As a parent, you have the most important job in the world: Molding the character of another human being.
A human being who will — someday very soon — be a grown-up man or woman. Out in the world. Communicating. Working. Serving. Helping. Loving. Or… harming. It all depends on the behaviors, guidelines and values that he or she learned at home. With you. A big job, indeed.
It’s a job that can feel extremely tough to do — especially when your children throw fits, misbehave, manipulate, or refuse to cooperate. But when you’ve got the right parenting tools — and when you implement them consistently — you can begin to “turn around” uncooperative behavior. After all, children are not born rude or defiant. These behaviors are learned — and they can be un-learned, too.
Here are three essential lessons that every parent needs to instill. (The sooner the better. But it’s never too late. Let the learning begin…)
1. Teach your child about choices and consequences.
It is natural for kids to test limits and rebel. But if your child routinely rebels against the rules you lay out, an age-appropriate consequence needs to be enforced. It is very important to frame this consequence as a choice.
Say: "If you choose not to tidy your room, you will not be able to watch your favorite television program tonight.”
Not: “Tidy your room NOW or else no TV!”
Using words like “choose” and “choice” teaches your child that he (or she) is not a “helpless victim” in a cruel, unjust world full of mean parents doing mean things. He (or she) is in charge of his (or her) own life. This shows your child that rewards — and consequences — don’t just “happen.” They are chosen. Instill this lesson well, and you’re giving your child the gift of “empowerment.”
2. Teach your child what integrity looks like.
Your child is inevitably going to see friends at school cheating on exams, skipping class, or stealing gum from the local drugstore, and wonder, “Could I get away with that, too?”
Your child has probably seen you flake out on a friend, tell a white lie, or skate through a situation with an “It’s OK, we won’t get in trouble” kind of attitude. Every time your child sees you “fib” or “fudge the truth” in order to back out of a commitment — or evade a consequence you don’t want — a clear lesson is being taught: “It’s all good as long as we don’t get caught.”
I don’t think I need to elaborate on why this particular “lesson” is incredibly harmful — with implications that can affect your child’s entire adult life. Don’t do it. Be a model of integrity, fairness and honesty. If you slip up? Own it and show your child what it looks like to “make it right” — however uncomfortable that may be.
3. Teach your child that “no” doesn’t mean “I don’t love you.”
Many parents resist saying “no” to their children. They’re afraid of seeming “mean” or “cold” or triggering an even bigger tantrum if they don’t give in to their kids’ desires. But it’s essential to teach your child that “no” doesn’t mean “I don’t love you.” In fact, you can literally say it out loud:
“When I say ‘no’ to you, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I love you very much. And because I love you so much, I set rules that keep you safe and help you to grow up healthy and strong. I am your parent, and I am responsible for you. That’s why I am saying ‘no’.”
By doing this, you’ll teach your child that the word “no” is not a “bad word.” “No” is a word that can keep you safe and protected. “No” is your friend. With this lesson in place, your child can become the kind of person who can say: “No, I don’t need a third slice of pie.” “No, I’m not ready to have sex yet.” “No, drugs aren’t my thing.” “No, I won’t accept a salary that’s 20% under the industry standard.” “No, way.” “Not today.” “No thank you!”
Choices and consequences.
The power of “no.”
Three lessons that you need to be instilling in your kids — not just once, but throughout their entire childhood with firmness and consistency.
Of course, saying words like “make good choices” or “be a person of integrity” mean very little unless you are actively modeling the values that you claim are important. Lead by example and you’re far more likely to gain your children’s respect and cooperation. Once they respect you? Defiance will be a non-issue.
Again: it’s never too early to teach children the right way to behave in the world. The sooner you get started, the better. But it’s also never too late to help your kids “un-learn” negative lessons and make significant improvements.
That goes for grown-ups as well as kids.
It is never, ever too late to become the person, parent, and role model that you want to be.
Suzanne Gelb, Ph.D., J.D., is a clinical psychologist, life coach and family law attorney. She believes that it is never too late to become the person you want to be. Strong. Confident. Calm. Creative. Free of all of the burdens that have held you back—no matter what has happened in the past.
Her insights on personal growth have been featured on more than 200 radio programs, 200 TV interviews and online at Forbes, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, The Daily Love, Positively Positive, and many other places.