It’s a lot of work raising a human being from scratch. You’re handed a baby with a blank slate and are left to fill it with a world of knowledge, skills, emotions, and much more. The current trend in parenting has leaned towards encouraging the emotionally self-aware and self-determined child. Self-awareness and self-determination are important tools to develop as a person becomes a part of the world. But, unless we’re looking to raise self-centered and self-focused people, filling a clean slate requires much more than this.
As part of psychotherapy, people undergo a corrective experience to repair areas that have been developed in ways that cause problems in their lives. When raising a child, the ideal hope is that we can help our children develop healthy mental, emotional, and behavioral patterns that don’t have to be corrected later. Therefore, while self-awareness and self-determination are good skills to have, there are other areas of development that are important to incorporate in parenting a child.
Rather than going into detailed discussions of attachments and other psychological theories (which have their merits), this list will present some general points to keep in mind with raising a child into a functioning person. Here are some overarching points to consider as children continuously develop :
- Label Emotions. All children feel emotions, and they will show you when they experience any range of emotions. A parent’s job is to recognize the emotions and label them appropriately. People often grow up not understanding what they feel, or have mislabeled emotions, which causes confusion in how to handle and express what they feel (which leads to stress and anxiety). Labeling will help a child develop self-awareness as they grow.
- Empathy. If a child is going to function interpersonally, he/she will need to be able to recognize how their actions impact others. Without empathy, it’s possible a child would grow up only considering his/her own emotions and self, and not care when they impact others. This would result in a self-centeredness that would bring issues down the road.
- Behavior Modification. One area that could use more understanding is when to modify a child’s behavior. Some parents follow the method of, “if my child is behaving a certain way, I should let the experience of acting-out emotion be played out.” However, if a child is going to grow up and function in society, it’s the parent’s job to teach the child when certain behaviors are socially less appropriate. If we, as adults, are in a quiet public place and become aggravated, we’re not going to jump up and start cursing and yelling to purge our aggravation, even if the feeling is valid. We know this isn’t an appropriate behavior. Children need to know there’s a time and a place for certain behaviors, and that behavioral expressions and reactions are different than feeling an emotion. Just because a person feels a valid emotion doesn’t mean it has to be acted out inappropriately.
- Creating Values. If we think back to our own childhoods, aside from aspirations of being ballerinas, firemen, and other stereotypical gender-role career choices, we most likely didn’t actually start determining our own life values until adolescence (part of individuating). Instilling values in our children is healthy so they grow up with a sense of identity. It becomes important later for us to be flexible in allowing our children to make those choices for themselves. But with children, parents should be careful about playing the self-determination card too soon. Don’t be afraid to lend some values to them, rather than expecting your children to develop their own without guidance. Children look to their parents to get an idea and understand the expectations of the world (and society). Don’t be afraid you’re inhibited your children’s self-determination by giving them values (that they can later challenge).
- Experiences. The more experiences we can offer our children, the more they will feel comfortable to later make decisions for themselves within the world — including career choices and how they will shape their adult lives. This isn’t only limited to activities, but exposing them to foods, places, people, etc. With experiences, children begin to get a sense of what they want more (or less) of, and promotes their decision-making skills and self-determination.
- Discipline. Discipline is still necessary (and doesn’t indicate the need for physical/verbal/emotional abuse). Many parents don’t want to discipline their children, but children need to eventually learn that their inappropriate behaviors will have a consequence, including danger for some behaviors. Bribing children to stop behaviors is generally not recommended because then they will learn to expect a reward for behaving. The idea is to teach that their behaviors are either hurting others, aren’t socially appropriate, or dangerous, and that they won’t get a positive response if they continue to do these things. As much as we’d like to be able to do so, it’s not healthy or possible to raise children fully on positivity. (There are many resources on healthy discipline, but is too large a discussion to include here. Just type “disciplining children” into your favorite search engine for more).
- They Do what You Do. In the end, role modeling is still the most effective teaching tool. No matter what we verbally tell our children, if we don’t actually do it, they won’t do it. If we throw an adult tantrum when we don’t get our way, and we tell our children not to react the same way we did, they will still naturally internalize our reaction to not getting our way because it’s what they see. If we want our children to take ten deep breaths to calm down when they get angry, then that’s what we have to do when we get angry. Or, if we want our children to interact with others a certain way, we need to do this in front of them. Our children naturally trust that what we do is how the world works. Childhood is a giant “if-then” statement. “If X happens, then I’m supposed to do Y, based on what I see my parents doing.” So, parents have to act the part for their children.
Parents and child photo available from Shutterstock