February is Psychology month, and we’ll be featuring a number of pieces from local psychologists throughout the month. This week comes from Irene Barrett.
There’s no doubting it, our children are being raised at a great time. Parents today are being provided with a wealth of resources and opportunities to support their kids to develop into all that they can be. When we reflect on our own childhoods and compare them to our children’s lives, we can feel a great sense of pride in the fact that they are experiencing enrichment. Surely our kids should surpass us in competency and contentment, yes? Unfortunately, the answer to this question cannot be simply stated. It is true that our children will excel in many ways that we didn’t at their age. Although it is a custom to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to parenting styles across the generations, it is pertinent to state the fact that our parents and grandparents didn’t get it all wrong. As a child psychologist, I have found myself sharing with parents time and time again parenting priorities from the past which in fact were solutions to their present issues. This article is a way to highlight four of the many parenting strategies our parents got right.
- Teach your child(ren) basic life skills. The current parent/child lifestyle places time emphasis on extra-curricular activities. It is absolutely true that being involved in these activities is considered positive and enriching; however, please note that there is a reason for the word “extra” at the beginning of the term. They are meant to be additional to a child’s maturation into adulthood. There is a reason why we know as adults how to properly sew buttons on our shirts, fold our laundry and fix broken household items. As young children, our parents and other adult family members engaged in what is called “instructional scaffolding” which simply means they first had us watch and pay attention to the life skills they were engaging in (i.e., making bread, cleaning the floor, chopping wood), then they gave us small jobs we were able to do until we learned how to do these chores ourselves. Because most of our youth are spending hours in rinks, studios, pools and other scheduled activity environments, the natural opportunities for this teaching to occur is being lost in the commuting shuffle. The question rests, what would be more valuable to your child in the future?
- Manners and social skills are important. It’s true that we’re living in an age where social etiquette has less value than it has in the past. Rules like “get your elbows off the table” and “sit up straight” have been replaced with a focus on meal time being about family communication and connection. Although this shift has many positive qualities, there is still a necessity to teach basic social skills to our children such has the proper way to use a knife and fork. Also, concepts like chewing with your mouth closed, using manners and giving thanks to others have to be taught to children. The motivation behind this goal is not to force children and youth to become high-class socialites (unless that is your preference of course). The goal is to guide them through social rules, expectations and concepts that they would otherwise not have the opportunity to learn. Children have a need to know why it is important to engage in respectful conversation and behave in an appropriate way. Including your children in social event is an important parenting task. Guiding them through why you yourself are engaging in social appropriate behaviors will be a wonderful learning experience. It really is one of those situations where practice makes perfect.
- Respect is key. We have all heard the phrase “respect your elders.” Although it is not a custom in today’s society for children and youth to refer to adults as “Mr. and Mrs.,” it is still in fact essential for them to understand and value the power difference between them and adults. We live in a society where abiding by rules and regulations is mandatory in order to be a functioning adult. For instance, would you dictate to your employer when, where and how you will perform your work duties with no regard about the conditions of employment? Would you completely ignore a police officer when they’ve indicated that you have engaged in an illegal activity such as driving over the speed limit or parking in a fire lane? Regardless of your answer to these two questions, most of you would know what the appropriate response would be due to the fact that your parents taught you what society expected from you from an early age. Our children need and deserve this same teaching. The development of respect begins by children witnessing their parents engaging in respectful behavior. In order for children to master these skills, parents must voice their expectations, positively reinforce desired behavior and provide consequences for the decision to use disrespectful behavior.
- Have expectations and give responsibilities. The primary ground rule for parents is to only complete tasks FOR children until they can complete them for themselves. Once the skill is mastered, your parenting role is to support the child/youth to continue executing the task. For example, you and your child have spent a few weeks learning to tie his shoe laces and he finally ties them for himself. You become excited, give him a high five and tell him that you are proud he knows how to do it. The next time he goes to put on his shoes and he asks you to tie his laces, you remind him he can do it himself then provide him time and space to attempt on his own, providing verbal support if necessary. To tie his shoes because he wants you to (which would make him happy) is not the same as tying his shoes because he needs you to. Expecting children to do tasks for themselves is necessary for them to believe in their own capabilities. Children and youth also need to experience age-appropriate responsibility throughout their maturation in order to learn how to become responsible adults. The focus in this goal is not to celebrate if a child or youth choses to help out around the house or make good choices; it is to expect them to contribute to the household so they can then learn how to contribute to society. It is also very important to note that providing gifts or money for a job well done sabotages the cause. Children and youth feel pride (what us Psychologists call intrinsic motivation) when they complete a job well done. When they receive gifts or money, they forget that they completed the task because they wanted to and begin believing they did so in order to receive the prize. Over time, the experience of pride becomes lost and the expectation for rewards becomes entrenched. The problem rests with the fact that future employers will not be providing bonuses for work submitted on expected deadlines.
The responsibilities and duties of parents have not changed over the course of time: our sole role is to raise children to become adults who will contribute meaningfully to society. Each of the parenting points highlighted above can make a significant positive change in the lives of you and your children. Teaching life skills to children supports their independence and provides them with a sense of pride in being able to fend for themselves. When children feel competent they also experience positive self-esteem. Learning manners and social skills provides children with the knowledge and skills to interact in many different settings. Kids feel less nervous when they understand what is expected of them and why. It also decreases the likelihood of them making a social faux pas which we all know can be an embarrassing experience. Being respectful towards others increases a child’s experience of having respect for themselves. It is also a supportive factor to connecting with other people. Being accepted is an important part of child development. Finally, being an active participant in the functioning of your home and community supports children in feeling self-worth. It also allows children to learn about their own strengths and values. We are the adults that we are today because our parents provided us with these opportunities for life lessons. What a blessing it will be to pay them forward to the next generation.
Irene Barrett is a Registered Psychologist who works with children, youth and families on the West Coast of Newfoundland.