I’m sure we’re all bombarded with feedback from friends, family, teachers, etc., regarding how we should raise our children. Although such input is in good faith, it can be frustrating – if not overwhelming, especially when different people tell us different things. There is also a myriad of information on the internet, and sorting through all of that can be daunting as well.
Thus, as a parent myself, I’d like to offer my perspective of the key fundamentals. Instead of offering the usual list of “dos and don’ts”, I’d like to share my thoughts regarding the underlying objectives of raising a child as well as how to leverage “what makes them tick” to their own advantage. I believe that, by keeping these things in mind, we can decipher the information/input we receive from the various sources and boil it down to a sound strategy on raising our children. I have also found these principles helpful from a tactical standpoint as well – making “on the spot” decisions as situations arise with our children.
End Game Objective/Mission Statement
It’s all too easy to get lost in the forest in our basic approach to parenting and making sound decisions in real time. Thus, I would like to articulate that which I believe is the main objective that all of us parents share: “to love, nurture and guide our children such that they will grow up to become ethical, responsible, successful, confident and happy adults who will make good decisions throughout their lives and reach their full potential”. Unless I missed something, I believe it’s really that simple!
As you read the rest of the blog, please keep this – or your own – mission statement in mind.
In order to break this down into separate actionable yet integrated pieces, the following summarizes each:
- Love: As we know, this is a basic human need of all of us. It comes in many forms. The simplest forms are what kids usually recognize and appreciate the most: a hug, cuddling, holding hands, words of encouragement and praise, helping them solve a problem, believing in them, and simply just “being there”. It is important that we not deprive our kids of any of these (and other important) expressions of love.
- Nurture: I see a twofold definition: 1) meeting the physical needs (proper nutrition, hygiene, etc.) of our kids, and 2) meeting their emotional/developmental needs. I’m not going to dwell much on the physical, as I believe that’s pretty simple and well-understood. (But do check for articles on these topics, as I intend to take a “deep dive” in some important areas.) Meanwhile, the scope of this post will focus on the emotional/ developmental aspect. A key objective is to help our children love themselves and have high self-esteem, while also remaining humble (not arrogant or egotistical), sensitive to, and respectful of others. Whether we like to admit it or not, I believe this is also a basic need that’s common to all of us. As adults, this can be satisfied in more abstract forms (e.g., a boss giving a trusted employee a challenging, stretch assignment that could have tremendous impact on the company), but again, children are most in need of the simple forms. These include words of encouragement, conveying your “I believe in you” attitude (very important when they make mistakes), and simply reminding them how much God loves them, how much you love them, and how they make the world a better place.
- Guide: I view this as a complement to nurturing, as both are crucial to proper development. While nurturing focuses more on the person, guiding focuses more on the situation/action/outcome. This includes setting simple rules/expectations and ensuring proper discipline so as to ensure the correct behavior and to teach our kids that our decisions/actions have real consequences, which can be good or bad.
I believe all these are paramount to good parenting, but I don’t believe any lends itself to a one-size-fits-all approach. Some kids need more physical affection than others. Same goes with nurturing. And some are more capable of and vigilant in making sound decisions with minimal guidelines. In contrast, others might need to be micromanaged for a short while during their childhood. I have also found the optimal approach to be somewhat age-dependent, especially the guidance piece. As my kids get older, I tend to give them more latitude in decision-making as they demonstrate proper judgment. When they don’t, I tighten the reigns and explain why. They see that and usually make the appropriate adjustments.
In the following section, I will apply these fundamental principles to several major dimensions of parenting.
Teaching and Encouragement
I’m covering both of these concurrently because they work together to produce the desired end result – a person that has the knowledge and tools to make good decisions, the self-esteem to know that he/she can accomplish great things, and the wisdom to know what tools/knowledge to apply in a given situation.
Teaching is pretty self-explanatory – simply instructing on how to do something or providing knowledge on a particular subject or topic. Hence, we tend to do that naturally, such as teaching our kids how to tie their shoes, a particular craft/skill, good etiquette, and why certain rules are as they are. However, it’s very easy to underemphasize the encouragement aspect. By encouraging and nurturing our kids, it helps build their confidence to learn and do more things going forward. I have found this to be a huge motivation to learn. And, as we know, successful learning requires that motivation. Hence, we need to be careful to not over-assert how much smarter we are, as it only stifles development and therefore the willingness/capacity to learn new things.
