Opinions are fun. My friends tell me I am someone with lots of opinions
and that's fine since I don't get mad at others when they disagree with me. In this same spirit I am interested
in hearing yours views as long as you are able to share your views without boiling over. I look forward to hearing from you.
I tend to write in the form of short essays most of the time, but contributions do not need to be in this same format or size.
Some of the content here will date itself pretty quickly, other content may be virtually timeless, this is for the reader to judge.
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For my son
Posted at: Apr/17/2015 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Behavior, My philosophy,
A funny thing happened on the way to college, I guess I should explain in a little more detail. It is high school spring break for one of my sons and we are taking 5 days to visit a number of colleges. Trips like this are expensive, yet they are also priceless. As part of this adventure we have visited a variety of schools taking the canned tours and meeting with their admissions advisors. In doing this exploration my son has developed a clear sense of what he wants, likes, expects and dislikes in a university. As we move from school to school we are also afforded some rare one-on-one time to communicate without all the conventional pressures that tend to propagate around us.
During one of these unique dialogs my son shared that as he looks at many of his peers, he has come to realize that his Mom and Dad actually did a pretty good job teaching and raising him. During this special moment I nearly bit my lip as I feigned modesty. After a brief pause, sharing his awareness that I hack out essays on occasion, he asked that I generate one on parenting for future reference. In that spirit I shall now attempt to fulfill his request by fixating on a short, but critical list of parenting challenges.
When we bring our newborn infants home from the hospital, every parents brags about how alert their child is. I don’t wish to down play these insights, but this personal pride is what helps us get through those sleepless nights, leaking diapers and spit-up creamed carrots on a new work shirt. In truth, most children pretty much just eat, pass gas, fill a diaper and sleep on a regular cycle until about 18 months.
What happens at roughly 18 months is often loosely referred to as the “Terrible two’s.” This special event is really not all that terrible, but it can be very frustrating. Until this point the child is dependent on their parents for nearly every aspect of life except oxygen. As mentioned, we feed them, bathe them and even help them pass gas. Sometime around 18 months this little child decides that they are a person and should be entitled to make decisions in their day. Language skills have begun developing and coincidently, we get to hear the word “NO” used with a lot of volume and attitude. What makes this time period so terrible is that we (the adults) have become accustom to being the caregivers and protectors for all aspects of their day. With the pronouncement of that loud “NO”, they are trying to take over some of the management decisions previously owned by Mom & Dad. As part of growing up, parents do need to yield some responsibilities gradually to their children. Good decision making only comes with practice. As the lord high protector it is hard to give up control, but you need to start despite your desire to save them from all the big and small terrors of the world. Regardless, when you say it is time to leave Lego Land, it is definitely time to leave regardless of the fuss they create.
Meals are one of the biggest controversies in parenting. Lots of people write books on the subject and likely know more than me, though I sometimes question how many of these authors are actual parents. When I was a child my parents would load my plate at dinner and I could not get seconds or leave the table until my plate was cleaned. As a stubborn child I periodically spent an extra hour or two at the table after everyone else had finished their dinner. As a new parent we (Mom & I) posed this scenario to our pediatrician. He pointed out that this approach would ensure that our kids ate a balanced diet. He also pointed out that this approach could potentially turn the dinner table into a daily battle ground. Seeing the wisdom in these words we chose to adopt a 50% solution. We did not force our children to eat all their vegetables, but we also did not make them custom meals. A nutritionist would likely have chastised us for the unbalanced diet our children often ate. Nevertheless, we did not want to dread meeting at the dinner table. It should be noted that without custom meals being prepared, hunger did periodically become a driving factor and our children would eat whatever was left on the table or stored as leftovers in the refrigerator. The flip side of this was our limiting what kind of “junk food” was available as an option to satisfy those pangs of hunger. As our children have aged they have also without conflict developed a palette for a broad range of items and flavors despite our lack of pushing.
It is fascinating how far some people go altering their world for the benefit of their children. When our oldest son was just beginning to crawl he motored under our coffee table. From there he lifted his head striking a hard edge and began to cry. His mother instantly insisted that the table be moved to the storage to which I loudly disagreed. Part of learning and growing is figuring out where not to put your head. Children should be protected from chemicals, stairs and other similar hazards, but they also need to learn to pay attention to their environment. In the end, the table stayed which I liked because it was a comfortable place when I wanted to kick back and put my feet up. Interestingly, both of our sons only a few months later found that the table was a great purchase when initially learning to walk.
