Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lecture Review: "Raising Children of Character"

One of my favorite activities is attending the lectures that are organized by my local mother's forum. Yes, I love the wine, cheese and crackers, passed hors d'oeuvres, and ice cream sundae bar. (I have a system for ensuring that I get both wine and cheese and ice cream without having to eat them simultaneously. On a related note, I go to these by myself, and I don't talk to anyone.)

But more than the food and the atmosphere, I love the actual lectures. With a six month old at home, I am not even the intended audience of most of them. Yet. Perhaps that's why I love them - they provide me with important tools for parenting topics before I need them.

This past week I attended a phenomenal lecture given by Dr. Steiner-Adair titled "Raising Children of Character". She was a brilliant speaker; logical, articulate, well organized. She described challenges our generation faces as parents, and provided common sense, backed by research solutions.

Here are some of the ideas and messages I took away from her lecture that I'd like to remember in the coming years. Many are familiar, but they're good reminders for my future self all the same!

Dear Kelly, please remember.....

People are happiest when they are working hard at something they love.

Don't lie to your children by telling them everything they do is wonderful. They will at some point realize that this isn't true, and then they won't trust you. It will also deprive them of the motivation to improve. You like the picture. You think it would look great with more color. Compliment. Hug. Maybe brownies. Now they've worked for the praise, and I bet it feels better than hearing you gush regardless of what they've produced.

Value your children for who they are, not what they do. Don't introduce them by saying "this is my soccer player, and this is my ballerina..." etc. Those labels make children feel that their current interest is tied into how you value them, and into their identity. It can then be devastating if they lose interest in the activity, not to mention that there are probably better soccer players and ballerinas. Acknowledge that your child's interests will probably change, and encourage curiosity over passion. Don't let them give up lessons after two weeks, but after a few months, acknowledge that they gave it an effort and might be ready to try something else. Let them explore to find their interests.

Our generation, when asked what we want most for our children, overwhelmingly replies "happiness". Our parents' generation more frequently replied "financial security". Therefore we tend to make decisions for our children in an attempt to make them happy, rather than an attempt to raise them to be capable and responsible adults. This might manifest itself as not enforcing boundaries or rules we've set for our children because we think breaking them would make them happier in the short term. This gives them mixed messages about rules and authority and confuses our children.

Resiliency comes from encountering frustrations and failures and bouncing back afterwards. Our children cannot become resilient if we prevent them from experiencing frustration by trying to solve all their problems for them.

Our generation has started to "help" our children with their homework, which usually means coaching them so much that we deprive them of an opportunity to learn, and the sense that we believe they can do it on their own.

We call our children's teachers too much. It gives our children bad messages about respecting expertise and authority, and it gives them a bad message about our belief in them as advocates for themselves. Teachers are a very good place for children to learn to advocate for themselves by asking for extra help and clarification, and helping your child get through a year with a teacher they don't necessarily like or feel likes them can be a character building experience.

Family dinners are important, and they're best when families don't discuss any disciplinary issues, grades, etc. They bring the family closest together when they're used to share how things are going and ask each other for advice on problems. This includes the parents, whose demonstration that they don't always have the answers will reassure their children that successful people still need help.

Your children need to know that they value more than things, and that things are not happiness or part of our identity. When you go shopping and you come home and you are more excited to show them what you bought than you are to see them and be with them again, it inadvertently teaches them that things are more important than human connections. Same with valuing a car because of its make, and not because it can get you all safely somewhere together.

Remember that you are always setting an example. We teach patience and respect by not cutting lines, or trying to bend the rules at our child's school, or yelling at the cable company on the phone. When they see us take them out of school early to get a better flight for the holidays, and they miss the assembly that their class is presenting in, we are teaching them a bad lesson about how much we value teamwork, community, and education. Gossip? Not so good. And so forth.

This becomes overlong, but I hope I can think about these ideas, and explore their application to my parenting life beyond just the few examples I included for clarity.

Being a parent is a job with limitless potential for how much I can learn, and how hard I can try, and it's actually got a chance of making me a better person so my children will be too. I'll keep trying, anyway :)

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