Great parenting is simple. But it’s hard. We overcomplicate it because we’re convinced that doing things for our kids: making sure they have good opportunities, education, friends, nice clothes, etc., are all that is important.
But even if we give them all of these, they might still end up miserable. Why? Because we’ve missed the mark on meeting their deeper needs. That’s why we need to shift our current parenting paradigm of providing them with things and opportunities and give them what really matters: our love and security. Then, they’ll have a shot at growing into stable, healthy and happy adults.
Shifting that paradigm begins by answering three critical questions our kids have.
1. What do you believe about me?
If I asked you what you believe about your son or daughter, you’d probably answer: ‘I believe that he’s smart, capable and a good kid. Or maybe he isn’t now but he will be very soon.’ You would say that your son or daughter can grow up to be anything they want to be.
That’s nice, but what matters most is how your child would answer the question. It might be quite different from yours. I’ve cared for thousands of kids, and frequently heard answers like this. “Well, my parents sometimes think that I can’t do anything. They tell me to do well in school, at soccer, be nice to others and to be respectful. The problem is, they say that, but they don’t really mean it. When I get a bad grade, my dad gets mad and thinks I’m stupid. My mom asks what’s wrong with me and sometimes thinks I’m lazy. They may not say these outloud, but I know that’s what they’re thinking. I sometimes feel like a loser.”
Or, they might say, “I don’t know what my parents think about me. They push me to do well in school and get upset if I get a bad grade. They tell me to just have fun at soccer, then follow me to games and yell instructions from the sideline. They boast about me to their friends and that’s OK but it makes me feel that I’m just something they can use to show off. What do they believe about me? I don’t really know.”
With good intention, we make sure our kids succeed at everything they do. But often this makes kids feel used. Down deep, they still don’t know if we believe they are valuable, lovable or if even if we enjoy being with them.
Your child needs you to look deep in your heart and ask yourself what you really believe about him. Do you cherish him even if he fails? Do you believe he is capable or stupid? Is he talented at something or not? Regardless of what you say, your child knows exactly what you believe about him. So, be honest.
When I graduated college, I was rejected from every medical to which I applied. I was devastated. One day I overheard my father talking on the phone with a friend. He said, “Yes, my daughter Meg will be going to medical school in the next couple of years.” And he meant it.
In that moment, I learned what my dad believed about me: I was strong, determined and capable. His beliefs secured my beliefs about myself.
2. How do you feel about me?
Again, most parents would answer, “I love my child of course! What a ridiculous question.” But what you say isn’t always in synch with what your child believes. Many kids have told me that they think their parents love them because that’s what parents are supposed to do. But when it comes to really believing it, they aren’t quite sure.
Kids are learning that they are mini trophies parents can show off to their friends. When their kids look great, they communicate that they are great parents. Also, parents want their kids to succeed in many areas in order to create a good portfolio. This will allow them entry into better jobs and more success. Some get there, some don’t.
When a child sees a parent talk of nothing but his successes, he correctly infers that his value lies in the stuff he does, not in his inherent worth. How can we flip this around so that our kids really know we love them? First, we must ask ourselves if we’re creating a show piece with their name on it. If you are, stop. Give them time and space to simply be rather than packing their time with activities that will burn them out. Second, carve out fifteen minutes per week to just be with them. Finally, ask your child to do things with you. This lets him know that you enjoy his company.
Your child needs to know that you love him no matter what he does or doesn’t do. This is hard to do. Let your child fail and hug him. Stop freaking out if he gets things wrong. If he acts like a jerk, tell him you love him anyway. If he doesn’t want to go to college, let him know that he’s a great kid. You might even need to tell him that no matter what he does- even if he sits in a closet for the rest of his life- nothing will shake your love for him. This will lead him to real success.
3. What are your hopes for me?
Many parents try to convince their kids that they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. But everyone knows this isn’t true. What kids want to know is whether they can have a job they like, have a good marriage and maybe have kids.
Many parents try to build their child’s future for them. When they do this, they’re saying, “I’m not sure you can do this, so I need to jump in and make it happen.” We focus so much on helping our children, we convey to them that they may not be able to succeed on their own. This makes them feel helpless and weak.
I addition, we teach them that happiness is the ultimate goal. Happiness, we say, trumps everything else in life. This sets our kids up for misery.
When we help our kids develop strong character, they learn to build their future themselves. When we teach them to work hard, live with integrity, compassion and kindness, then we let them know they can have a great future. We must show them how to have tenacity, perseverance and other strong character strengths because this sets them on solid ground. It allows them to be prepared for hardships and challenges.
When we stop being intense about making our kids jump through the right hoops and dig down to meet their basic needs, then they will form a foundation on which they derive self-assurance and a strong sense of self.