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Raising a child has at best always been a formidable task. The pressures and demands of today's society have made this task even more difficult for parents – and many times traumatic for children. The increase in single parent homes, overcrowded classrooms, both parents having to work to make financial ends meet, the ever increasing violence and sexual themes in all forms of the media, and society's gradual demeaning of religious and family values, are just some of the contributing factors to these pressures on children and their parents.
Where can the average parent turn to for information? The average book store is crammed with books on dieting, self-improvement, and how to recognize if your child has whatever the poplar current dysfunction of the day is. Little will be available on teaching family values and how to have a productive conversation with your child. I have yet to see a community college or local university offer more than basic parenting classes. There are also a variety of electronic gadgets available that promise to make your child or infant a "Genius" quickly.
These are usually cleverly packaged to take advantage of the guilt (or ego) that many parents feel regarding their role in educating their children. These tools can be useful and while I am not necessarily opposed to them, remember that they are knowledge-based only and require little or no parental involvement.
After working with children and families as a Child Psychologist for over thirty five years, there are some patterns and facts of healthy child-rearing that have clearly emerged. The remainder of this article will present and focus on some of these methods and concepts that over the years seem to have served so many families well. I would suggest that if you really think about, and try just some of them; your child will be the better for it. Some are relatively easy to do – others are not. You will be the ultimate judge of what makes sense to you and what doesn't. What you are willing to try and what you are not. I can only suggest and share with you my experiences and observations over the years. You are the parent – the decisions are yours.
Please remember that what follows are generalities and there are always many exceptions. So sit back, relax a bit, get comfortable, and let's get started.
To begin with, you would be truly amazed if you really knew how carefully and often your child is watching you. Your child is watching almost everything that you do - and how you do it. Why? Because the child is trying to understand a new and complex world and you are the ultimate role model and teacher. You are the example of what and how things should be done. Mom generally sets the expectations about women and Dad generally sets the expectations about men. Together you represent how the world works and how its problems should be handled. Why is this concept presented first? Because it really is that important! Let's think this through a little.
If the parents fight and scream a lot in front of the child – what is the child learning about how a marriage should be? How Moms and Dads should act? If Dad hits Mom when he is mad – what is the son learning about being a man? What is the daughter learning about what kind of man she should marry someday? If you throw and break things when you are mad – what is your child learning about how to handle frustration and anger? If you sit with a drink in your hand all night – or come home drunk – or pop a pill every hour – what do you think you are teaching your child? Would you really be surprised if the child grows up with a severe temper, fights a lot, gravitates to drugs or alcohol, or later in life finds someone to marry that is just like Mom or Dad! We know that children who are raised in abusive households tend to gravitate into abusive relationships later in life.
The suggestions here are simple – hard to do sometimes – but simple. Remember that your child is watching. Whatever you are doing is probably being taught by example to your child. Are you acting and behaving in ways that you really want your child to learn and imitate? Sound like common sense? If you think about it, it is. Remember that parenting should not be a spectator sport. It does require effort and attention on your part.
Another good guideline is to be as consistent as you can with your rules and expectations. The child needs you and the world to be predictable. You (and your spouse) should be consistent day to day regarding the rules and expectations. If it is right today, it needs to be right tomorrow. If you are not consistent, you throw the child's little world into chaos and the child doesn't know what he/she should do to please you. That means you will need to stand firm sometimes and not be swayed by outbursts or pleadings. Even during the dreaded adolescent period, this should be the case. Remember you will always be the anchor for your child in an unpredictable world. You need to be the parent that can always be depended upon. Also, whenever possible, try not to lie to the child. Children can often handle more truth that we give them credit for. They always need to be able to believe and trust in you. Use some common sense here.
The last really important issue that I will share with you in this article is the child's need for your occasional personal and undivided attention. I'm not talking about a lecture or a group event - but a real time when the child feels free and safe to discuss with you whatever is on his/her mind and not have to compete for your attention. If the only time your children can get your undivided attention is when they are acting-out – guess what they will do? That's right, the acting out will increase. That's how much they need your attention. I actually had an older child tell me once that he "would rather be wanted for being bad – than not wanted at all!" Every child will learn how to get your attention – the only question is how!
Finding and creating these special times takes some thought and planning on your part. I realize that not every family is in a position to go camping or lives where fishing is possible. Some live in areas when even a casual walk down the street can be hazardous. I realize these things. I would like to suggest however that reading to your child and maybe discussing the story is something that almost every parent can do. Books at the library can be checked out at no charge. Even "made-up" stories (like the ones my grandfather used to tell me) are also wonderful for the child. Remember, it is the process – not the story – that is truly important.
Taking walks together are great opportunities for just talking. Sitting in the yard, or on the porch, or on the bed also works well. Remember that it is the process of having this time together that is important – not what you do or where you do it. What is important is that your child can have your undivided attention and feel comfortable talking about what is on his or her mind. As readers of my other articles know, I am a tremendous fan of reading to your child. There are some wonderful children's books out there. Remember that stories that you –or both of you – just make up can be just as much fun.
My attempt to help fill this void for parents eventually led me to create the award-winning "Seamus the Sheltie" series of books for parents and children. Other excellent materials for families are also available if you know how to look for them
Find something that is interesting to the child, and if possible lends itself to meaningful discussions about common childhood issues or fears. Avoid the superhero, violent content stories, and the other nonsense that the media tries to glamorize for your child. Also - before you select a book or story - read it first and then ask yourself the question “is there something in this story that I would really want to discuss with my child - something that might be beneficial to him/her?”
If the answer is “not really” - choose another book.
These private reading times can be some of the most meaningful times for both of you. You can find a half hour or so a week if you really want to. Turning off the TV for that time will be a good start. It will be time well spent. Memories of these times tend to last a lifetime.
Remember, you can always try what has worked for so long – meaningfully talking with your child and letting your behavior set the example.
And yes, parental involvement is required.