 22, and if they fight with their partners, it's like they expect me to me the judge!

Dr. Jeffers: This is totally in your control. You just say, "I love you very much. You figure it out. You have the ability to learn and to grow from it all." This is what you say to your children. This is very hard, I understand. One of the tools that I talk about is learning to cut the cord, over and over again. So, as soon as you see yourself being attached to your child, especially one of that age, cut the cord. Take a deep breath and trust that they will learn and grow from it all.

curly31_webmd: Your ideas are wonderful, but not always realistic for some of us. What if you are in a marriage that does not support you working outside the home?

Dr. Jeffers: Again, I wrote a book called Opening Our Hearts To Men, and the main message is that we must live our lives in a way that supports the best of who we are, and we must live our own truths, which means we must take responsibility for our lives. When we do, we're no longer angry with our partners or in whatever area we're in, whether with a boss or child or whatever. If we want to go out of the house in order to fulfill ourselves and our partner does not want that, we have to say, "I love you very much, but I have to be true to myself or I cannot be a happy person, which is not good for me, for you, and certainly not good for the children. Sometimes, this does devastating things to a relationship, it did with me. But I learned to fulfill myself in a way that allows me now, in my second marriage (laughs) to be very strong, very loving, and very fulfilled. But to be an adult, we must be true to who we are. We must responsibly take care of ourselves, as we responsibly take care of our children, and there are many working women out there who prove that that certainly can be done. Another thing: I believe that in our society, men are not involved enough in the parenthood role, and I think that for ourselves, for our children, and for our men, we must demand that they get more involved. This is very important. And when women are outside the home, working, men automatically become more involved.

curly31_webmd: My husband supports me in every other way and I love him very much, but I would lose him over this issue.

Dr. Jeffers: If I were married to someone who cared so little about my happiness, I would choose not to be there, and you know, her resentment will grow. The way to keep resentment from growing is to create joy in your life. That's a whole other issue, and I really talk about that a lot in Opening Our Hearts To Men, and I went through it, and I came out a much better, stronger, more loving person. Don't forget, 42 years ago, women didn't work at all. This was before the current women's movement, so I really did something that was very different for my time, and I'm so glad that I did. I believe if you tell your husband how unhappy you are in the situation, that he may honor that. If he does not, then you must choose what kind of a marriage you want. It's very frightening to consider these things, but as I said in my very first book, Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway.(Laughs.)

lexx1_webmd: How do you tell your children that are grown that compromise and discussion are the things that are the best tools? My daughter has two children from a prior relationship as does he. And they have different priorities in getting the new house ready for their family; his is the workshop, hers the bedrooms, etc. They fight when one does something without the other there.

Dr. Jeffers: Again, cut the cord. Just say, "I love you, this is not my business. You two have to work it out." Period. That's cutting the cord. And trust me, I've had to work on this myself, and when I stay out of my children's personal issues, they learn, they grow, and I learn and I grow, as well. It's a matter of trust. They can work it out.

Moderator: You don't believe that parents are solely responsible for how a child turns out. That will be a relief for some, but if parents aren't responsible for how children turn out, who is?

Dr. Jeffers: Yes. Again, I talk about the "circle of being" in I'm Okay, You're A Brat. There are so many factors that come into play that it is impossible to even list them all, including their personality, their genetics, their -- if you will, their calling, their friends, and all the factors that contribute to their lives. We don't know which factors affect which children and when. When we say something is good for a child, which child? When? We do our very best to give our love and care to a child as we think is appropriate, and then just let go of the outcome. Again, I worked with the poor in New York City for ten years. I saw one child in particular over that period of time. He had cigarette burns all over his body from his early childhood. He grew up to be one of the finest human beings that I have ever met. He ultimately went on to become a doctor . If the parent is the sole indicator of how a child will turn out, we certainly wouldn't want to say that cigarette burns all over the body is a good thing, but this child turned out beautifully! The point is, one would predict that a child who was so badly treated would turn out horribly. This was not the case. Something else in his circle of being touched him, and made him a beautiful human being. What that was, I don't know, nor does anyone else. There are certainly a lot of people prominent in the world today who had horrible parents, but turned out wonderfully. I don't advocate treating children badly at all, of course, but we do our best and let go.

curly31_webmd: I have become a screaming nut. I yell far too much and I want to stop, but do not know how. I have been clinically depressed for several months and it is affecting my whole family. I want to change and I need help. I often feel suicidal but could not do that to my children. That is the only thing that keeps me holding on. Any suggestions?

