You have some friends whose child makes you wince every time s/he opens his mouth. Or is known among other parents as a bully. Your friends are constantly being called into the principal’s office to discuss their child’s behavior. And, most crushingly of all, the child is being shunned and not invited on playdates.
Your fear is that this will happen to your child. And you.
You fear that your parenting journey that started out with such joy and a tiny, wriggly bundle swaddled in a warm blanket will disintegrate into a desperate morass of negative emotion. And you desperately don’t want that to happen.
But you don’t know what to do.
What you want, hope, dream of is a happy, healthy child who grows up to be confident, polite, hardworking, friendly; a team player and a leader. Someone who can, and will, change his or her community for the better. A child you can be proud of. One who makes you feel like a teenage girl waiting for the return of her sweetheart.
Your friends are extremely pleasant people. They love their children tremendously – they only want the best for them. They volunteer their time, cook great food, socialize well and have friends themselves. So why, when they appear to have such advantages, does their child have such difficulties?
Raising a child who has difficulty managing their life situations, for that is what it is, isn’t difficult. But it is, usually, unintentional. Let me show you the mistakes parents often make. Every time, I encounter a bully, a class clown, a know-it-all, or a rude, depressed or underachieving child I see one or more of the following behaviors in the adults around them.
And then let me show you what to do instead. That requires commitment and awareness, but is ultimately more rewarding and, I suspect, more in line with the hopes you had when they placed that swaddled, wriggly baby in your arms.
Parenting Mistake #1:
The parents of Jane or Johnny may convince him/her that is s/he is the center of the universe, praising them for their looks, their accomplishments, giving them gifts and opportunities while, at the same time, signaling to them that their internal world doesn’t matter to them. They are likely to ignore the child’s values, their beliefs, their actions and their morals while, conversely, telling them that not only are they significantly important to mom, dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles, but everyone else as well. They only see the ‘A’ on the paper, not the thought, effort and insights that went into the grade. And they turn the child into a trophy for their adornment.
Parenting Mistake #2:
They will send a message that provocation is reason enough for hateful statements and actions. These parents teach through their actions and words that provocation is a justification for action and support the response of fighting ‘fire with fire’ even as the intensity of the exchange increases.
Parenting Mistake #3:
Often the work of Carol Dweck is ignored. Her research demonstrates that the most successful students are those who understand their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. Parents who repeatedly tell Jane or Johnny how smart and brilliant they are and considerably more so than their friends and classmates while downplaying the importance of hard work and a strong work ethic are setting them up for confusion and failure.
Parenting Mistake #4:
They do questionable things their kids then copy. When a telemarketer calls, they tell them they’re “not home.” Or they tell their child’s teacher that they can’t drive on the field trip, when they can but don’t want to. They do this within Jane or Johnny’s earshot more than once and without explanation.
Parenting Mistake #5:
They display their anxieties about their child’s abilities regularly. They let their child know somehow – through their words or behavior – that grade B or C is never, under any circumstances, acceptable and they praise them highly when they get an A, a first or a major team selection. They castigate them when they don’t.
Parenting Mistake #6:
These well-intentioned parents expend a lot of effort to ensure their child never feels any discomfort, pain or failure. They plough all obstacles from Jane or Johnny’s path so that adversity never shows it’s ugly head. When Jane or Johnny forgets their school lunch they drive over to their favorite restaurant to purchase another. Then drive back to school to deliver it personally to their classroom.
Sending mixed messages, disregarding what is important to them, talking the talk but not walking the walk, lying or other questionable acts, exposing kids to parental anxieties, holding unrealistic expectations and protecting them from challenge or adversity – these are the parenting behaviors behind many of today’s troubled children.
What to do instead
We must make sure we don’t create an environment around our children that confuses or frightens them. And, we must build their confidence in their ability to handle what life will throw at them, as unfair at times as that will most likely be. If we can do that, we will see our children thrive and rise to levels that will warm our hearts, even astound us.
To that end, we must provide the following steps:
Send clear and consistent messages. To that end, try creating a family mission statement. Examples might be: ‘No big deal’ meaning no matter what happens we’ll work it out. Or ‘No empty chairs’ – we will let no individual issue stand in the way of us being together as a family. Or ‘We practice the 4 ‘R’s – respect for the individual, family, environment, community.’ These mission statements should be developed over time from a series of discussions during which all family members points of view are heard and integrated, giving each person a voice and demonstrating their value.
Give consideration and respect to those things they deem important. Ask them what they think, what is important. Do this when they are calm and engaged. Look after their things, respect their attachments, pay attention and consider their feelings. Don’t throw away that ratty toy while they are at school and without their permission. Don’t accept that party invitation on their behalf without consulting them. Instead ask them to identify some toys they are ready to part with (and don’t act on your feelings when they don’t select the toys you think they should throw out.) Ask them if they want to go to the party before accepting.
Show yourselves as strong, ethical role models who walk their talk. Be honest and truthful, assertive and straightforward in your dealings with children and adults alike. Make sure that what you’re doing is worth mimicking as mimicked you will be. Children are formidable observers and won’t hesitate to copy you whether they realize it or not.
Have belief in their abilities to manage challenges, academic or otherwise. Support them to manage challenges themselves and hold onto your own anxiety instead of handing the burden of it over to them. If they forget their lunch, assume they can manage, that they will find a way to sort it out, ask a friend to share theirs, or a teacher for to help. Don’t assume they can’t manage their challenges.
Provide a vision where kids see themselves as important, but equal, members of a community. Like everyone else, kids have both strengths and weaknesses and sometimes they need to be helped to see that. At times, sit down with them and ask them what is working and what isn’t in their lives – at school, in the family, with their friends. Problem-solve with them so that everyone gets their needs met. Negotiate outcomes, compromise and, occasionally, just say ‘No’ when their needs really can’t be met.
All this takes a little time, mindfulness and an awareness of our own behavior and the messages it is conveying. But the alternative levies far more of an exacting toll on our time and psychic energies. And more importantly, it damages our children.
Positive, strong parenting will show your children the way to life success; difficult children don’t occur by accident, nor do strong, confident, successful ones. Which parent will you be? The parent who cringes or the ecstatic one who beams (and maybe screams a little :-)) with pride? The choice is yours.
How is your parenting doing? What would your child say, do you think? Tell us in the comments!
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