Saturday, April 19, 2014

How to raise kids

I know, I know. Everyone is different, and there's no one best way to raise kids. 

Even if there was a "best" way, you couldn't pull it off, not completely. We're all too flawed as parents, and other priorities in life mean we compromise on what common sense tells us to do with the needy little creatures all day and night long. 

Good Life Parenting
So yes, of course, we should be in a strong marriage where we both feed them three healthy meals and two non-sugary snacks and have them exercise in the sun and read every day and go to bed at regular times and enjoy game nights and family activities and quality education and the responsibilities of pet ownership and a secure neighborhood and the challenges of sports and the joys of cooking and the benefits of clear communication and the power of a spiritual center and ceaseless parental love and...

Are you exhausted yet? I am, and most of my kids are grown. I wouldn't be able to get through this list in a month of midsummer-long Sundays. That's why I'm not talking about the common sense, or the "should's." I'm interested in the qualities of childhood that most strongly predict happy and functional adults. It seems to me that if you keep those in mind and wrap your general family lifestyle around them, you'll be doing a good job as parents, even if you slack off on the laundry-list of "perfect" above. 

This isn't about how to make kids behave, because structure and discipline are a whole other kettle of pickles. This also isn't a guarantee, because judging how good you are (or were) as a parent by how your kids fare in adulthood is cheating. Judge--if you must--only based on your effort and intentions while raising said children because that's all you can control. Random factors like genetics and friends and teachers and temperament will ultimately determine how their life turns out. 

But you can give them the best chance at having a good life by knowing three things: who they are, what's important, and how to help them find their path.

1. Know who they are. There are six life-defining characteristics that are relatively stable and evident early in life, outlined in Your Child's Path: Unlocking the Mysteries of Who Your Child Will Become
  • Intelligence
  • Drive
  • Sociability
  • Capacity for Intimacy
  • Happiness
  • Goodness
Think about these capacities in yourself first, so you understand where you're coming from; and in your partner, because when combined these become the default values of your family. To get an idea of what they look like in adults, you can read this article "6 Clues to Character," and spend more than few minutes pondering. Self-reflection is almost always time very well spent, as is reading, in my opinion ;). 

Then think about your children individually, and in depth. What are their strengths in these areas? You don't have to do much as a parent there. But if they've never been easy to hug, or they lack empathy for those who are struggling, you might help them in those areas while they're young and you still have a large amount of influence. While you both might like watching football side-by-side all Sunday afternoon, an occasional day might be better spent on a charity walk for autism. Or hauling a frazzled cousin's twin toddlers to the playground to give her a break, and allow your child a natural and non-threatening way of hugging and holding and soothing another person. Their success in future relationships may depend on it. 

2. Know what's important.  Adults who are most satisfied with their lives report three common aspects of their childhood, as detailed in The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy:  

  • A sense of community
  • Freedom to explore, and experience "flow"
  • Mastery of something important to them

I'll bet every childhood tale that pops into your mind after reading those lines reinforces their truth. Those summer days you spent on your bike with a friend, going fishing or swimming or to the library or through the woods. Flow is when you are so engaged in what you're doing it seems without effort, and you lose sense of time. It's a kind of joy and mastery in one.

The next thing that you think may well be how different your child's summers are from yours, because you're working so they're at day care, or camp, and your vacation's at Disney, where every step is lock-step planned. 

And that's fine. 

But keep in mind that a child who has had their childhood structured for them is at a loss in adolescence to choose their own way. They're more vulnerable to peer pressure, and clueless about a career. They depend on coaches to develop their athletic skills, and parents to help them choose classes and help with homework. And they expect money so they can buy entertainment--movies and video games and trips to the mall--rather than finding the woman down the street who will pay for a mother's helper at her home-based child care, or the guy who'll pay under the table for a little summer help with his landscaping business for a strong and hard-working eighth grader. 

They're also the 25-year-old living in your basement because they bombed out of college, or graduated with two-new-cars-worth of student loans but without a direction, or a job, or motivation, and is waiting for the next cool plan you have to offer. It's counterintuitive, but praise and love and involvement from parents can lead to less productive and happy kids. For more on how to avoid this common fate, read Nurture Shock

Which brings us to...

3. Know how to help them find their path. Note, if you've read this far, that this is not your problem to solve. Given that it is your problem if they don't solve it, you may want to do a little scaffolding. Finding their passion as early as possible is key, and then not smothering it with expectations, just letting it grow and be "theirs." 

Research supporting the truth that 20% of young people are passionate in their pursuit of their life goals, 25% are rudderless and doing nothing of clear value and the rest fall in between is detailed in The Path to Purpose. The book should make you think twice about discouraging a child who wants to grow up to do something impractical. You don't have to encourage it either, just keep the conversation flowing. The phrase "you'll never make money doing that" should be banished from parental vocabularies.

Including mine. 
from amazon page

When my son Billy tells me he's going to be a professional Pokemon player, well--for a variety of reasons I reserve the right to still nix this--but anything else should be fair game for discussion. Because if you give your child the sense that they're "wrong" in their young, brash statements about a career, they'll assume that you, knowing so much more than them, will provide the most interesting choices at the proper time and all they have to choose is the most exciting option. In truth, all you'll offer them is the vague "what do you want to do with your life?" or the even less helpful "time to get a job." 

Because it's their life, and the earlier they understand this, the better. And if they want help, there are low-tech and high-tech options. For them to do, not you. 

Another note to self :). 

Love, Lisa


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