I often receive compliments for my kids. They’re kind, polite, articulate, and just all around fantastic. Somewhere, somehow, I accidentally did something very right. Or maybe their dad did (more likely). Whatever the case, as my youngest enters his last few months of primary school, I find myself looking back, and wondering what I could possibly have done to deserve such amazing children. What will I tell them, while it’s still relatively fresh in my memory, if they ask my advice on raising children of their own? I would tell them:
1. Don’t have children unless you fully understand that you must be prepared to meet their needs, and also truly understand what those needs are.
Babies’ needs are, in order of importance:
a. Physical closeness to the mother.
c. Physical comforts such as shelter, a warm bed, regular baths etc.
Toddlers’ needs are, in order of importance:
a. Physical closeness to both parents for several hours every day.
b. The presence of an adult who loves them at all times.
c. Physical comforts such as shelter, a warm bed, regular baths etc.
d. Messy play – earth, rocks, plants, grass, mud, sand, water. Forget the plastic stuff, give the child a bowl of dirt. I’m in two minds whether this shouldn’t perhaps have been (c) on the list.
From the age of about six or seven, the child needs, in order of importance:
a. Free access to at least one parent whenever this is desired. It becomes tricky at this time, because while the child must always know their parents adore them, they must not feel stifled or feel guilty if they want to be alone. Yet sometimes it must be up to the parent to sense when it’s been too long since they connected, and initiate together time.
b. Enough healthy food to not be distracted by hunger.
c. Freedom to explore, and natural space to do so (grassy field, park, big garden, as much exposure to other natural environments such as forest or mountain, these obviously with proper guidance).
d. Physical comforts such as shelter, a warm bed, regular baths etc.
2. Unless you are a single parent, you are not a single parent. Your other half is going to parent in ways you disagree with. It will happen. When it does:
a. Do not confront him/her in front of the children. You create serious insecurity and anxiety in your kids if you do this.
b. In private, discuss why you disagree with his/her approach and why, but remember that you are not the boss. You are not the alpha parent. Once you’ve shared your view on the matter, you can’t dictate what they decide.
3. The human brain grows its most in the first two years, then still grows at a tremendous rate until about seven, but that first two is vital. This growth is deeply impacted by how you relate to the child, and what environment you create for them. In this time, you are laying down the foundations for who and what this person is going to be for the rest of their lives. Your parenting decisions will still influence the world through this person when they’re eighty years old. It will influence the people they form love relationships with, it will influence their children, it will influence their grandchildren. Don’t screw it up, and never underestimate the vital, crucial, far-reaching effect every book read, every hug, every warm cuddle, every moment you invest, will have.
4. When you’ve finished hyperventilating at the realisation of the immense responsibility resting on your shoulders, CHILL OUT. Because as contradictory as it may sound, once you have truly internalised that realisation, the job is three quarters done. You will naturally act in the best way possible from now on, meaning your occasional screwups are not going to ruin your child forever.
5. Like your child. Like hanging out with them. Realise that it’s not okay to feel your kid is not someone you just love being with, and that if you don’t like being with them, you need to sit back and work out what you need to do to change that.
6. Read the parenting gurus’ wisdom and advice, then just for the love of gods forget it. There are few things as tragic as a parent relating to their children in a forced or unnatural way. Yes, sometimes you need help or advice, sometimes you’re stumped and may have to train yourself to act differently. This should always be seen for the problem it is, with new behaviour internalised as quickly as possible to return to a natural, unforced interaction between two people.
Expert advice should come down to this:
You have two tasks, two measures for every action, every lesson, every rule and decision in your household:
GOLDEN RULE FOR DETERMINING IF A CHILD’S BEHAVIOUR IS OKAY:
If a friend or spouse/partner did this, would you think it’s okay? If they speak to you in a certain way, or with a certain tone of voice, or with a certain attitude, would it be okay? Excusing or tolerating socially unacceptable behaviour from a child because they are a child is a big mistake. Children play differently, yes, they do some things differently while they acquire the skill to do it in an adult way. There is a difference between doing things childishly and doing things boorishly. For instance, a child eats with their hands as they learn how to eat with a spoon, a fork, a knife and fork. There are different standards there. However, throwing food at another person is not okay no matter how old you are.
