I am not perfect, nor is my husband. We have made each of these mistakes (and more) in raising our two children, and I can’t say that either one of us is proud of that fact. Of course, parents everywhere have made the mistakes of not listening closely as the child rambles on about trivial (to us) things about their school day, best friend, favorite food, the family pet, the list goes on and on. I am guilty of zoning out as I listen my children ramble on about the latest playground drama, or the best friend’s new pet, who likes who, which classmate got into trouble that day, what the school lunch was that day, you get the gist. While listening with half an ear, managing to maneuver through Little Rock traffic while attempting to recall the items on my grocery list that sits on my kitchen counter where I left it, all the while trying to decide what I should make for dinner that night!
I thought I was doing a good job of juggling being a mom, a wife, and a friend while keeping our house running smoothly. Each day was a day to day schedule of taking our two children to pre-school and school respectively. I even joined a hand bell choir at our church, as well as volunteered my nonexistent time to assist in co-founding a Scout Troop at our eldest child’s primary school. I was also a member of PEO, a philanthropic and educational club that meets once a month, and several committees at our church. Just writing about all the activities tires me now!
One afternoon while running errands with both kids in the van, I was taking my usual route to our home. I stopped at a traffic light and waited for traffic to clear before I resumed the drive to our home. Very quietly from the back seat of our minivan, came our eldest child’s voice telling me to “Move mom, go now, hurry!” Of course, it got my attention, and I quickly glanced out the windows of the van to see what Hunter was referring so urgently. The light changed to green at the same time, so I kept my eyes on the street ahead while asking Hunter what was wrong.
“That cannon back there was pointed at our van and had smoke coming out of it!”
It appears that a realistic-looking cannon, emitting plumes of smoke was sitting in front of a barbecue restaurant to attract new customers had caught the attention of our eldest! I wanted to laugh so hard, but I kept my composure while I explained the situation to the kids. I laughed plenty when Steve came home that night!
I resolved then and there to actively listen when our kids were talking. I decided to become an active listener whenever they were regaling their tales of their days. This does not mean that I would stop what I was doing every time they talked. Rather, I would actively listen to them as they chose to allow me into their days’ events. I think it gave them each a little boost to think that for at least 15-20 minutes each day, and several times a day, my focus was not on dinner, or television, or the telephone, but was on them!
As any parent can tell you, children are very egocentric; the challenge for any married couple is to not let your children become the priority in your life. It sounds much worse than the point I’m trying to make. Children are our priority, of course, but when we begin putting their wants and needs before those of ourselves and our spouse, that is the point we need to step back and remember that you and your Significant Other were once a couple. Your children were born as a result of the love you feel for your Significant Other, so don’t allow them to form a barrier between the two of you now. Rather, allow them to nurture the roots of your family.
As parents, your priorities should be:
1. Children’s Needs
2. Parental Needs
3. Children’s Wants
4. Parental Wants
Believe me when I tell you it isn’t easy to keep the priorities in order 100% of the time. Situations arise, illnesses occur, jobs change, tragedies transpire, in short – Life happens! It’s important to stay grounded in your marriage throughout all these events, no matter what comes your way! The important thing is to always put your family first. And sometimes that means putting your marriage first! Your children will benefit from this in ways you can’t even imagine.
One thing has always bothered me is the make-shift competitions a lot of parents sign their children to participate. You know the kind, where every participant receives a trophy just for being a member of the competition. I signed our daughter up for one such competition when she was 4, knowing full well that she would be awarded a trophy no matter how well she did in the competition. I didn’t feel good about it at the time, but I rationalized it to myself by saying, “At least she will get a trophy of her own”, thinking she will value it as much as her siblings’ awards.
