The Big Picture: Guiding your child’s potential

Guiding your child's potential

As we confront the daily challenges of child behaviour, child development, discipline, and raising children, let us calmly pause to remind ourselves of the ‘big picture’ as parents. Let’s take some time to consider what our parenting goals truly are, and your role in guiding your child’s potential.

Vernon and I had a special privilege last summer holidays. It was to spend a length of time in our one-room beach-house, in sometimes less-than-summer weather with our son, daughter-in-law, and 2 little grandchildren.

I felt privileged to watch two fine young adults making a great job of raising 2, fine young, children and fortunate to feel so welcome in their lives.

I also had those particular delights of several firsts – the first dead starfish carried intact most of the way home, the first bucket full of mangrove seeds washed up on the sand and returned to the sea, and the first discovery of the slope that lay under the apparently flat sea!

All of which led me to ponder, why are we doing this? What are we trying to do in the raising of our children? What are the goals? How do we get there?

The Big Picture: Guiding your child’s potential

I remember reading somewhere, ‘if you don’t know where you are going, any path will do.’

Now I do know that there have been many days in my parenting life when my sole goal was just to get through the day. However, every now and again, it is a good idea to stop and think, ‘where are we heading, and is it a direction I want to go?’

I’ve found it useful to think of the four strands of development along which we guide our children until they are independently functioning young adults.

These are:

1) From emotional dependence to emotional independence

2) From undisciplined to self-disciplined

3) From unskilled to skilled

4) From amoral to moral

From Emotional Dependence to Emotional Independence

The first strand underpins everything else and is crucial to raising wholesome, well-functioning adults with a good sense of self and compassion for others.

All our babies start entirely dependent upon us to respond to their calls of distress (initially in response to hunger or loneliness) and to do our best to meet those needs. As they grow older (3 months to twenty years!) their needs become more complex but our response is pretty similar. You might like to read our article on Toddler Tantrums, for some hints on how to cope with these situations.

How can I comfort my child in such a way that they feel calmer and can get into a thinking mode about how to solve the problem?

Pre-verbal children respond well to a cuddle. Once they can speak, a warm arm around their shoulder and a patient listening ear does wonders. When they’re teens and are unwilling to listen to us, our willingness to listen to them will help keep our relationship intact.

The mark of a mature adult is the capacity to tolerate the ordinary frustrations of life and the capability to handle the extraordinary frustrations that inevitably come our way.

If we can support our children (without taking over or taking away) as they struggle with ordinary frustrations, they learn that they can handle irritating events and people. This helps them in their journey to becoming emotionally mature young adults, capable of solving problems without losing their temper or giving up.

From Undisciplined to Self-disciplined

The second strand involves recognising that, to quote Richard Gordon,

A baby is a short person with no discipline at either end.

It’s our job to start with this small and appropriately undisciplined baby and raise her or him to being a self-disciplined adult. We do this by showing our children what the boundaries of decent and acceptable behaviour are, and by not allowing them to behave badly – you might like to read Obedient children and Time out for some strategies on how to do this.

One year olds grasp the concept that there are certain behaviours of which we disapprove.

Two year olds need to accept that their parents are the arbiters of imposed discipline.

Three year olds need to have limited choices (wheatbix or cornies, red T-shirt or green T-shirt) so that they learn the self-discipline of committing to a choice and then seeing it through – always knowing that tomorrow you get a chance to try a different choice.

Four year olds are capable of stringing 3 or 4 tasks together, eg ‘go and get ready’ meaning ‘clean your teeth, brush your hair and put your lunch in your bag.’ Or, ‘let’s get your room tidier’ meaning ‘put the books on the shelf, put the blocks in the block-box, put your shoes in the cupboard, and hang up your clothes.’

If we’ve ferried our children through these phases, we have children who are capable of planning. They can see what needs to be done; they are capable of breaking a bigger task down into “manageable bites”; they have enough self-discipline to see the steps through. As they move towards and into the teen years, they need lots of experience of not-quite-enough planning on their part to get tasks completed in time – and the consequences of what happens as a result.

Our job becomes less that of forcing, cajoling, persuading and warning, and more of watching, waiting and supporting… and comforting without lectures when it doesn’t quite work out. Childhood and teenagehood is the best time for children to have the experience of making ‘safe mistakes’ so that they can do their own learning.

From Unskilled to Skilled

The third strand involves all the skills that our children – having begun (with apologies to our beautiful babies) as fairly unskilled individuals – need to function well as skilled young adults.

These are the developmental milestones that see our children moving from unskilled to skilled.

This involves all the social skills, domestic skills (from tying shoe laces, to stretching their text budget until next month’s pocket money), sporting skills, cultural skills and academic skills that children need to function as independent adults. Many of these skills we teach our children ourselves and some of the teachings we delegate to others.

To raise young adults able to handle their emotions, to tolerate the ordinary frustrations in life, to be self-disciplined and to develop an array of skills is quite daunting enough for us all as parents. However, for most of us, that isn’t enough. We wish to have also developed a fourth strand in our children.

From Amoral to Moral

The fourth strand of development is that of bringing out virtues, values, morals and ethics in our children.

We want our children to develop values (eg healthy lifestyles, relaxation, acceptance, respect, curiosity, forgiveness) and virtues (eg compassion, honesty, kindness, courage, tidiness, caring, sensitivity).

We want them to develop manners, morals and ethics to help them deal with the inevitable temptations and difficult decisions that will come their way.

Now for the bad news! The development of virtues, values, morals and ethics need to be ‘caught rather than taught’.

Imagine the ridiculous contradiction of a parent puffing away on a cigarette while telling their children they should never start smoking. We can’t tell our children how to be moral and ethical; we need to demonstrate it in our daily lives.

We can’t instruct our children to develop virtues and values; we need to live these and trust that they will rub off on our children. I guess you could say ‘we need to be the change we wish to see in our children’.

So where do we start?

Support your children’s feelings, don’t allow them to behave in an unruly and undisciplined manner, teach them the skills they will need to live independently, and let them (safely but uncomfortably) experience the consequences of bad choices.

By doing these things we set a framework for the development of the fourth strand.

And, as for their moral and ethical development, remember that our children learn what they live. Is there anything that you would rather your children didn’t learn from you? Do your best to change that behaviour … or at the very least, make sure you’re not caught!

Now that we have you thinking about the Big Picture: Guiding your child’s potential. You might like to check out Growing great families, or check out the expert advice in our Grown ups section.

Diane Levy

Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents.

She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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