Every parent has a vision of how they’d like their children to turn out. Some value responsibility–they want their children to be accountable for their actions. Others hope their kids develop sound moral values, while others want their children to be confident. What do you wish for your children? Have your wishes come true? If you’re like many parents you see a gap between your vision and the way your kids really are. It’s true you do have to accept your children at whatever level they’re at, but at the same time you also have to nudge them onto higher ground. Here are the visions five parents have of their children, along with some advice from me on how they can make their visions come true.
Earl “Our son, Jacob, is constantly trying to get off the hook. He never owns up to anything he does wrong. Whenever my tools go missing I don’t bother asking Jacob, even though I know darn well he took them. What would Natalie do with a wrench? I wish Jacob would be more responsible for his actions.”
Teaching your kids to be responsible is not like teaching them how to ride a bike; you can’t do it in an afternoon. Responsibility is one of those life-long projects you’re never free of. Before we go any further let’s define what responsibility means to you–keeping a tidy room, having good manners, doing homework? Yes, these are all part of being responsible, but they’re not everything. You can, for instance, have a child who meets these criteria, but darts out onto the road after a loose ball. Responsibility has three parts:
1. Making choices
2. Living by our decisions
3. Trying again if we make a wrong choice
How do you teach your child responsibility? You don’t. Responsibility is not like arithmetic; you can’t teach it directly. Responsibility is transmitted through actions–your actions. Your children learn responsibility by watching you. The surest way therefore of raising responsible children is to act responsibly yourself!
If you have faith in your children’s ability to make wise decisions, they will take responsibility by the hand and walk comfortably with it. But if, on the other hand, you’re critical of their mistakes and doubt their judgment, your children will always stand on shaky ground and need support.
Responsibility is fostered by giving your children a voice, and wherever appropriate, a choice, in matters making a difference to them. Make a point of giving your children choices everyday. “Do you want to wear a dress or pants today?” “What would you like for snack today?” If your children shy away from making choices, express your confidence in them with phrases such as “It’s up to you,” and “Whatever you think is best.”
Bill “I come from a strict religious background. We were taught to do as our parents told us, and follow rules. Becky, she’s a different story. If you give her a chance to steal a bill from your wallet, she will, and then she’ll bare-face lie about it later on. I’m afraid she’s going to end up in jail one day. I wish Becky had some of the same moral values I grew up with; it would help her know right from wrong.”
Morality is another lifelong project, which many of us are still in the midst of. Lawrence Kohlberg divided our moral thinking into three levels:
1. Preconventional–Rules are external and children conform to avoid punishment or obtain rewards. Children are in awe of all authority figures. Rules are sacred and unalterable. Children judge the badness of an act by the harm people do, not whether it was intentional or not. Later on children think more about what they have to gain or lose, or how powerful the person is making the rules.
2. Conventional–Children obey rules and social norms to win others’ approval or maintain the social order. Pleasing others is the name of the game. Actions are now evaluated by intentions. Teenagers and adults conform to the rules of society because they want to preserve order.
3. Postconventional–Adults are governed by universal moral principles, which transcend the authority of groups supporting them. A distinction is made between what is legal and what is moral. Morality is described as a decision of conscience. Ethical principles are self-chosen and based on abstract rather than concrete concepts. People at this stage realize the legal system is not always fair, and it’s necessary at times to break the law if it infringes on someone’s basic human rights. Only 25% of adults in Western societies ever reach this stage.
According to Kohlberg, the core of morality is justice. Justice requires a person to treat all human beings with respect and fairness, and to consider every person’s rights or needs equally and impartially. His stages represent a progressively better application of the principles of justice.
Most children use more than one stage of thinking in dealing with moral problems. Their willingness to cheat in one situation does not predict their willingness to cheat in another. Also what children think and what they do can be entirely different. Many juvenile delinquents break the law, even though their moral reasoning is at a conventional level.
Moral development then is like learning to talk: you can’t make it happen; it has to evolve. Your children must have the brain power to understand the principles governing a higher stage of reasoning. You can help your children by presenting them with moral dilemmas one stage above their own, and explaining how another person’s point of view may differ from theirs. This forces them to rethink their own viewpoints.
What you also need to do is help your children understand how their behavior affects other people. Discuss why their misdeeds are wrong and why they should feel guilty if they do them again. This fosters the development of an internal moral code, a conscience which your children will live by, whether you’re there to watch them or not. Using physical force or material deprivation leads to a superficial morality, which your children will only follow because they’re afraid of getting caught and being punished. True self-restraint depends more on what your children think in their heads, rather than the fear they feel in their stomachs.
It also helps when you use words like honest, decent, and trusting to describe your children. These positive self-images help your children resist temptation, as well as contribute to their feelings of guilt or remorse when they do misbehave.
Piaget believed that one of the best ways of promoting children’s moral growth was through play. Children learn they must compromise, if they’re going to play together cooperatively or accomplish goals. Play lessens children’s unilateral respect for adult authority, increases self-respect and respect for peers, and helps children realize that rules are arbitrary agreements which can be changed.
