If becoming a kid seems hard ... try being a grown up!
Does it break your heart to tell your kids to toughen up? Are you confused about how to best teach your children when to be kind AND when to stand up for themselves?
It’s a complex world out there.
We’re sending our children into a society we, as adults, haven’t completely mastered navigating yet. No wonder there’s so much confusion in parenting. After all, we can’t raise successful, accountable children until we're successful and responsible ourselves, right? Maybe, maybe not.
Often the very lessons we're teaching our children are the exact same lessons we're working on ourselves — distinguishing between what is/is not acceptable behavior; establishing healthy boundaries; being a kind, compassionate person; and handling conflict effectively yet compassionately. Mastering these skills is life long effort. So maybe it's time we fully embrace learning them as we teach them.
Let's raise responsible, kind, strong children while we learn these same traits!
The secret is making continuous effort towards the end game, which in this case, means teaching your child (and yourself) skills of self-protection while still being a kind person.
It is completely do-able. Here are five major lessons we all (parents and kids) need to learn, together:
1. Being true to yourself matters
Help your child recognize how unique they are and that they possess a specific combination of skills, quirks, physical traits, giggles, etc. and that the world is a better place when they let all of that shine brightly.
Just know, your child won’t believe that "being true to yourself" means anything if in the next breath you’re comparing them to peers or siblings (whether about their grades, looks, talents, or personality) or saying "Why can’t you get straight As and be more outgoing like your sister?"
Your kids are also watching to see how bravely YOU shine YOUR authentic self in the world. Do you constantly hide your true feelings, beliefs, or talents?
Children are excellent truth detectors and can see if you're practicing your own advice about the value of authenticity. If they constantly overhear you criticizing and judging others for being unique, don’t be surprised when your child buckles under peer pressure and desperately tries to fit it.
Being true to yourself is an ongoing active challenge (at any age) that takes courage, not just platitudes. So encourage your kiddo’s uniqueness by showing them over and over how much you honor your own.
2. You're not the only person on the planet
Help your child shift from being ego-centric to truly caring about others by teaching them empathy. Insist on them showing basic courtesies and simple manners, such as saying "please", "thank you", "excuse me", and waiting to talk while someone else is talking.
Show them, by example, that these behaviors aren’t just reserved for family, teachers, or people you think are important, but are equally bestowed on everyone from the grocery store clerks to the crossing guard at school.
Demonstrate this behavior by using these niceties with your little one. They matter, too, and you want to show it! It's not OK to talk over them yet expect them to wait for you to finish speaking, or reach impatiently for them to hand you something without first saying "please" and a sincere "thank you". You'll teach them (through your courteous treatment of them) just how nice it feels being at the receiving end of these niceties.
If they catch you snapping at the garbage collectors yet turning on the charm 10 minutes later at a school meeting, you're telling them that people have a value ranking (according to their profession, income, looks, etc.), not based on who they are. You'll likely soon see them mimicking that hierarchy in their own social relationships.
Here’s your opportunity to make the world a better place — by teaching your own child that we're all equal, just different.
3. Don't fear differing points of view
Discuss how, it's perfectly OK if people see situations differently. Actively expose your children to the concept of different ideas, religions, races, personalities, sexual orientation, etc. and that those differences are a natural and valuable part of life. Other people have various ways of looking at things, some you agree with, some you don't, but those differences challenge us all to think critically and look from multiple perspectives.
Encourage your little one to value their own mind by asking where they stand on opinions. Just make sure you let them express their own ideas (not simply applaud them when they agree with yours).
Once they share their ideas, offer examples of other ways to see the same topic, showing lots of slices of life. Seeing through a wide lens view of tolerance erases discrimination, anger, and judgmental defensiveness. Learning to see and think this way while still young helps your child develop healthy boundaries while learning still learning to accept others.
Of course, this means, for heaven’s sake, do not roll your eyes, snort, laugh derisively, or make snide comments when confronted with a view opposite from your own. Let your stage of life as a parent broaden your own tolerance and willingness to appreciate others’ uniqueness. The crazy patchwork quilt of the human race is what makes us who we are.
4. You're responsible for understanding (and controlling) your emotions
Teach your kids that conflict is inevitable ... and that angry and ugly feelings are normal. We all experience them. Learning to deal with them constructively is what's important. Children are inherently creative and imaginative, so make a game to helping them understand and manage their emotions in a healthy way. Teach your child this exercise, for example, to help keep intense emotions from getting the better of them:
Step 1: Stop.
Step 2: Breathe deeply.
Step 3: Name the emotion (Abominable Anger, Slithering Sadness, Eeking Envy, etc). As you interact with your child, be sure to breathe deeply — they will copy your breathing pattern instinctively.
Step 4: Think of an action to accompany the emotion.
Often, just stopping and discussing the emotion offers a calming effect. Of course, some of the proposed actions (in Step 4) suggested by your child will likely be far from appropriate (i.e. I could punch them in the face!). Listen to your child anyway, and ask if that would have an impact that solves problems for the long run? If not, what action might make them feel better and solve the problem that doesn't involve yelling, hitting or getting impatient?
If they sense you're holding back Rampant Rage of your own while talking sweetly to your neighbor, or vindictively cutting off your neighbor in traffic, your suppressed emotions send a confusing lesson to your child that some emotions are just not acceptable and must be hidden (like, anger).
Show them that even the most uncomfortable emotions are normal, and that part of being a successful person is learning how to express them honestly yet appropriately.
If you’re furious, let an "anger burning workout" dissipate some of that energy so you can diplomatically and kindly address the aggravating issue afterward. Then your child will see that everyone can get along without being unhappy, and that there are practical, easy ways of working through challenging emotions.
5. Compassion and "giving back" are worth the effort
Making your child responsible for homework completion and age-appropriate chores is vital to preparing them for adulthood. Separate those everyday duties though from outreach to a sick neighbors or assisting an elderly acquaintance with yard work, etc. Help them see that compassion and giving back to others is an important part of contributing to the community you live in. Whether it's helping one neighbor or volunteering for a large nonprofit.
Whatever you do, don’t your kiddos see you expecting praise for your own compassionate efforts while insisting they act selflessly in their own. But do privately commend them for any extra thoughtful acts they do and encourage them to continue showing compassion to the larger world around them.
Make random acts of kindness part of your family culture by weaving kind action into your daily whenever possible. When subjects like poverty, homelessness or hunger come up, let your children think of ways to participate meaningfully. There are activities appropriate for all ages — from hosting toy drives to volunteering hours on the weekend. Encourage your kids to think of ways to help and then follow through when they commit to doing so.
It won’t be difficult for them to think up ways to show kindness if they see you running errands for a neighbor, checking in on an friend going through a tough time, making soup for storm victims, or shoveling the driveway for an elderly neighbor.
Remember, ultimately —parenting is a about what you model, not what you say. So walk your talk, parents!
So, have some self-respect, be confident, speak up (for yourself and others) and set healthy boundaries. And, by all means, reach out to others and show some human kindness. If you live by the standards you want your children to have, you'll both grow into the wonderful, successful people!
Jan L. Bowen is an author, certified thought leader, experienced at helping her clients facilitate their life more joyfully and easily. Jan is passionate about working with proactive individuals who are thoughtful leaders in their own life, committed to living their vision and life purpose. If you are ready to embrace your vision, connect with Jan to discuss partnering on your next steps forward.