“…our children don’t belong to us. They are both a loan and a gift from God, and the gift has strings attached. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. The children’s job is to find their own path in life. If they stay carefully protected in the nest of the family, children will become weak and fearful or feel too comfortable to want to leave.”-- The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by psychologist Wendy Mogel.
If you haven’t read The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, it’s a great read for a parent at any stage. Written by a psychologist, it highlights how much of the “sickness” she was treating in her teen patients was not individual sickness, but rather a culture or family sickness. Families often have misguided expectations and goals. They want the best for their children, yet somehow steer their parental lessons in the wrong direction. In my psychiatric work with teens and young adults, it’s the same.
Too many families are focused on “success” defined as academic or other types of achievement, while too few are teaching the necessary skills for survival after kids leave home. In a similarly themed book, The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, PhD, the author writes: “Indulged, coddled, pressured and micromanaged on the outside, my young patients appeared to be inadvertently deprived of the opportunity to develop an inside. They lack the secure, reliable, welcoming internal structure that we call the ‘self.'”
So how can parents avoid the pitfalls of misguided lessons, while fostering the development of a well-developed, healthy sense of ‘self’ with a toolbox full of necessary skills?
1. Start with a simple family tradition of teaching kids to be grateful. Gratitude is a powerful tool for happiness, as well as for the development of a healthy sense of self. Most religious traditions encourage the use of gratitudes as a spiritual practice.
2. Think of your role with your children in terms of your larger mission. When you are no longer available to advise your children, what lessons would you like them to be left with? Are you routinely moving them toward those goals today?
3. Remember that your child’s most difficult qualities are also the seeds of her best qualities. If he’s a daydreamer, he may be creating elaborate stories while he drifts off from his math homework. If she is a defiant teen, perhaps she has the seeds of a leader.
4. Children shouldn’t be admonished for their desires. But that doesn’t mean they should be indulged either. Their desires are automatic and not the result of disrespect, but even when normal, wish fulfillment doesn’t get to run the show.
5. Foster positive impulses, like generosity. Most children are naturally kind and generous. Give them opportunities to practice and expand on those inclinations. For younger children, donating old toys is a simple way to begin. For teens, volunteering for a community cause is a marvelous way to give.
6. Make rules, kids learn from their roles in the family. Whether they help clean up after dinner, or perform a list of chores- reward good behavior so they have an opportunity to feel good about themselves that’s not tied to achievement or success.
7. Teach manners. A firm handshake and a polite greeting can go a long way in the world. And kids need to remember to keep in mind the needs of others rather than only consider their own desires.
8. Spend time together as a family. Whether during nightly family dinners, a weekly outing, or a movie night, even teens need to stay connected with their nuclear families and to learn to schedule regular down time.
9. Let your kids take risks. For smaller children, perhaps that means letting them fall off their bicycles. For teens, it may mean letting them go out unsupervised. Stretch the limits of your own comfort here, parents!
10. Allow your kids to experience discomfort. Let them fail. Let them struggle to solve relationship problems without your involvement. As an adult, you probably have lots of experience solving problems, but your kids need opportunities to learn.
11. Spend less time worrying about your child, and more time believing in him.
12. From The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: “If your child has a talent to be a baker, don’t ask him to be a doctor… Your child is not your masterpiece.”
Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.