GOLDEN RULE FOR DETERMINING IF YOUR BEHAVIOUR TOWARDS YOUR CHILD IS OKAY:
If someone did that to you, would you be okay with it? Would you really? You can reprimand a child, enforce consequences, take some serious action against seriously wrong behaviour, all without ever attacking the basic dignity of the child.
You see, social relationships are equal to air and water for our wellbeing, so I would rather err on the side of caution and nip behaviour in the bud which would make other people think my kids are boors. It’s the biggest favour you can do them, as long as you bear in mind that you must do so without being a boor yourself.
7. Consequences of unacceptable behaviour must be relative, quick, controlled, and offer a chance of redemption. Rewards must be much the same. The younger the child, the more immediate the reward for acceptable behaviour. There is nothing that breeds despair as effectively as a goal you feel you can never reach. Rather start too easy and make it a bit more difficult next time, than crush the child’s spirit with a target they simply can’t hit.
The most frequent consequence of unacceptable behaviour is negative effect on a relationship. Think big picture – what will happen if you behave like this as an adult? – and simplify. If you scream at others, they don’t want to be with you. If you’re rude, you don’t get what you want. If you hurt others, you will be isolated – that is what society does when you murder or assault others, and we learn that when we bite our sister and and are removed from the company for a while (but be careful not to copy society’s mistakes and use isolation in such a way that it increases rather than decreases bad behaviour). The more polite and pleasant you are, the more inclined people are to act in your best interests. These are big thoughts, but they must be learned when you’re small, and it’s your job as parent to translate big ideas into simple lessons.
8. Here’s one of the most vital lessons you can teach your child: how trust works. If you show responsibility, you earn trust. It’s easy to lose and very hard to regain.
Lying is a breach of trust. You don’t teach your children not to lie by trying to guess when they are lying. You trust them until they are proven to have lied, then withdraw that trust and let them experience for themselves how hard it is to win it back. Once you bear the rule in mind that redemption must always be possible, never an unattainable goal. Trust is not, however, just about lying, keeping secrets, or taking responsibility. It’s about being responsible with another person’s emotions. If you scream at me, if you hit me, in addition to the other ways in which that’s a problem, you will have lost my trust.
9. Be human. If you make a mistake, admit it and apologise. Don’t think you need to be this perfect, unquestionable authority. That is the quickest way to problems that you can ever imagine. Firstly, you close the doors to communication between you. If you’re perfect, how dare your child ever speak up if you behave in a hurtful way? Secondly, you set your child up for a massive shock when they find out you’re fallible. You will also have breached their trust, because to claim through direct or indirect communication that you are perfect, is to lie.
The flip side of this coin is that you must remember your child is a human, too. They are emerging adults. Relate to them in that way, and a lot of stuff just comes naturally. Apologise if you lose your cool and scream at them or smack them, and share how deeply upset you are that you have let yourself down with your behaviour. However, make it clear that while we are always responsible for our own behaviour, we can never get away from the fact that we are also responsible for the way others behave. If you screamed, what contributed to your loss of control? Kids can’t just do what they like and then condemn you if you turn out not to be a robot, and react the way human beings react when they are frustrated. Tell them why you ended up feeling the way you felt, and try to get an agreement both from you and from them about things to do differently to avoid a repeat of the situation. Of course you simplify this the younger they are. “I’m sorry I shouted. It’s not okay for me to do that. It’s also not okay for you to kick me. Not at all. I’m going to try hard not to shout again, will you help me by never kicking me again?”
10. Here is the foundation of the parent/child relationship: a child is a guest in your house. They are a welcomed, celebrated guest, they are an asset to your household, they are a guest who has rights and whose needs are paramount, but they are, when all is said and done, a guest. When you keep that in mind, you honour their existence as a person in their own right, and you understand and guard your rights as the person to whom this household belongs. You guard their needs and safety, but you understand there are limits to your right to interfere. When you do need to meddle, you do so respectfully, realising it’s not the ideal and getting the job done quickly.
Your children are people you are building a lifelong friendship with. It’s your job to teach them how to be a good friend, and primarily, you do that by being a good friend. You give to them joyfully and willingly, and hope to receive the same in return one day. If you work from that foundation, everything else becomes logical. If you want to dig even deeper, it all rests on being a human with all your faults and all your wonderfulness on honest display, ever striving to be a good thing in the lives of those around you.
It’ll be fun to look at this in ten years’ time, and see how perhaps my views might have changed. However, these are the foundations of the approach I have taken.