This parenting stuff is hard work. Not only are you giving up nights of sleep, calling off because your child is sick, and having meaningless arguments about how “the Paw Patrol bowl is dirty and you are just going to have to use the yellow bowl… (20 minutes of crying later) Fine, I will wash the Paw Patrol bowl.” Not only do parents get to deal with these gems, but they also get to hear countless opinions posed as incontrovertible fact from other adults. The truth is, there is no one way to raise any kid and what works for one will most likely not work for the next.
Not only is there no set way of raising a child, but each generation has new barriers that parents before did not have to deal with. Today’s children are growing up understanding how to unlock a phone, search for their favorite video, and even know how to ignore phone calls that interrupt their “Finger Family” song. These are issues that just did not exist for children of the 90’s and earlier and with the pace that technology is evolving, who knows what new factors will exist in 20 more years.
So, the idea of this post is not to give a concrete plan for how to raise children but to give some general guidelines that should be able to stand the test of time.
- “Kids spell love T-I-M-E” ~ John Crudele. Children need attention from the people they love the most. For the first 10-13 years, children learn mostly from the adults in their lives (parents and teachers). One of the primary reasons humans have been so successful is our ability to socially interact with others. We are able to empathize with those around us, engage with them, and build on ideas. The foundation for these social skills starts with parents. While it is okay to watch movies and television with your children on occasion, there needs to be interactive social play every day. The younger a child is, the less technology should be involved and the more the time needs to be focused on social interaction. Not only does research show that children learn from play, but playing with children builds a strong relationship and the deeper and more trusted a relationship, the fewer problems a parent is going to have in a child’s later years. As little as 30 minutes of child-directed play a day can have profound benefits.
- Consistency. The hardest part of being an adult is being allowed to eat chocolate cake for breakfast, but having to tell yourself not to do so. What separates a child from an adult is that an adult has the ability to stop themselves. Children need boundaries and they must be consistently placed and enforced. It can take weeks to months to extinguish an undesirable behavior and the best way to get rid of a behavior is to prevent it from happening in the first place. A parent’s word needs to be impeccable. When I am working with parents, I always suggest they decide what consequences they are willing to issue and to only draw from those. Making threats that you have no intention or no ability to follow up on, leads children to question whether a parent will actually follow up on what they say they are going to do.
- Boundaries/Limits. Technology, phones, video games, chocolate, and macaroni and cheese. If given the freedom, kids will spend hours staring at a screen and will only eat chocolate and macaroni and cheese for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The old adage, “too much of anything, can be a bad thing” will always be true and parents have to be the Netflix for children “Are you still watching?” (Yes, Netflix, I have resigned to devote my day to lying on the couch and watching every episode of House. Thank you for reminding me how lazy I am being.) Technology and processed foods are designed to addict us and keep us wanting more; pointing at you, Netflix. That does not mean parents should never let their kids watch a Disney movie or eat a chocolate bar, but I would not recommend letting them watch the Little Mermaid 10 times in a row and eating an entire bag of Halloween candy. Until kids develop the skills to self-regulate, a skill that requires the frontal lobes of our brains to be developed (a process that does not complete until 25 years of age, by the way), it is up to parents to build the habits for their children.
- “Maybe one day my boys will catch me in the act of greatness” ~ from a speech by Rick Rigsby. “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you. ~ Robert Fulghum. Kids learn so much more from what they see their parents do rather than what they hear their parents tell them to do. If, as a parent, you are getting frustrated and yelling when your child makes a mistake, how can we expect a child to do any different? Especially in the early years, children learn so much more from what they see the adults in their lives doing rather than what they are being told to do. The most important advice I can give to a parent is to live the type of life you would like your child to lead. Not necessarily the profession, but the values and the character traits you would like them to have. It is one thing to say, “treat your body like a temple,” but it is another to lead a life that exemplifies the statement. If you say it while you are downing a whole pizza, it damages the credibility. Carl Jung said, “If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” My recommendation is to make a list of the traits and values a parent would like to see in their child when they are 30, then honestly evaluate if that is the kind of life they are modeling for them. If yes, keep it up; if no, plan some actionable steps for how they could model the traits for their child.
Parenting will always be a difficult job, but it also has the ability to be immensely rewarding.