Not long ago my daughter woke up with a stomach bug. When one of our kids gets sick we have to kick into high gear. Not only do we have to clean up the mess and comfort the child we also have to scramble to make arrangements to miss work. We have to secure a sub to cover our classes and then write new lesson plans for the sub since what we had planned for the day probably can’t happen without us there. It’s a daunting task. Because Autumn had a fever we felt compelled to take her in to see the doctor. I stayed home with her that day and took her to a 10:30 a.m. appointment.
Before we even walked in the door a sign greeted us reminding parents to turn off their cell phones and watch their children. When we sat in the waiting room, a sign above the small book case asked that parents not allow their children to tear or mark in the pages of the books. When we sat in the examination room, several signs appeared on the walls. One asked that parents not allow their children to take medical supplies from the drawers and cabinets. Another asked that children not climb on the equipment. A third asked that parents turn off their cell phones (again!) and be mindful for the safety of their children. It would be easy to pass this off as an overly-fussy pediatrician’s office, but that’s not true. Walking around stores in our area I see many, many signs politely reminding parents of the need to monitor their children. Sometimes the signs are specific about what not to touch or climb on while others are more general.
On a personal note, my wife and I owned an ice cream parlor in North Raleigh several years ago. The trash can I used for the sample spoons was an R2D2 trash can. You stepped on a pedal between his legs, his head lifted up, and you put your spoon in the can. I even had a sign there showing people what to do. One day a father came in with his son who was about four or five. He looked too big to be a toddler, but I am only guessing. The father asked me for a couple of samples and the little boy had only one. After the boy took his sample he began stomping as hard as he could on the pedal. Just as I started to ask him to be gentle R2’s head flew off, the plastic gearing mechanism broken in half. The father never said a word to the boy or to me. It was like it never happened. No apology, no attempt to fix him, no offer of payment, nothing. To this day the callousness of the father still gets my goat.
Now that I’m a daddy, I see the world through a whole new set of lenses. I love my children unconditionally and I want to see them happy and healthy, but I also want them to be strong, independent, and respectful of others. I believe today’s parents have placed two goals of parenting in opposition to each other: One goal is to have our children love and value us while the other goal is to guide through life by teaching them appropriate and acceptable behavior. The two goals don’t have to be opposed, yet we continue to see parents fail to fulfill their leadership and mentoring obligation out of a misguided attempt to earn the love and adoration of their children.
If you are afraid you are going to make mistakes and psychologically damage your children, just stop! No person is perfect. We can second guess ourselves for hours on end, but part of being a parent is being in charge and modeling appropriate behavior for your child. If your child errs, you have to steer him back on the right path. It’s OK if your child makes a mistake. In fact, some mistakes are to be encouraged! How else do we learn and grow except by making mistakes?
But keep in mind that there is a big difference between making mistakes and having no boundaries at all. The signs I talked about at the pediatrician’s office and the situation at my store show a complete lack of concern for how children behave. For our children to be successful in life, we have to teach them how to behave, how to face challenging situations, and how to recover from mistakes. They depend on us. If we allow them free reign to do as they choose we are setting them up for failure when the consequences for not meeting acceptable behavior become more severe as they get older.
How do we fix these problems? I suggest the following:
- Be a role model. The old adage “Do as I say, not as I do” will not cut it.
- Know where your children are and what they are doing at all times. You will have to find a balance between giving them some independence and hovering over them. I find that once kids know the boundaries I can stop hovering quite so much.
- Sit down each day with your child and talk about the day. Go over the ups and downs to give them praise but also direction when mistakes are made.
- Show patience. Kids are going to make mistakes. As I tell my sons, it’s OK to make mistakes; it’s not OK to make the same mistakes over and over again.
- Set appropriate boundaries. Children need to respect others and their property. Watch them in public spaces and give guidance when they err.
- Consequences are appropriate when behavior continues after you’ve redirected your children. Make sure the consequences are proportional to the deed. A broken glass doesn’t warrant a month’s grounding. Deliberately scratching your neighbor’s car requires more than a weekend without a video game!
- Love your child unconditionally, but make sure your child knows you are his parent first and that you take that responsibility seriously. He may become frustrated with you now, but later in life he will thank you.
- Accept that you will sometimes make mistakes. When you do, own up to them. Apologize if you need to and fix the problem. Nobody is perfect.
- Most importantly, tell your child you love her each and every day of your life. Hug her and praise her for accomplishments. Offer advice to make things better. Affirm her each day so that she will grow up to become confident and self-reliant.
In the end your children will love you more if you set the right boundaries. We live in a global society where interaction with others and how they perceive us is critical to our success. If you truly love your children, take the time to support them and encourage them to make the right choices and learn from their mistakes.