When I provide feedback to my kids, and to my students as a teacher, I always try to cite at least 2-3 things they did well when providing constructive criticism. I have found this will hold their interest and motivate further learning and help them to better equip themselves to solve difficult problems. A technique that helps reinforce learning from mistakes is a “take two” – having your child repeat the action by doing it the right way. This seems to work well with young children. For instance, one kid snatches a toy from another because he/she wants to play with it, and it starts a fight between the two. I would take the “toy snatcher” aside, explain what he/she did wrong and what’s expected, then have him/her approach to the other child and politely ask to play with the toy. This reinforces their ability to learn, and it gives them the confidence that, once they learn from their mistakes, they have the power to course-correct and attain the desired outcome.
Another favorite is to simply “catch” my kids doing something good and praise them for it. This is where a little bit can really go a long way! Example: “I really appreciate how nice you were to Aunt Jill when she visited today.” Yes, we definitely also need to also “catch” them doing something wrong, but I always try to emphasize the good, so it will feed on itself.
I believe another key to providing good instruction is to focus on what needs to be done and let them figure out how to do it. (Obvious, this is very age/maturity dependent.) Then praise them lavishly once they finally do it, citing the specific things they got right. This often takes more time and effort, and it might mean letting them struggle with a task as we drop certain hints if they run aground or start to veer off course. However, I believe it’s time well spent, as it helps them learn how to think things through and figure out the right approach to a problem or situation. I believe this goes a long way with the “making good decisions” and “fostering self-confidence” aspects of our end game objective.
Guidance and Discipline
These two elements of parenting work in tandem as well. In guiding our kids, we need to set expectations and identify their freedoms and constraints. For instance, when young children are asking for something, we guide their words by insisting they be polite and say “please” and “thank you”. Rules of the house (e.g., be respectful to each other, keep your room clean, homework before TV/friends/social media, etc.) are a form of guidance.
I tend to view discipline as twofold: 1) instilling in them a sense of self-discipline, and 2) enforcing the rules and ensuring guidance is followed. I believe leading by example is paramount to teaching/instilling self-discipline, as it’s contagious. I often tell my kids that I really don’t want to do something I’m about to do (e.g., taking out the trash) before I do it. Then, I explain why it’s important to do. After that, I physically do it (lead by example) and express that I’m glad it’s done, so they’ll see the peace that comes with getting things done without procrastination.
Regarding enforcement of rules/guidance, I have found the most effect approach can vary drastically from child to child. Some need very explicit and pointed instruction with constant reminders whereas others only need to be gently reminded. In fact, sometimes just merely dropping a hint at something they may have forgotten. However, it is important that we are consistent in enforcing our rules and expectations. It just might take more intervention with some children versus others. Regardless, we should always be sure to avoid the mistake of allowing wrong behavior in one instance but not allowing it an another. Otherwise, expectations can become very unclear, thereby risking more behavioral issues.
Another important aspect of parenting that my sister and brother-in-law have down pat is to decouple themselves emotionally when one of their kids misbehaves. They don’t let their kids “push their buttons”. Instead, they calmly reiterate their expectations and impose the proper discipline (e.g., time out) when their kids fail to respond favorably to their direction. When one of the kids has a “meltdown”, they send them to their rooms or simply walk away and say “come back when you’re ready to talk”. This quickly taught the kids that their parents cannot be easily manipulated.
One approach to discipline that I have always been a big fan of is “I” versus “you” statements. For instance, “I expect your room to be clean when I come back.” versus “Clean your room now.” I also believe these I statements should focus on the expected behavior versus emphasizing what we don’t want, such as “I want you to be nice to your little brother” versus “stop picking on your little brother”. This approach is a good way to rebuke the behavior without impugning the person. A good example is what my mother often told me when I did something wrong: “I know you are better than that!”, thereby condemning the behavior while lifting me up.
