If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.
Laurence J. Peter, US educator & writer (1919 – 1988)
Parenting is the most important job in the world. Sometimes, we try so hard to learn how to be good parents that we forget what the main goals of parenting are. If we don’t keep them in mind, then when things get tough, we may lose sight of the forest due to fighting with the trees. Whether you find yourself agreeing with the goals I state here or not, I think you’ll agree it’s important to get in touch with your own “big picture”
Simply stated, I think that the “big picture” goals are:
- Love your children.
- Teach your children to be good, moral people., and give them foundational principles
- Teach your children how to think critically, using the foundational principles you have taught them
- Help them grow to their full individual potential at each developmental stage
- Remember that they need to become capable, fully functional adults, and help them set their goals accordingly
Now let’s expand on each of these, and see how to put them into action.
Love your children
Our children can do without a lot, but they can’t do without our love. This is true from birth to death; children need to know they are loved by their parents. How do we show them that we love them? We give of ourselves. Not our money, but our selves. As babies, we touch them and look into their eyes. As youngsters, we pay attention to them, play with them, comfort them. As teenagers, we let know them know that we respect them, even if we disagree with them. As young adults, we show our love by trusting them to find their own solutions, and as always, by giving them our time, on their time.
Teach your children to be good, moral people
Our children need our guidance. As babies and toddlers, they are impulsive and self-oriented, which is how they should be. Little by little, we teach them how to put others first when appropriate. One of the rules in preschool is “we don’t hurt people, animals or things”, and it’s a good rule throughout life. We teach them how to make choices that good people make. Making those choices gets more difficult as we get older and life gets more complicated. That’s why we need foundational principles, so that when the going gets tough, we already have a blueprint.
For many of us, that blueprint is the Bible and the Ten Commandments. Some parents say, “I don’t want to impose a religion on my children. They can decide when they get older.” I believe this makes it almost certain that they won’t decide at all. It’s hard to pick between chocolate and vanilla when you’ve never been exposed to ice cream at all. If you think religion is important at all, then it’s worth finding a worship home and taking the time to become a part of it. This helps you to teach the foundational principles of how to be a good person to your child.
If you aren’t religious at all, you can still do this. When your child asks, “Why isn’t ok to…”, rather than point to the Ten Commandments, you may go straight to the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated” (which of course is in the Bible as “Love your neighbor as you love yourself”… but I digress.) The main idea is to help your children have a code to live by, and to recognize that not everything they want to do is necessarily the right thing to do.
Teach your children how to think critically
Our children are first part of our families, next part of their school and perhaps a team, and as adults are citizens of the country and ultimately of the world. They will have a lot of decisions to make and opinions to form about how the world is run. To be contributing members of society, they will need to learn how to think, how to form an opinion, how to reason through a decision. It’s a difficult skill, and one that even some of our decision-makers in politics seem to lack.
Even in their childhood and teen years, they will need to think critically. Remember your mother asking, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?” You know the answer is supposed to be no, but when everyone else is doing something or thinking something, it’s important to be able to form your own opinion. Our children need our help in learning how to do this.
Help them grow to their full individual potential
Each one of our children is a unique individual, with their own skills, strengths, weaknesses and talents. Every parent of an adult child will tell you that certain aspects of personality seemed to be present almost from birth. Sometimes I think that our main job as parents is to carefully and lovingly observe our children, and let them teach us about their own special personality.
So at every stage, give your child opportunities to develop their innate talents. If they have trouble in certain areas, try to help them strengthen those weaker skills. Recognize that just as you have preferences, they do too. Some of these change with exposure to new things, and some don’t. Guide them, but loosely, and give them lots of things to try and learn from.
Help them leave the nest, and start preparing them early
Every era has its strengths and weaknesses. I believe that currently our society, especially the middle and upper socioeconomic classes, has a hard time letting children grow into independent adults. I don’t know if it’s because as baby-boomers we never quite grew up, or if it just seems too hard to say “no” and give that little push out of the nest. Whatever it is, we seem to have so many young adults who aren’t ready to function independently well into their twenties and beyond. To me this is a tragedy, and a terrible waste of human potential.
True self-esteem comes from feeling truly competent. Children of every age take great pride in accomplishing tasks on their own, and so little by little we need to given our children genuine work to do, and genuine choices to make. This is true even if they make mistakes. How else will they learn? As a society, we seem to behave as though our children are so fragile that any failure, any rejection will destroy them. It’s not true, but if we believe it, so will they.
If you love your child, and you know them reasonably well and trust their judgment, and you’ve helped them develop some skills along the way, then it won’t be too hard to say, “At this point, I think you’ll be ready to be on your own, and so that’s what I expect.”
You start by teaching them how to take care of themselves physically, by keeping themselves and their living spaces clean and organized. Next they need to learn how to plan and accomplish tasks, at school and at home, and to do so by deadlines that others may have set. All along you’ve been teaching them to follow the rules at home and elsewhere, and to pay the consequences if they don’t.
As they get older, they learn to handle money, a great metaphor in our society for so many things. They learn to earn it, save it, plan how to spend it, and decide between purchases. They probably learn that it’s hard to earn as much money as they want to have, and so they learn skills to be able to earn more money. They learn that they have to wait to buy big things, and they learn the pleasure that waiting can bring. Above all they learn that they can make it in the world, and there is no better gift that you can give them.
Hopefully, this article has given you food for thought. As I said before, you may not agree with my list of goals. Hopefully, though, you’ll develop your own “big picture” goals as you travel down the always exciting road of parenting.