Neither my wife nor I are psychologists, but on the subject of child and adolescent behavior, we have been middle-class parents for decades. We were determined, from our son’s and daughter’s first days of life, to be good and effective parents. Blogs and books told us to focus on love, perseverance, protection, discipline, communication, and lots more—so we did, year after year. Sometimes life went smoothly, other times were challenging. As a family, we always worked things out.
Yet, I think we all missed out on an obvious and early opportunity to build trust and solve problems more efficiently. It just wasn’t obvious at the time.
Children and teenagers are understandably self-absorbed, because each day there’s something new to question, learn, and process. We guide and discipline our kids as little or as much as we think necessary. We want them to be the best human beings they can be. What few of us do well, however, is explain to our children how theycan help us be better and happier parents.
Here are my five suggestions for amending the social contract of childrearing.
1. Parents shouldn’t hide that they’re fallible human beings, and kids should be encouraged to learn from a parent’s weaknesses and mistakes as well as their strengths. Everyone needs equal time to speak up, not just about their happiness and successes, but disappointments and problems. A five year old losing a pet hasemotionalequivalency to a parent losing a job. Learning to offer help, forgiveness and sympathy needs to be a two-way street.
2. Parents should let kids know early on that mom and dad have roles to play other than raising children. Holding a job, nurturing friendships, dealing with aging parents, taking care of their own health, handling a divorce…the list is long. The sooner kids accept that a parent may not always be around physically or emotionally, the more adept they become at solving their own problems. They also get a glimpse of what awaits them as adults, which can seem, and Is, daunting. if they go to a party school, or announce they want to live like a hedonist, remind them they still can’t escape responsibility.
3. A child giving mom or dad a hug, or even a sympathetic glance, at the end of a parent’s hard day has healing qualities It’s almost as important as mom and dad hugging their child. A lot of parents think they have to be self-sufficient authority figures, but really, they need love, too.
5. Many teens like to think that they’re two or three years older than their actual age, and in some ways they might be Don’t be reluctant to count on them if they have skills and insights that you don’t, whether they’re academic, socialization, or just common sense. Authority resides with a parent, but it doesn’t mean much to kids if you don’t have an open mind or encourage their talents. When they express gratitude to you for “being there for them,” that validation is priceless.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.