There might also times when we might need to practice tough love when our kids don’t listen to our guidance and/or lack the ambition to do what needs doing. For instance, I have a friend who sent her teenage son to military school because he lacked academic ambition and just wanted to hang out with his friends. Although not pleasing to parent nor child at the time, it did have the intended effect of motivating him to study and acquire some career ambition going forward.
I believe we, as parents, need to constantly encourage open, honest communication. Obviously, the best place to start is by being forthcoming and transparent ourselves. An equally important aspect is to listen. Hear them out, even if we disagree. Together, these should help foster better two-way dialogue. Another important aspect is to set the “safe zone” culture in our homes – no topic is off limits (albeit some things should be discussed in private). I always encourage my kids to be open, honest, and truthful, even if they did something wrong. We can help encourage that by setting stiffer penalties for lying or withholding information and, likewise, cutting them some slack when they proactively approach us and tell us what they did wrong. Such situations can also present themselves as “teachable moments” in that the focus normally rapidly shifts from condemning the bad behavior to having them accept accountably for their actions and solving the problems that such actions create. For instance, if one of my kids breaks something by accident and tells me about it, instead of punishing him, I will ask him what he believes we need to do to make it right, such as taking the replacement cost out of his allowance while perhaps also offering to split this cost because he was forthright and told me.
This approach not only helps with guidance and discipline, but it also makes us more approachable going forward as new situations arise.
I believe it’s important that we encourage our children to share/express their views without fear of judgment, even if we don’t agree or it won’t change our decision about something based on their input. For instance, I believe a “shut up and do as you’re told” approach is sure to stifle future dialogue. The open approach also provides an opportunity to help our kids learn the art of seeking clarification and/or challenging thoughts/ideas while also being respectful. I always encourage dialogue so long as they do so in a respectful manner. The moment they become disrespectful, the conversation abruptly ends, and they will likely have a “time out” or other penalty. Thus, they quickly realize their immediate situation doesn’t end well when they disrespect.
A mistake that I’ve seen some parents and teachers make is to over-assert their authority. By being consistent with guidance and discipline, your kids will know who the “boss” is, so you normally don’t have to tell them that. This happens to be an easy one for me, because I gravitate toward being their guide and confidant (as they get older) versus being autocratic. I seldom assert my authority unless they either start to test their limits or especially if they deliberately disobey. Then I go from zero to 60 mph in 2 nanoseconds (on the road to authoritarianism). The kids (my own as well as my students) usually become uncomfortable with that abrupt change and immediately come around. Once they do come around, I back off and go back to being “Mr. Nice Guy” just as quickly. This makes me more predicable in their eyes, and it also helps teach/remind them of the limits and consequences if they try to breech set limits.
As our kids approach their teenage years, helping/guiding them in discerning, planning, and implanting their careers is likely to be one of the most impactful contributions we can make to their adult lives. Yet it’s so easy to fall into the trap of having a preconceived notion of what our kids should be when they grow up. I believe this could be a big mistake. Yes, we all want want’s best for our kids, and sometimes we don’t agree with their initial thoughts on what that is. However, going back to our vision statement, I believe our real job here is to help them discover their gifts and passions, then help them figure out how to put these assets to use in a good way. I.e., this is about them, not us.
Thus, I encourage my older college-age son and the youth I work with at Church to “play the field” a little. This can be done by taking a certain type of class in high school/early college, participating in extracurricular activities of interest, joining clubs, reading books of interest, etc. For instance, I know of a youth who is interested in becoming a lawyer who has benefited by joining his high school’s debate team. Then, once they have had a chance to dabble some, we are in a good position to help them sort out their experiences/thoughts/desires and translate that into a career plan, which usually starts with a good education or learning a trade/skill if so inclined.
Take Care of Yourself!
This probably goes without saying, but we all too often try to be heroes. I’ll admit I do sometimes, but we shouldn’t. Let’s admit it: Parenting can be an all-encompassing and emotionally draining task at times. After all, we’re all human ourselves. So, from time to time, please be sure to take the time you need to unplug, relax, and do the things you like doing. I find it to be very reenergizing when I do this myself. In fact, that’s usually when I see how drained I was to begin with.