Do you want to make your children safe or strong?
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Do you want to make your children safe or strong?

I’m in the middle of reading Jordan Peterson’s extremely thought-provoking book, 12 Rules For Life:  An Antidote To Chaos.  This is no fluff or quick-read self-helpy book; rather it’s a slow, deep read that really stretches your brain.  One chapter at a time is all I can do.  It feels great reading something that stretches me beyond my regular reading and comprehension level.

This question points to our parenting style these days – one of disabling our children by creating every safety net feasible and attempting to plug up each hole in the net so there’s no fall-out.  We are the net, we are the plugs for all the holes, we are the everything to ensure our kids’ safety; while also ensuring their inability to cope and manage their lives and its inevitable challenges.

Of course we want to protect our children, that’s a given.  But in our emphasis on safety, we’ve given up on raising our children with the resiliency, coping skills and character strengths that will enable them to live high-quality lives with the inner resources to deal with life’s pain and loss.

We are not preparing them to meet life with strength and competence when we:

Expect perfection

Remove responsibility

Make it all better all the time

Here are three ways to start focusing on raising the competent child and future adult you want to see:

1. There is no such thing as perfection.  Inherent in our humanness is imperfection and flaws.  We are in a perpetual state of evolving and growing.  It is growth and improvement that is to be encouraged and acknowledged as a life-long endeavor towards living a rich and meaningful life.

So let’s not do our children’s homework so that it ‘looks good’ and they get a perfect grade/score.  When I worked in Pre-K we always had a good laugh when four year old Shaun, among many others, came in to class with his homework: a perfectly cut out apple or beautifully colored in-the-lines picture of a pumpkin.  Who did their homework last night??  Not little Shaun!  We all know the rationale for that: parent wants child to look good which makes parent look good, parent wants child to appear competent and smart.  The child of course learns nothing, doesn’t feel the pride of a job well done, and gets to avoid putting in the effort of practicing which would strengthen his muscle of persistence and stick-to-itiveness.

Kids need to feel it’s OK to make mistakes.  That way they won’t be afraid to keep trying.  Otherwise, we just stop after the first fall or failure and give up saying, “I can’t”, “I won’t”.  So parents, check in with yourselves: is it truly OK to make mistakes, to not be perfect?

Tal Ben-Shahar, positive psychology author and teacher, has a great line: “Learn to fail or fail to learn.”  Success and doing things great don’t come right away, and not without effort and oftentimes some big bumps to get over.  For as we know, success is a squiggly line, not a straight line upward.

2. Taking responsibility and being accountable moves us from victim to victor.  We take charge of ourselves and our lives and know that we can change things; if not our circumstance, then our response to it.  We own our behaviors and don’t assign blame.  We don’t fall into victimhood which promotes pity, helplessness and ‘stuckness’.

So when we deliver our child’s forgotten lunch (even if it’s a long trek to school from our job) we are taking away responsibility from them.  They do learn something powerful though: they don’t have to remember or be responsible for their lunch because we will do it for them.  We all say we want our kids to do certain things for themselves and be responsible, but they won’t learn responsibility if we don’t give them the opportunities; meaning we don’t clean up their mess.  Remember, mistakes are OK – it’s how we learn and continue on.  The forgotten items, the mistakes, the mess-ups are these teachable responsibility times.  When I stopped paying the late fees for my daughter’s overdue library books, they miraculously got back to the library on time.  Once she had to pay for it, she felt it and became more responsible with her books.

When we keep stepping in to save the day, with all our naturally good and loving intentions, we rob our children of the important skills and strengths they need to develop and grow into the competent adults they are capable of.

When problems come up, having those conversations with our kids that look to problem-solve instead of blame and point fingers, cultivates their self-efficacy (their belief that they can handle the situation) in how they meet and manage in the world.

‘Response  ability’ – our ability to respond to empower our lives.

3. Now here’s a given: We don’t like those negative feelings like fear, sadness, jealousy, frustration, anger.  They make us uncomfortable both in ourselves and when we see them in others.  As a society, we look to numb and squelch them by excessive distractions like over-shopping, working, screen-time, and by quick fixes like pill-popping and more extreme forms of addictions.  Once again I give you a line from Tal Ben-Shahar:  We must give ourselves “permission to feel”.   As human beings we are bestowed with a full palette of emotions, the positive as well as the negative ones.  He likes to say that they all pass through the same pipeline.  When we push down and close off the negative feelings, we’re closing off the positive as well.

As loving parents, we want our kids to feel good and be happy.  We want to make it all better so they’re back to feeling happy again.  It hurts us when they’re hurting or upset.  We are extremely uncomfortable with our children’s discomfort and their struggles and want to immediately take it away.  “Don’t be scared”, “don’t cry” are common responses.  But they’re dismissive and disconnecting.  Think about it – why not feel scared or sad if something is making them (or us) feel that way?  We as adults don’t like when someone tries to talk us out of our feelings; we feel not heard and not understood.  It certainly doesn’t foster connection or emotional healing.

We need to teach our children to manage their negative feelings.  It’s in our allowing (giving permission) them to feel their difficult feelings and acknowledging them that we show that all their feelings – disappointment, fear, embarrassment, shame, irritability – are normal and natural.  This is the beginning of emotional intelligence (EQ) which research now says is a greater predictor of life success than IQ.  It behooves us as parents to not take away or deny their sadness by running in to make it all better.  We need not run out and buy another doll to replace their favorite {broken} one.  How will they learn to deal with the grief of losing a loved one?  This may seem like a far stretch but we must teach our children to sit with the feelings of upset and loss.  Feelings can be strong, and they need to know they can be handled.  So later on when the going gets really tough, they’ll have the inner strength and resolve to cope in healthy ways.

Brene Brown says, “I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.”

So while we keep our children safe, let’s also focus on building their strength and inner resources to give them the best shot at having a great life, challenges and all.

2 thoughts on “Do you want to make your children safe or strong?

  1. Hi Harriet,

    I haven’t read “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos,” but have downloaded the book, so will be reading it soon. Your article is on target about allowing our children to take responsibility for their lives. I have found that our children usually rise up to the challenges of life when we step out of the way and take a supportive role and let go of trying to control every situation. It helps our children learn resilience and live a more productive life.

  2. Harriet says:

    Hi Cathy,
    So nice to see you here.
    Yes, children do step up to the plate when we step out of the way. The hard part is getting us parents to do just that, and allow our kids to step up even if they may stumble and fall/fail at first or more often. The work is much more on the parents at this point. I always stress ‘support’ as opposed to doing for them.

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