Friday, October 19th, 2007
How to Raise your Children to be the Type of Adults You Want Them to Be
Alternate title: Parenting Vision Statements: Useful or a Bunch of Hooey?
Eight months before our first child was born, I spelled out what I wanted for my kid in a letter to a local newspaper. I was responding to another letter writer who was lamenting that gay people exist and that they sometimes want to marry each other. My wife kept a copy for our baby book.
“We were saddened by [name redacted] letter (Oct. 21) expressing intolerance for gay people and gay unions. If we see a same-gender couple kiss or hold hands in public we are no more alarmed than seeing different-gender couples expressing the same values of love and commitment.
We still believe in the ideal we are taught as children, that America is a land of freedom where all people are entitled to equal rights, even those people different than ourselves. As adults, we know that is a faint dream, but one worth working toward.
As a married couple, and expectant parents, we will raise our child by the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. If we give birth to a gay son or daughter, that’s OK. We will be more concerned that our child is raised to believe in trust, honesty, and acceptance, and eventually earns gainful employment, finds true love and makes peace with his or her creator.”
Today I’m thinking about parent vision statements, a concise description of the qualities we want our children to have or achieve in adulthood.
My letter was a good start, but could be summarized as, “I want my child to be happy.” That’s why my wife thinks a vision statement is a bunch of hooey. “They’re so global as to be useless,” she says.
Point taken. There are a million ways to be happy. I could set my kids up for a short life attending raves doped up on ecstasy.
But under the threat of having nothing to blog about, we sat down and independently wrote vision statements consisting of one sentence that hit upon three things we want for our children, things we will work to support as long as we’re alive.
My wife: “My children will be self confident, resilient, and live a life concerned about the people in the community and world around them.”
Me: “We will raise our children to be ambitious, empathetic, and have a spirit of endurance.”
We avoided words like “being happy” or “fulfilled” because for us that goes without saying. Everyone seeks happiness in their lives, and it’s not a quality you instill in someone. It’s an end result caused by other qualities of your personality.
I was surprised that we came up with essentially the same values. I’ll talk about each one and give examples of how we are working to instill those qualities in our 3-year-old daughter.
1. Self-confidence — For us, self-confidence is not about believing in your ability to accomplish a task. You can believe all you want, but still be hindered by fear. So, we define self-confidence as acting without being restrained by fear.
Example 1: We attended an open house at our local volunteer fire department last weekend where a junior fireman’s training course was set up for kids. All of the families were waiting a block away to take rides on an antique fire truck. So there we were standing alone surrounded by modern fire trucks, and looking at the kid’s course from afar.
“Why is that thing (a CPR dummy) lying on the ground?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, I want to know about it.”
“Well, you need to go ask the fireman.”
“Will you go with me?”
“No, I’m going to stay right here. You know where I am if you need me.”
So my daughter approached the strange fireman and asked about the dummy, then proceeded to go through the training course with a firewoman. This was a big deal for us because our daughter, having not attended daycare and primarily been in playgroups with only one or two kids at a time, is quiet and severely shy around strangers. She is beginning to break free.
Example 2: Our daughter attends a weekly Capoeria class, which is a fusion of martial arts and dance originating from Brazil, often marked by mock sparring between two performers. The class itself is great for self-confidence because it’s so physical and interactive with other dancers as other participants cheer you on. In our circle of friends it has become the hip alternative to ballet or gymnastics.
This week’s class was led by a male substitute teacher instead of the usual female one. Afterward, this conversation took place:
“I didn’t like having that man be my teacher.”
“Well, he’s a stranger.”
“But he was a substitute.”
“He was OK. He knew how to teach, but he was a stranger and I don’t like strangers.”
After she was told the difference between good and bad strangers she was asked how she’ll feel seeing him next week.
“He’ll still be a stranger, but he’ll be a repeat stranger. So he won’t be as bad, but I like the girls better.”
We’re dealing with self-confidence by talking through her fears, even proactively asking her how she feels about a given situation. When she’s afraid, we treat her fear as normal, but don’t over-emphasize or over-coax her into trying to face her fear.
We also don’t give her safe alternatives. If she didn’t dance with the male instructor she would have sat and watched the other kids perform, and that’s OK. If she didn’t approach the fireman, she would have lived with the mystery of the CPR dummy, and that’s OK. Instead, she faced her fears and gave herself her own reward.
2. Ambition — Being ambitious means establishing and working toward personal goals. It means wanting something better for yourself and others. People often equate ambition with perfectionism or the pursuit of money, but I consider the quality of always wanting to grow as a person.
Example 1: Our then-2-year-old daughter wanted a library card. We told her the librarian requires that she sign her name on the card. So, learn to write your name by your birthday and you can get a library card. And she did.
