The world is full of followers, but you’re not one of them. – JL Glass
I recently attended a seminar taught by JL Glass (he’s a very funny, charismatic speaker), and he mentioned that he tells his kids that. It got me to thinking about all of the messages we give our children, both verbally and through our actions, and how much of our parenting, good and bad, we inherited from our parents.
Growing up, we may have thought that we would do things way different than our parents. By the time we become parents ourselves, we realize that our parents had reasons for the way that they did things. And now we raise our own children in our own home with our values and morals, and then they go out into the world and we hope for the best. They are exposed to many things outside of the home that we would not necessarily choose for them: maybe it’s popular music, or fashion, or junk food, or the desire for more consumer goods, whatever… And part of parenting is letting go and trusting them to make decisions for themselves.
So how do you get to that point of trust?
Well, to generalize, there seem to be two main parenting styles – controlling everything, and letting the child control everything. Some parents decide everything for their child, from their food choices to their friends and activities. I grew up with some of that, and I resented not being able to choose. I’ve also seen some parents that describe themselves as “natural parents” that let their kids choose anything, and the parents get run all over by them. In my humble opinion, giving a child free rein doesn’t seem to be very effective in the long run. I think there’s a middle ground that is respectful to the parents and the child, and that effectively teaches the skills for family living and future involvement with the rest of society.
Some of the parenting guidelines that have worked for us:
- Our actions must be in line with our words. If we tell a child one thing and then do another, what do they learn from that? I got called on this by my daughter recently, and I learned something from her. Imitation is how children learn almost everything, and their sense of integrity comes from our own.
- Our children must know that they are loved. Distinguishing between your child and your child’s action is super important. A child is never bad. They may misbehave or screw up (in our eyes), but they are still our beloved child, doing the best they can. And they need to hear that they are loved, often.
- Our children must have some choices. They do need to be able to control a tiny part of the universe, even if it’s only choosing which plate to eat from. Being able to make compromises so that everyone’s needs are met is a cornerstone of a strong family.
- We must openly communicate about our expectations. If they don’t know what is not acceptable, children can’t be held accountable for their actions. We are the parents. It’s up to us to teach them.
- No bribery. We don’t bribe our kids or offer them rewards for promising “good” behavior.
- Setting clear boundaries is also freedom. It’s kind of like baby-proofing a room. When children know their boundaries, they are free to explore in a safe environment. We also have time limits for things like movies or internet access, so they get some of what they want, while we get some of what we want (no couch potatoes).
- We must stand behind our words. If we have clear expectations for behavior, and clear consequences for misbehavior, then we need to be firm in administering them. No free passes… One of the consequences in our family for disrespectful behavior is doing extra chores. Our reasoning is, if we want to be able to enjoy all of the good things as a family, we all have to play our part and help out. If we have a child throwing a fit about not getting their way, then our whole family is affected by it. Pitching in to help with the not-so-fun stuff works for us. Usually they calm down about halfway through the chores, and they realize that they actually have it pretty darn good most of the time…
- Speak positive words and give kudos for good behavior. Just acknowledging the tiny bits of growth that happen everyday is uplifting to kids. A kind word is a powerful thing. We internalize the messages we get, so let’s help by spreading more love and less criticism. Praising the positive and encouraging it in our children ultimately takes way less energy than focusing on the negative behavior.
All you need is love… well, and some positive discipline.
Derek writes about fathering, food, toddlers, tweens, and other random goodness at Natural Father.