It wasn’t until the night before competition that I realized by guaranteeing that she would receive a trophy simply for participating that I realized how wrong it was. Her older brother (by four and a half years) had already amassed ribbons and awards for grades, swimming, and piano and I thought it would be nice for little sister to get a trophy out of this. Something she would be proud to have. I allowed her to compete for Little Miss Clark County Fair Queen the following day simply because it was the easier way to do things. Instead of taking a stand and withdrawing her from the competition on my beliefs that trophies should be earned and not simply given away.
She kept the trophy on her desk in her room for a few days and one day while she was at pre-K, I noticed the trophy laying on top of the trash can in her bedroom. I asked her about it when she came home and our four-year-old told me it wasn’t important to her! She said, “But mom, I didn’t practice for it!”. I was dumbfounded. Of course, she didn’t take any pride in the mass-produced trophy when she had been watching Hunter practice the piano daily for years and saw the rewards of such diligence. Out of the mouths of babes… Psalms 8:2 (KJV) Lesson learned.
“It takes a great deal of selflessness to be (a) parent. But maybe it takes a tiny dose of selfishness to be a good one,” writes Genevieve Shaw Brown, author of The Happiest Mommy You Know: Why Putting Your Kids First Is the LAST Thing You Should Do. Our generation played outside until the street lights came on. Our parents didn’t even know where we were or what we were up to for the most part, as long as we were within yelling distance, or at a pre-approved friend’s house.
Children today are kept busy after a full day of school with athletic event practices such as football, baseball, golf, and tennis, music lessons, Explorer clubs, Boy and Girl Scouts, I could continue, but I think you know what I’m talking about. Why don’t we plan time for them to relax, and foster their imaginations? Must every minute of their days be planned? To me, that is setting up an entire generation that will expect to be entertained.
The next thing a lot of parents do for their children is to protect them from failure. No parent wants to see their child hurt, or left out of things, but shielding them from the downside of life can lead to this generation of children becoming dependent adults. We all wish for them to live a happy, healthy life as citizens of this world. It can begin as innocently enough as a parent placing toys within their infant’s reach rather than placing the toys further away to encourage crawling. But just imagine the same child when she is in college. She may be more prone to experience a mental crisis in the middle of an especially difficult exam. Parents should allow their children to fail. The most important thing we can do as parents is to provide a soft place to land when failure does come. Because it will.
Psychologist Wendy Grolnick’s research shows that the kids whose parents helped them a lot gave up when they are faced with a task they could not quickly master; whereas, kids with “autonomy supportive” parents did not. I don’t remember where I saw this, but people are so afraid to fail that they immobilize themselves and learning to fail is one of the biggest factors for success in life. That may be one of the hardest parts of being a parent; stepping back and allowing our children to stumble and fall when it would be easier on us to help them along but doing so is an injustice to our children.
Jessica Lahey, author of best-selling book, The Gift of Failure says that modern parents are more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know in my heart that I want my children to grow and persevere through the obstacles they are sure to face. I think that quitting should not even be in your child’s vocabulary.
Of course, there are extenuating circumstances to everything, but I honestly wish that we had not offered our children the option of quitting ANYTHING. The most memorable instance to me is when our daughter came home from 2nd grade and announced to me that she had been selected out of her entire class to be the lead in the classes’ production of a short, three-act play at her school. I was so excited for her, and probably (certainly) made a bigger deal out of it than it was.
My excitement did not last long, however. Unbeknownst to her father nor I, she went to school the next day and declined the role. Stating that “she didn’t want to talk in front of a bunch of people”, she asked her teacher if someone else could take her part. The teacher was shocked, as was I, but after a week, to allow her time to think it over, acquiesced. When we went to the school play few months later, Sloan was happy to be on the stage, as part of an ensemble, her eyes bright, and smile so wide, I know it must have hurt her cheeks! In that instance, I regretted giving her the idea that if she didn’t want the part, she didn’t have to take it. I had said in an off-hand remark that she could let someone else take the part if she didn’t want it, not expecting her to decline the role altogether!
