I have a confession to make: I wrote my first two parenting books before I had children. Is this a great country or what, where you can become an "expert" at something you have never done before (of course, I had worked with families for many years in my practice)? I now have two children of mine and, though they are still young, so far, so good; the parenting ideas from those two books are holding up, at least to this point. But I have to admit that in another 15 years or so, I might be writing another book titled I'm Sorry, They Seemed Like Good Ideas at the Time!
My latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You will be published in June (apologies for the shameless plug) and, yes, it is based largely on my actual parenting experiences. Now that I'm hip deep in real parenting, I have learned more than a few things about what it takes to be a decent parent (I say 'decent' because trying to be a great parent often leads to the problems that result in horrible parents).
Though I just wrote a lengthy book about what I have learned as a parent, I think I can distill what parents need to do to raise healthy children down three simple words (so if you read this post, I suppose you won't need to buy my new book, thus mitigating my shameless plug).
The first word is calm. As any parent will attest, raising children is an emotional roller coaster with soaring highs, involving love, joy, and pride, and plummeting lows that include fear, frustration, anger, and despair. Moreover, children have the ability to bring out the worst in us. Once they learn what our hot buttons are, they just keep on pushing until they get what they want, either another cookie or to see their parents lose it. And lose it parents do. A recent informal poll I conducted with friends found that every single parent I questioned get so angry at their children that they yell at them regularly.
Yet the ability to remain calm in the storm of family life is essential to children's healthy development for several reasons. First, losing control and yelling at children is truly terrifying to them. When parents yell at their children, they are sending messages of hate to those whom they are supposed to love the most and be loved by the most.
Second, children look to their parents to be their safe haven in a world that, through their eyes and limited experience and capabilities, is really scary. What message do parents send to their children by losing control? That even their parents aren't strong enough to protect them from that scary world in which they live or, even worse, that their parents are part of that scary world. And, sadly, for some parents, yelling is just one step away from physical abuse.
Third, calm is especially important when children get out of control with either seemingly inconsolable crying or temper tantrums. When parents yell at their children, the children's emotional maelstrom is only heightened. Equanimity, in turn, conveys the message to them that their parents are unruffled and in control (a real challenge, to be sure) and that things are going to be okay.
Finally, where do you think most parents learned to yell when they get angry? From their parents, of course. And when parents lose control with their children, they're sending the message that yelling is an acceptable way of expressing anger and they pass the yelling "gene" on to their children.
Of course, parents are human and can't be expected to be Zen-like with their children all the time. Occasional loss of control and yelling will probably do no harm and might, in fact, send a healthy messages to children, namely, that their behavior can hurt others, and that everyone has their limits and that's a not a place children should go.
The second word is tough. If you haven't gotten a sense from my previous writing, I'm not a touchy-feely kind of guy. Yes, I'm loving to my children, but I'm also very tough on them. But tough doesn't mean being angry, callous, or punitive. Rather, being tough means knowing what is best for children and don't what is best for them whether they like it or not. It also means establishing expectations and consequences about what is acceptable behavior, and staying firm in the face of sometimes vociferous resistance. If parents give in and lose the battle of wills, their children may have a temporary victory, but they will certainly lose the war.
Being tough is so important for children because, though they aren't going to admit it, having unfettered freedom to do as they choose is actually scary to them. The boundaries that parents provide when they are firm helps them feel secure because they can't trust themselves to set safe and comfortable limits. Also, being tough prepares children for a "real world" that, especially these days, is really tough. Being tough also counters the messages from popular culture that children should be able to have and do whatever they want, whenever they want, and however they want.
The final word is persistence. Let's be honest here. Raising children is frustrating and exhausting. The old parenting cliche "How many times have I told you no?" says it all. You can tell your children something a hundred times and they still don't get it. It's just so easy to throw up your hands in despair and say "I give up." But when you do that, what you are really saying is "I give up on myself and my children." And that reaction, however strong and seductive it is, will do your children no good.
But you must be persistent. Because if you don't keep sending those healthy messages to your children, they turn their attention and get their messages from elsewhere, most likely the one source of messages that is relentlessly persistent, namely, popular culture. And I can assure you that those are messages that you don't want your children to get.
No matter how tired or frustrated you get, or how pointless sending messages to your kids seems, never, ever give up because you know what? They may seem not to hear, ignore what you say, or do the exact opposite of what you are asking, but they are listening and after, say, a few thousand times, they will probably say, "Why didn't you say so in the first place?"
So post those three words -- calm, tough, and persistent -- on your fridge, put them on your screensaver, or tattoo them on your forehead, whatever it takes so that you don't forget them. Of course, saying those three simple words is easy; the hard part is putting them into action. Unfortunately, I don't have the space to tell you how to do that. You may just have to buy my book after all to figure that part out!