This month, our eldest child turns 20. He is more or less “launched”, and watching him and his two younger siblings blossom into remarkable young adults has been a fabulous, rewarding, and challenging journey. As I reflect on the past 20 years, I have come up with seven keys to raising perfect little babies into good, decent, respectful people. These thoughts arise both from the perspectives of a parent, and a psychologist.
1. Take care of yourself first.
If you’ve ever flown on a plane, you have heard that you are to put your own oxygen mask on first in the event of an emergency. Why? Quite simply, if you are unwell, you are in no position to help others. The same is true for parenting. Parents who have the means to fulfill themselves tend not to depend on their children to carry that burden. Exercise, develop your passions and interests, spend time with others away from your children, take time to rest, and continue to grow as a person. Taking these steps ensures that you will be both healthy and strong, which allows you to be a healthy and strong parent. The example you set for your children will benefit them throughout their lives.
2. Don’t be afraid to be the “mean” parents.
More than once, we have been called the mean parents by our children – not because we are actually “mean” as in abusing or neglecting them, but because we have tough rules, high expectations, or we didn’t let them do and have everything they wanted. We say “no” to lots of activities others don’t: no going to hang out at the mall, no to watching certain movies and TV shows, no to staying up late on school nights. It isn’t fun to have your child mad at you, but intentionally making rules and remaining consistent provides the structure children need to flourish.
3. Get clear about what is private.
I once worked clinically with a family where the parents were afraid to check their daughter’s social media because they wanted to respect her privacy. Social media in not private! It is at its very essence the antithesis of privacy. Hand written diaries hidden in desk drawers, those are private, and you shouldn’t be looking for such things or reading them if you find them (exceptions can and should always be made when there is a safety concern). Social media posts that can be viewed by others (whether just friends or the world) are not private. Monitor them, block access, be the keeper of the passwords, watch over their shoulder when they log on, and don’t let them have unsupervised access. Stay up to date on the newest social media sites, keep current on internet safety practices and talk to your kids about it.
4. Allow them to fail.
Resiliency is developed by having to pick ourselves up after we fall down. If we never fall down, we never get a chance to build the resiliency “muscle”. There is nothing sadder than watching an adult undergo a life challenge without the skills and tools needed to be able to weather it. Life won’t always be easy, and kids need to learn how to cope when it isn’t. Of course, it’s important to still be aware of the consequences of failure and protect your children when necessary. Drinking and driving is not the place to allow for the natural outcome to play out. However, not studying for a test is probably an okay area to let those chips fall where they may.
5. Teach them to feel all of their feelings.
Similar to the previous point, children need to know that feeling sad, angry, hurt, scared, lonely, or stressed is not the end of the world. Feelings are neutral, they aren’t good or bad. Learning to identify feelings and feel them without being afraid of them will equip young people with the skills they need to grow into well rounded individuals.
6. Let them be themselves.
All my children are very different from one another. What interests one does not interest the next, what is a strength for one may be an area of growth for another. Likewise, they aren’t always like their parents. Letting children and adolescents find their path, and supporting that path (presuming of course we’re not talking about things that are illegal or immoral) allows them to find themselves and grow to be authentic and empowered. The world needs their individuality.
7. Be their biggest fan.
Kids need to know they are loved, even when they mess up, fail, struggle, and especially when they find it difficult to love themselves. They need to know that even when we as parents are disappointed, sad, hurt, or angry at them or at what they have done, they are loved. Cheer them on, encourage them, celebrate with them, and be there for them no matter what.
Please know this is not an exhaustive list of how to be a good parent. I have lots of experience, but would by no means call myself an expert. Also know that these ideas are not intended to be shaming in any way. We do the best we can with what we’ve got where we are at. If you think you need to do better, get the support and knowledge you need to do that. I hope this inspires you to think about your parenting, and being both reflective and intentional are key. Remember that we also have our bad days (sometimes bad weeks or even months). The concept of the “good enough” parent highlights that when healthy and functional parents trust their natural instincts, children are raised to be healthy and well adjusted.