I feel that allowing her to quit set the stage for many things down the road, when I should have realized, as I do now, that coping with stress is a lot like exercise. We become stronger with practice. In fact, Psychologists Victor and Mildred Goertzel’s study into the childhoods of more than 400 famous twentieth century men and women found that a full 75% (or 300 individuals) grew up in a family that featured problems such as abuse, absent parents, alcoholism, poverty, homelessness etc. Don’t get me wrong here. Do not quit your job, burn down your home or do anything of the sort to create adversity so your children will be more successful in life! Believe me when I tell you that Life has a way of making that work out. It seems these individuals, who endured tough times as children, drew strength from their hardship and overcoming adversity was one of the keys to their success later.
I’m not telling you that you should make your children’s lives harder than it naturally will be for them but allow them to see that life is sometimes unfair. However, by sticking it out and finding ways to solve their own problems is a good thing. It builds resilience and that is a quality I wish more people had! Psychologist Mark Seery’s research echoes the Goertzel’s findings: “Those who had known some adversity were both higher-functioning and more satisfied with their lives than those who had experienced extremely high levels of hardship — and compared with those who had experienced no adversity at all. I suppose nineteenth century philosopher Nietzsche was right when he said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
The final thing we get wrong as parents is falsely praising our children. Of course, you think that your child’s drawing is better than all the others but refrain from telling them it’s the best. Children know when we are disingenuous with them. We should give them credit for that at least. Instead of complimenting their very primal rendition of the family dog, remark on the choice of colors used, or ask how the painting made them feel.
What are we teaching our children when we praise them for the status quo? You don’t get paid for showing up at your place of work. You get paid for the value you add. I don’t have scientific proof of the following statement, but many believe that artificially boosting self-esteem actually lowers performance. Not to mention that people who become high on their own self esteem become what we often refer to as narcissists. Is it any wonder that the trophy generation and the junction of social media has led to a world where we feel compelled to post our every thought on social media? Or where, there’s any number of people trying to make a career as an Instagram “model?” How many “reality shows” does our society need?
Jean Twenge’s book, “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement,” claims that narcissism among Americans is rising at the same rate as obesity. What if, instead of artificially swelling our child’s self-esteem, we helped build a responsible and stabilized sense of self? What if we stopped praising effort without progress (i.e. “process-oriented praise”)? What if we allowed our children to struggle and yes, even fail sometimes?
I’ll be the first to admit that our children didn’t have much of an opportunity to fail often while they were young. I wish we had fostered a better sense of independence with them at an earlier age. They are two well-rounded individuals now, and we are extremely proud of them. But I can’t help but wonder when Life hands them a difficult situation, would they be better able to handle the circumstances if we had not always stepped in when these things arise?
This one post is not going to solve all the problems we have in this world, but maybe it will begin putting a dent in our society of self-inflated egos and sense of entitlement. I know this has been a lengthy post, but I really do appreciate those of you who may still be reading. In summary, the three major things parents get wrong when raising their children in my opinion are:
1. Putting our child’s wants above our own – Make sure your child is safe and fed, but you don’t have to give up 18 years of your life and your dreams to raise a child. Having children shouldn’t subtract from your life, but it should instead be an addition. Include your children in your work, as well as your dreams.
2. Protecting our children from failure – Children learn when they overcome adversity. Failure builds resilience and prepares our children for adulthood. As much as we want to minimize the failures that are sure to come, It is vital that we allow them to face those failures with their heads held high.
3. Inflating our children’s self-esteem – Giving them disingenuous praise and/or artificially inflating self-esteem eventually leads to narcissism. Learn to offer process-oriented praise, instead. Be specific in your praise. Let them know that everything they do is not the best, but with time and/or practice they can improve.
Do you feel that childhood is fleeting and should be savored while our children are young? Do you agree with me that parents should encourage independence and self-reliance in our children to help them as they grow? Or am I completely off-base? Let me know in the comments below.