It is my belief that infants are by their very nature extremely selfish little poop generating machines. At first read this makes me sound like a pretty nasty old codger. As mentioned earlier, our children initially need us for everything and without language skills must cry to get a diaper changed or help passing gas. When kids start to develop language we need to also start using the word “no.” No, and all of its variations is part of learning that the planets no longer orbit around them. The goal is to mold our children into functioning members of a diverse society. There are a lot of aspects to this process. Waiting for your turn and sharing are skills that must be practiced and honed. Most children want attention, but they need to learn how to periodically wait their turn. A child with a skinned knee gets attention before the child who woke up from their nap in a bad mood. Attention is a critical word here, children need to learn that attention comes in different flavors and bad attention is not the same as good attention.
While on the subject of bad attention I should briefly discuss punishment. I am not a big fan of corporal punishment, but punishment is a vital tool in the overall learning process. When you say not to do something and show not to do it, if they do it anyway there should be consequences. Whether you use timeouts, early naps or a host of other options, there are some basic rules to making punishment an effective learning tool. The key aspects of punishment are timeliness, consistency, follow-through and moving on. Timeliness means that when a transgression happens the punishment needs to be right away. Eating all the cookies and punishing them three weeks later is ineffective because it becomes difficult to relate the punishment to the deed. Consistency is about you delivering the same punishment or degree of punishment for related actions. Children need to know that if they do something, there is a specific and predictable consequence. Follow-through relates closely to consistency. If you say there will be a bad consequence to drawing on the wall, then you need to be true to your word. “Moving on” is where you demonstrate that once the transgression and punishment are past you can be completely over it. This is an important example that you must set. Again, it is critical that you think of punishment only as a sometimes used tool that augments the learning process.
If you happen to find that my concepts for punishment are an indictment of our criminal and judicial systems; this is purely a coincidence and should be saved as fodder for a separate essay.
Transitioning from the use of punishment, it seems logical to talk about fairness. When I grew up I had a couple of brothers and a sister. I remembered thinking that my siblings were treated, rewarded or punished differently than me and that this was not fair. I promised myself that when I became a parent I would be “fair.” It only took me a couple of years into parenting to realize that fairness was not a luxury I could enjoy. For one of my sons, there was no greater punishment at a young age than being deprived of what we called “screen time.” Screen time included the obvious things such as television and handheld electronic games. For his brother, these things were of little value so his punishments by their very nature needed to be different. Clearly, from the perspective of my children Mom & Dad were not fair! I am sure reading this that someone is having an aah-hah moment. I wish I had a clear recommendation here, but the reality is that you need to tailor your parenting to your personal comfort zone and what works collectively and individually with your children. Regardless, your implementation of fairness should be more focused on the behaviors that generate a reward or desired consequence.
Children’s brains are like sponges, they absorb things easily. This must be true because I have read it or heard it so many times in so many places. As those sponges absorb, your vocabulary becomes more and more critical to their growth. I have never been comfortable with the notion of “goo gooing” to children or dumbing down how I would speak. Using an intelligent vocabulary and using it well teaches your children good words. They want to communicate with you and will easily learn to use the same words you use in the same way you use them. If you see a facial expression that implies confusion, repeat the thought and define the words you believe your children don’t understand. The way we communicate as adults is a significant portion of how others perceive us and a definite part of that ever important first impression. Learning and practicing a good vocabulary is much easier if it starts at a young age. Another important communication skill is sarcasm. If you know and understand how to use sarcasm, I strongly recommend you use it with your children as they grow. Digesting this special form of communication seems fairly easy for adolescents’ and teens. People who have been sheltered from sarcasm until they are adults generally struggle with separating a jest from an insult and this can create misunderstandings.
Seeing, sharing and respecting are also skills that children need to be taught. Just because little brother can see big brothers cool toy sitting on the shelf does not mean he can play with it. Learning to respect others property and space are very important life lessons. Even when you can afford to give each child a separate room, there are some excellent life lessons that are learned if they are forced to share a room for a few year. Many of these lessons are easily taught with a sibling situation. If you are raising an only child, these lessons require more focus and creativity from the parents. Failing at these lessons can easily create the spoiled brat mindset. Be careful about trying to give your children “all the things you did not have as child;” you turned out pretty good.