Dr. Jeffers: First of all, again, this depression requires professional help, but I want to point out, definitely, professional help. I have no idea what causes depression; however, I am told that you are the same individual whose husband does not let you work outside the home. It's possible that if you did something outside the house, this would help your depression. It certainly helped mine. On the other hand, it could be a purely physical thing that your doctor would have to determine. It's not good to have a depressed person with the child 24 hours a day. Your loving your child can help you to get outside the house and fulfill yourself better, with the hope that the depression will go away. Sometimes, all it takes is adult activity, and a satisfaction with work. Sometimes it's deeper than that. You must take responsibility to take care of yourself, to get outside the house, and that you're being filled with joy outside the house. I had actually gone to a doctor 42 years ago when my son was an infant, and he said to me that some people were meant to stay home and raise children, but some were not. You are not. There is nothing physically wrong with you, but you need to get out of the house. He was way before his time, and I thank him deeply for giving me the courage to find stimulation outside the house. Some people love to play with children, others do not. Some are bored with games, the park, feeding, etc., that they can see their plants photosynthesizing. (Laughs.)

atllady_webmd: How do we as parents deal with the inner fear that we carry when we see our children making the wrong choices?

Dr. Jeffers: First of all, we don't know what a wrong choice is for our children. Obviously, this is different than dangerous choices like driving 90 miles an hour, but talking about life choices like not going to college or getting married too soon. We don't know what's wrong for our children. We know what is right for us. One great author said, "Our children come through us, but they don't belong to us." I agree with that. They have their own destiny. In my own life, things that seemed wrong turned out to be wonderful learning experiences. One of the reasons that parenthood can be so difficult is that we love our children so much, we want everything to be perfect. In our own lives, not everything was perfect. I had a mastectomy 17 years ago, and I'm sure it was very painful for my mother to watch, but I learned and grew, and consider it an enriching experience. The same can be said about my divorce. We learn from our difficulties, and I became stronger for the things that have happened in my life, and just trust that your children will learn and grow from their mistakes. Even if they don't turn out well, and you were right, they have to learn for themselves. This is probably the most difficult part about being a parent -- how much you love your children. It's this letting go that is so crucial to their growth, and your growth as a human being. Children should be a part of a bigger life, so when things are not going well in that arena, you have a whole support system in other parts of your life that can help you through difficult times.

vickiface99_webmd: I have a five-year-old boy and eight-year-old girl. They drive me nuts with their "Mommy, I can't go to the bathroom unless you are in there with me." Or "I can't get dressed unless you watch me." Then I say, "Yes, you can you are a big kid." Then they say "No, I am scared." What can I do to stop this? They are old enough to do thing without me watching them.

Dr. Jeffers: They're being habituated. They have a habit of your watching them. It's time for you to break the habit. Tell them they may be frightened, but it's okay, they can handle it. The biggest gift we can give our children is to teach them that they can handle whatever life gives them, to remind them constantly of their strengths, and reward them for their strengths, not for their weakness. We all grow together. In truth, we grow and learn as they do. We make mistakes and fix them, and in the end, trust that it's all happening as it's meant to happen.

Moderator: Dr. Jeffers, thank you for joining us on WebMD Live.

Dr. Jeffers: I enjoyed this. I could probably talk all day, but I appreciate the opportunity! My web site is www.susanjeffers.com and I encourage people to come on by!

The opinions expressed herein are those of the guest's alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors