One of the things that commonly happens when people become parents is this introspection about how they want to influence the life of their child. We can talk idealistically about the values we want to model and instill, yet we are all tested at one time or another, sometimes seeing a person in the mirror we are not particularly proud of; and then we regroup to start anew. In this article I want to explore how we can parent and raise emotionally confident children, children that can be confident, assertive, respectful, and reflective; not always an easy task, but here are some things to consider in this trek.
Do – Listen and Accept Feelings Expressed by a Child
Don’t – Ignore or Minimize Those Feelings
Read the following and honestly reflect on how you would respond if this was your child: “I had a music teacher, who took his 4-year-old daughter to an old theatre in Alaska filled with old carvings of warriors. She started crying immediately when she walked in, so he took her outside – and she stopped crying. He took her back in, she started crying again, so he took her outside again. He asked why she was crying, and she said: “That’s where the people with no eyes watch you.” So, how might you respond? On a good day you may be empathic and consoling, acknowledging that the carvings can be scary, and then slowly trying to take the mystery away. On a bad day you may become impatient, dissuading your child from being a “cry-baby” and encouraging them to “get with the program.” The “good day” response gives credence and affirmation for these feelings while also trying to encourage more openness to different perspectives while testing assumptions and beliefs.
Do – Provide Consistency in Rules/Expectations
Don’t – Change the Rules For Your Convenience
Children learn respect and confidence in being able to follow rules and “get them right”; they learn arbitrariness and uncertainty when rules are changed without their comprehension of whether the change is permanent or temporary, so they end up “getting it wrong” the next time around. Here’s an example, bedtime on a school night is 9 PM, this week you are the “single parent” due to a business trip of your partner. It has been a long day and it is just easier to let them stay up with video games and television than “battling” to get them in bed. Be prepared for tired and grouchy children, seemingly disrespectful in their tiredness and wondering why the rules are back the next morning, and testing the old rules later that evening. Rules are not only ways to teach decorum and responsibility, they are also in place to optimize feelings of success and confidence. There are definitely “exceptions to the rules”, and we need to make those as few as possible with brief explanations of why the rules have changed, and when the old rules will go back into place.
Do – Respectfully Show a Range of Feelings Towards Spouse/Partner
Don’t – Put Down Your Spouse/Partner in Front of Children
If you never show affection and love to your partner/spouse in front of your child, the child does not develop a barometer for what love is or what it looks like. Demonstrating to your child how people can lovingly and respectfully communicate feelings expands their “emotional vocabulary” and encourages their own assertiveness and confidence in their emotions. If you are always putting your spouse down and rejecting him/her, you create a chronic state of anxiety for your child. We aren’t always “lovey-dovey” and we can express dissatisfaction with someone else in a respectful manner that also models our ability to love/care about someone else while also being hurt or saddened by a behavior.
Do – Support Independence and Autonomy
Don’t – Over-protect and Instill Your Doubt in Your Children
A natural progression in human development is experimenting with independence and autonomy; our children begin this experimentation from birth, with escalation as they become mobile and explore the world around them. Conceptualize these periods as “experiments” and recognize that your child will learn from the ups and downs; they will learn confidence, diligence, success, managing failures, trust [in themselves and you], and come to learn “if there is a will there is a way.” Over-protecting or communicating our doubt in their ability to be successful undermines what we hope they can become as human beings – self-sufficient, independent, resourceful and successful. Under our watchful eye and guidance they can manage these experiments with great success.
Do – Encourage Problem-Solving and Responsibility
Don’t – Rescue or Intervene in Your Child’s Relationships
As we look back on our own lives we can probably take note of the mistakes we’ve made and clearly articulate what we learned from those, and if we have used those mistakes wisely we made better choices the next time around. This is reflective learning, taking responsibility for what we’ve done and internalizing what we learned from that experience. As parents it is sometimes difficult to hold ourselves back from “stopping” our children from making a mistake that we know will be hurtful [not studying for an exam, continuing to date a particular girl/boyfriend, playing hooky from their job, etc.]; we don’t want to see our children hurt, period. We do have a responsibility to guide, offer counsel and instill consequences; however, as our children get older they find ways to do what they want, under the developmentally expected belief that “it won’t happen to me.” When things do go bad rescuing our children and “making things right” removes the opportunity for reflective learning; as your child moves on unscathed from this experience he/she may never learn to navigate the bumps in the road created by their decisions and actions. Taking responsibility for their decisions and working through the outcomes instills confidence, insight, and understanding.