It is important to never take your child’s education for granted. Helping with homework is a good start, but only half the challenge. It is very easy to drop a child off at school, pick them up 7 hours later and assume that great things have happened in between. Unfortunately, teachers often have to devote a disproportionate amount of their time to a small percentage of the kids in the class. One of the most important things a parent can do is get the attention of their child’s teacher. Most schools put on parent/teacher meet and greet events. These are a good start, but a handshake and 3 minute conversation seldom have much lasting value. Over the years we have focused on setting up separate meetings with our children’s teachers 2-3 times a year. When our children entered middle school, these sessions would be early morning “round-table” meetings with all the teachers present along with Mom, Dad and the particular child of focus. Teachers like knowing that the student has more than “drive by parents.” Teacher will go the extra mile with parents who are engaged and will partner with them to overcome any hurdles. These separate meetings also created a rapport with the teacher and a vested teaming mindset between parent, child and teacher all agreeing on the same goals. Years ago on television I was scared by an investigative program on education in America. At one point, with the cameras running a man was asked why he had not attended his daughter’s parent/teacher night the previous evening. Without hesitation he responded that it was his “bowling night.” Clearly, he saw nothing wrong with what he said and I felt sorry for his daughter. Just because schools are built and staffed for a specific purpose does not mean that the right things are always happening. It is important as parents to be involved in your child’s education at home and at school.
Parenting is about teaching and leadership, both of which are very dependent on setting a strong example. The “do as I say, not as I do” approach does not work with children. As a parent, your behavior, actions and vocabulary are all examples for your children. If you swear at people when they behave badly in public like line cutting, your children will do the same. If you tip poorly despite receiving good service at a restaurant, you children will do the same. On the other side, if you get involved as a community volunteer, this is an example your children will follow. If you decide to once in a while take a professional seminar or night class, this is very meaningful to your children. When your children see you doing homework after dinner, it is easier for them to do the same. In the same vein, if you have a bias or bigoted attitude about something or someone, your children will pick up on it and emulate it.
As children grow to become young adults they need to learn about responsibility and consequence. Different from the earlier discussion on punishment, this is about learning to be responsible for their actions. It is my belief that to teach responsibility, you have to teach consequence. When good things happen such as picking up their dishes at the table, doing their homework, making their bed; they will enjoy good consequences. Good consequences could be a treat, more freedom, sports, etc. When responsibility is shunned such as not cleaning up their own messes and saving homework until the last moment it should come with negative consequences. Young people who have not learned responsibility will continue to expect others to solve their problems for them throughout life. I have enjoyed being a parent, but when my sons are 30 years old they need to be doing their own laundry and making their own way in life. Maybe for a change, when they visit they will take me out to dinner rather than the other way around.
Part of raising children, especially teens is ensuring you know roles. Teens will periodically get a little irrational about something. When these attitudes come to the surface, it is important that the parent show patience during a cooling off period. It is important that when a teen is not mature enough to deal with their parents or some immediate frustration, the adults in the room need to show the maturity that is lacking from their children. When the dust settles and the volumes drops, it is critical that the parent be perceived as patient and mature. Showing maturity while dealing with a hot headed teen can be a major challenge, but is critical to having their respect and a long term relationship.
One of the biggest mistakes that parents make is to try and be their children’s best friend. Successful parenting is about teaching and respect. The parents who attempt to be their children’s best friend loses their position of respect that is periodically needed. This does not mean that children have to hate or fear their parents, but being a best friend undermines the need for structure and authority. There are still lots of great ways to bond, but a respectful father-son bond is much more valuable than a best friend bond.
If all this sounds very daunting and complicated, in this form that is probably true. The good news is that parenting is actually very easy to learn. Children come home from the hospital as very simple little people who grow in complexity over a series of years. There is proverbial question that works well here. The question is “how do you eat an elephant”, the answer is “one bit at a time”. If you are there with an open and observant mind, you will be able to watch your child grow in size and complexity. As they grow you can adjust and tune your technique and reactions to their evolving needs. As your children grow you may be forced to make some tough decisions. As long as you make the best decision you can with the information you had at the time, you will have done well.
Meanwhile, don’t be scared to eat an elephant.