Example 2: As we prepare for our second child due in March, our daughter has mentioned a number of times that she wants to read to the baby after it’s born. To her, this meant reciting books she has memorized. I told her she has to learn to really read in order to share books with the baby. So, at preschool she is increasingly taking an interest in learning her “letter sounds.”
We don’t give her everything she wants. Some things require setting goals and working toward them.
3. Resilience or Endurance — Resilience to my wife means being “able to bounce back from bad circumstances and always have hope for the future.”
Meanwhile, endurance probably seems like an odd quality to yearn for. I chose that word because I once worked in an office for several years led by what we later discovered was a criminally insane boss. I was sheltered from much of the daily mayhem, but you know things are bad when a coworker is drawing inspiration from a book about Earnest Shackleton. (His 1914 Antarctic expedition was trapped on the ice for 22 months, but survived through sheer endurance.) I’m sure Tom Hanks will play Shackleton someday.
I want my children to bear the unbearable and see that obstacles can be overcome. It’s not simply having the courage to stay the course (perseverance), but know that your problems today are transitory, that things will get better.
Example 1: We began reading Heidi yesterday. In the first four pages you learn that Heidi’s mother has died, and Heidi is being taken by her aunt to live with a grandfather she has never met. This conversation took place:
“What do you think so far?”
“Heidi is four, but I like to think she’s three. But she’s very brave.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, she’s going to meet her grandpa who is a stranger, but it will be OK
because grandpas love their granddaughters and she’s very brave.”
A child who doesn’t understand the concept of resilience is not going to imagine that, at least not after the first four pages.
Example 2: A month ago our daughter was using her travel potty in the trunk of our car, but my dear wife forgot to place the requisite gallon Ziploc bag on the potty to catch the waste. Our daughter really did pee in the car trunk. Her reaction wasn’t to cry or fret. Her response was a facial expression that basically said, “Well, there’s pee in the car. Let’s clean it up Mom.”
We may laugh, but we don’t lament mistakes. Clean up the pee and move on. Wet your pants? Let’s change your pants and move on. You’ll do better next time honey.
That’s resilience, but is it endurance? Well, think about how long potty training takes, how long it seems to kids, and the shame and embarrassment they feel when wetting their pants. It’s a challenge, but how they handle the challenge depends on how you handle their challenge.
Don’t blow mistakes out of proportion, and certainly don’t blame your child for unintentional actions. Grin and bear it. Move on.
4. Empathy or being concerned about the people in the community and world around you — My wife wants our children to be the opposite of selfish and egotistical, to be concerned about politics, social issues, the environment, essentially everything. I take the broader view that a person with empathy can understand and sympathize with peoples’ situations and feelings, and from that you will be concerned about your community and the world.
Example 1: My wife is volunteering one day a week at our preschool. A child pinched his finger, nothing major, but he cried. Every child in the room looked up to see what was happening. Kids throughout the room could be heard asking, “Is he going to be OK?” Some children, including our daughter, stopped their activity and walked over to observe the teacher comforting the child.
Example 2: In a cat-bath-gone-wrong, a claw was embedded in my wife’s arm. Not a scratch, but a good sinker. Afterward, our daughter put her arm around her mother and said, “Mama, I’m here for you if you need me.”
How do you teach empathy? You role model the behavior. When your child gets hurt you rush to help with genuine concern, but when a spouse gets a minor booboo do you act the same way? No, because your spouse is an adult, but you do need to rush over and be concerned. Kids learn the most from observing your daily behavior during normal, uninteresting moments.
Oh yeah, vision statements
Is a vision statement useful? I don’t know. It has gotten me thinking about things I need to begin or resume doing to model the behaviors I want my children to learn. For example, I need to resume volunteer activities that I dropped when I became a dad. Maybe we’ll start by cleaning up litter in our neighborhood and move up as we find activities that can involve both of us. I need to model empathy, and involve my children in my volunteering.
If you want a strong, confident empathic, resilient, ambitious child you have to be all of those things yourself. That’s the real challenge of parenting. It’s not enough to always be your best. You have to reassess your life and change into the type of person you want your child to be. You can do that many ways; I started with a vision statement.
I’m curious how other parents would frame their vision statements. Say, a deeply religious family, or for a child living with severe disabilities. Have you and your spouse, without sharing or talking first, write a vision statement. Limit it to one sentence, short enough to memorize. It will make you do some deep thinking about precisely what’s important in life.
Step 1. Thinga-reader Eric introduced me yesterday to the Game Theorist blog where I found a post about Parenting Vision Statements (though I disagree with the blogger’s premise that you’ve failed as a parent if the vision isn’t achieved. I consider visions intangible, something you’re always pursuing because you’re always growing as a person).
Step 2. I recalled that Thinga-reader Priscilla queried me for ideas six months ago about “how to help shape a child into a compassionate, caring child.” Wow, I didn’t have a good answer, but knew it would be an interesting article to write. Where would I start? Ohhhhh!