Debbie “All throughout my life I’ve felt that other people were better than me–even when it was obvious they weren’t. I never felt satisfied with anything I did. I always wanted to be one notch better, but one notch wasn’t good enough either. I think self-confidence is one of the most precious gifts you can give your children. My parents made a lot of mistakes; I want to make sure I don’t repeat any of them.”
Our self-concept is a reflection of how other people see us. Because we spend most of our time at home, it’s not surprising that our parents have the most to say about who we are and inevitably who we become. A child who lives with acceptance will find himself acceptable not only to himself but the rest of the world. Parents who are critical of their children will have children who are critical of themselves and other people.
Parenting styles are important. Studies show that boys with high self-esteem have loving and accepting mothers who set clear behavior standards for them to live up to, and give their sons the freedom to express their opinions and join in decision-making. A close relationship with domineering parents turn out adolescents who never go through an identity crisis. They become whatever their parents want them to become, whether it’s what they dream about or not. Distant relationships with aloof or uninvolved parents create adolescents who lack direction and ambition in life. Nothing seems to matter to them. Adolescents with a healthy self-concept appear to have a solid base of affection at home combined with the freedom to be individuals in their own right.
By the third grade children’s self-esteem is already well established. Children can also make important distinctions about their competencies in different areas, and these ratings are not far from what others perceive of them. Their self-esteem is rooted in these four qualities:
(1) cognitive–doing well in school, feeling smart
(2) social competence–having lots of friends, being popular
(3) physical competence–doing well in sports, being chosen early for games
(4) general self-worth–being sure of myself, feeling I am a good person
By about six to eight-years-of-age children start realizing they have feelings inside, which they may not want to show to the outside world. Eventually children know their private self is their true self, not the external facade they present to other people.
How do you boost your children’s self-esteem?
(1) Yes, you have to be positive; always look on the bright side of your children’s personality and behavior. This doesn’t mean turn a blind eye to what your children do wrong. The key is, how you deal with their misbehaviours? “Honey, could you please pick up the remote control; you dropped it,” is more palatable than “I saw you drop that remote control; pick it up right now or go to your room.”
(2) Always give your children the feeling that you’re on their side and you want them to be winners. You are your children’s biggest fan. At the same time, be genuine with your children. Don’t sensationalize. Younger children develop a sense of false pride, and older ones will get to know you as a fake.
(3) Treat your child with respect. Pay attention to them and give them the message, “You’re important to me.”
(4) Heap love and affection on your children.
(5) Do things with your children. Try out new activities and help your children discover their inner talents.
(6) Help your children make friends. Kids need friends. It hurts when you don’t get invited to anyone’s birthday party, or nobody picks you for their team. You may have to do a little match-making in setting your children up with good friends.
“In today’s society education is everything. I tell Candace if she doesn’t get her high-school degree, she might as well forget it; nobody will hire her. That’s why, when she comes home with a bunch of U’s for unsatisfactory–I get mad–because I know she’s not trying. I don’t care about getting straight A’s, all I want is for Candace to try her best in school.”
Achievement in school is the apple of every parent’s eyes. Parents are already prompting their children in preschool about what it takes to make it in university. My neighbour was telling me about her daughter in kindergarten–her stomach hurts whenever she goes to school. There’s no doubt about it, school is stress to many children. Instead of looking forward to learning, kids are dreading it because of their parents as well as their own expectations to excel.
Your child’s education is not built on a year in elementary school. It is built on twelve years of schooling, plus a possible two in technical school of four to eight years in university–we’re talking maybe twenty years. If you want your kid to stick it out for the 16 it takes to get a Bachelor of Arts degree, you better make sure they like it. Try not to force education down your children’s throats at an early age. They have plenty of time to prove themselves, and you don’t want to scare them off. Instead aim for well-rounded children who enjoy music, sports, art, have a sense of humor, care about other people, and like themselves.
“I don’t know what I want my kid to be. My best friend has her daughter in Montessori, swimming lessons, piano lessons, gymnastics, and art classes. I say `Wow, am I doing something wrong; my kid is only in regular preschool and art class. Is he missing out? Will Sarah have the edge on him in kindergarten?’ I think there’s too much emphasis nowadays on raising the super kid. Every parent wants a doctor or a lawyer. They’re all racing to get them into the best schools in town. Brains do not equal success in my books. I want my kid to be well-adjusted and happy. I think if my son has a solid home base, all the other things will come in time, without him having to go out and look for them.”
We live in an age of information. If our parents wanted to know something about child raising, they turned to Dr. Spock. We have Dr. Spock, plus thousands of other sources telling us how to raise our children. Not only that, we can also find out how to make our kids smarter, like themselves more, eat better, you name it. On top of this we live in a competitive society. Parents want their kids to rise to the top. There’s a sense that the more activities you sign your kids up for, the better off they’ll be. Wrong! I bet if you asked your children what they liked doing the best, they’d say, “playing with you.” That tells you something. You are the most reinforcing person, event, activity, thing in your children’s lives. Nothing comes close to spending time with you. This is how your children build up security, love, and self-esteem, the stepping stones to happiness and well-adjustment. The keys to your children’s well-being are closer than you think. It’s up to you to take on the challenge of parenting, no program or school can do it for you.