I recently read an editorial in Philadelphia Magazine about parents demanding too little from their children. The author opined “we have caved in to the foolish idea that being a good parent means being nice to our children, and making their youths as pleasant and free of stress as possible. We want them to win at everything, from dodge ball…to grades, no matter if they’re lousy on the playground or lazy in the classroom.” I agree with the sentiment that modern parents are often too concerned with protecting their children from the sometimes-unpleasant realities of life; and in 38 years of practice, have seen the consequences of these good intentions play out in every conceivable way. As children grow up and go out on their own; bosses, coworkers, spouses (to an extent) and others they will have contact with may no longer put your child’s happiness and self-esteem high on their agenda. And happy or not, this is a huge wakeup call for which many children are not yet ready.
Parents can prevent their children from having a rude awaking by taking into account the child’s developmental level when balancing nurturing and limit setting. This way, by the time children leave home, they will be much better able to face the world with confidence and competence. By tailoring parenting attitudes and behaviors, parents can learn to effectively foster independence in their children. And in many cases, the sooner the better!
During the first year of life, your goal as a parent is to provide unconditional love, care, and safety. However, once your child begins to develop mobility, your principal tasks as a parent are to let the toddler explore, while teaching, setting limits and minding his or her physical safety. Most important (and at times most difficult), is not to act out your own frustrations and emotions, especially anger onto your child. This period can be thought of as a trial run for when your child becomes an adolescent, a stage that is a lot less demanding physically, but can be much more demanding emotionally. In other words, be mindful of not losing it with your two year old, simply for acting like a two year old!
In early childhood, your role changes to providing a solid structure and resolve to do whatever it takes to patiently teach those complex yet basic rules of life. By providing loving guidance along with appropriate discipline, children have the best possible environment to learn all about what it takes not only to fit in, but also to thrive and begin to discover their own uniqueness. This is a time many parents have difficulty staying firm with their children. But providing them with consistent consequences is essential training, because the child will face a world full of consequences in the future.
During adolescence, your primary task is to encourage self-exploration, while carefully and lovingly setting limits and letting go enough to allow your adolescent to make his or her own mistakes. The task is to do this while remaining a safety net and a source of love, support and guidance that he or she can turn to as needed. However, it’s also crucial to provide discipline and even “tough love” whenever an adolescent child crosses the line. This could be your last opportunity to be the principal source of influence for your child.
Finally, children inevitably leave the nest. Maybe they are leaving for college (an intermediate step) and/or moving out on their own. At this point, chances are whatever they have not learned from you—regardless of whether or not that was by choice—they will choose to learn elsewhere. If you find that you still have a need to control their lives, this is the time to let go! If you simply let them know you are still just as approachable, chances are they will choose you to be a resource as long as you honor the rights of your adult children to be independent and different from you. This way, you will command respect, without having to demand it.
By maintaining a balance between love and support with developmentally appropriate boundaries, children will grow up to be successful in navigating the world and accepting the realities that come with adulthood. They will be able to grow in their own direction, and be successful in a world where everyone doesn’t win, and we don’t always get exactly what we want.