Last fall, Max Sanders* did one of those things that gets a child’s picture on the front page of the newspaper. The nine-year-old created a calendar featuring drawings he’d done of his favourite birds and, with the help of parents, relatives and friends, got some printed and sold enough copies to raise $1,000 for a community in Zimbabwe.
I have two reactions to stories like this.
One is: “Geez, none of my children ever did anything like that.”
The other is: “Wow! What a great kid.”
There’s a heartfelt, admiring way people say that phrase sometimes with the emphasis on the word great. We all hope somebody says that about our child someday.
Can you raise a kid to be like that?
I doubt that many people build their parenting strategy around extra-ordinary achievements. But lots of us aim for a child who matches one of the following great kid definitions offered to me by some parents.
“A great kid is one you enjoy spending time with and one who enjoys spending time with you.”
“A kid that most people like and like to be with. One who’s confident and kind, compassionate but fun, not show-offy or whiny.”
“One who cares about others, but also himself. A great kid knows right from wrong and is strong enough to make smart decisions even when they are the harder ones.
Sounds good. But whatever your vision of a great kid is, I’d throw in a proviso: the realities of child development. Children go through ages and stages as they grow, and not every one of those moments is pretty. I’ve seen stormy toddlers morph into delightful eight-year-olds, and sullen, monosyllabic teenagers blossom into engaging, capable young people. Raising a great kid is a process rather than an end result. Still, we do want our kids to be great (at least sometimes!) while they’re growing, as well as when they’re grown.
Martha Whatley, a pretty wise mother of four from Lakefield, Ont., helped me zero in on a useful way to think about how to raise a great kid. “I think you have to know your child not just as a kid, but as a person,” she told me. “There’s the child you’re responsible for, the one you care for and guide, but there’s also the unfolding person who exists outside of the relationship. I’ve always had the feeling that kids are born to be who they are, and our job is to help that person come out and to support them with whatever issues they need support with.”
In other words, think of your child as two entities. One is a work-in-progress with lots to learn. But in another sense any child, at any point in her life, is who she is supposed to be right now and, as such, is worthy of our honour and respect. Our job is to nurture and support both the work-in-progress and the me-right-now.
And as I see it, that big responsibility breaks down into four tasks. Actually, make that five. First off, there needs to be a caring relationship. Just about anything good that can come of child rearing is rooted in a strong parent-child connection.
Assuming the relationship is in place, here are the four keys to raising a great kid.
How can a child treat others with respect and dignity if she is not treated that way by those who love and nurture her? This idea is a big one for bestselling parenting author Barbara Coloroso. “Children don’t have to prove their worth,” she says. “They are worthy of respect and dignity simply because they exist.”
Coloroso’s acid test for any parenting technique is: If it works and leaves a child’s — and your own — dignity intact, do it; if it doesn’t, don’t. This does not mean kids have to like your discipline methods. You can be firm, consistent and even strict in a respectful way. But hitting, punitive yelling and consequences designed to make a child feel shame do not respect his dignity. “Don’t treat a child in a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself,” says Coloroso. Do you want to be screamed at when you break a glass? If not, why would it be OK to scream at your daughter for the same infraction?
Not only does Coloroso see respect as every child’s entitlement, she believes there are long-term benefits. “We don’t want to teach kids simply how to control those who are weaker than they are, do we?” she says.
Respecting a child — particularly the child’s individuality — can also have the more immediate effect of bringing out the best, or at least, better, in a child’s me-right-now.
Max Sanders is a case in point. What’s fascinating about him is that, along with his documented ability to do something great, Max is in some ways even more of a work-in-progress than a lot of kids. He was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD (he’s also been identified as gifted). He’s had some rough patches in his development, particularly at school.
But this past year, his performance at school improved because his new teacher, rather than try to make Max fit school, figured out how to make school fit Max. “She lets him sit off to the side and doodle during storytime,” his dad, Calvin Sanders,* says. “She told me that when she asks Max a question, she can tell he’s been listening and he often has an insightful answer.”
That’s not to say that all kids have to be allowed to experience storytime in any way they want. The point is that when Max was respected and enabled to be who he is, his better attributes came out. “Last year Max was a liability and he felt and acted like one,” says Sanders, a teacher himself. “This year he’s not seen as a problem and he’s valued. He has more friends and he’s much happier at school.”
Giving basic tools for moral behaviour
Many parents are eager to start teaching moral behaviour, but that teaching is of little use if we don’t first help our kids acquire the core abilities that enable conscious moral thinking. These are:
Self-control Even if a child is taught right from wrong, it’s of little value if he can’t stop himself from doing the wrong thing (hoarding all the toys) and make himself do the right thing (sharing).
Emotional regulation A child can’t respond caringly to the distress of another, behave responsibly or achieve great things if he’s a constant emotional mess because he’s overwhelmed by his own frustration, anxiety, anger or excitement.
Conscience As kids mature, moral decisions become more rational, but conscience is where it begins. It starts as a parent’s external voice and gradually becomes their own inner voice.
Empathy We sometimes see initial signs of empathy in babies and toddlers. However, the ability to see another person’s point of view and sympathize with their feelings requires a child to be able to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings different from their own. This isn’t fully developed until around age four.
We don’t exactly hand these tools to our children, and we can’t “make” them develop these attributes according to our schedule; they’ll do so as part of their normal development. But we can help the process along by the everyday garden-variety parenting that comes naturally: babyproofing your house, stopping a child from climbing up the bookcase, comforting one who’s upset, pointing out to kids when their behaviour is unacceptable, and saying things like “Hitting hurts people.”
Some kids acquire these four behavioural attributes more quickly and easily than others. What about children who take longer? We keep trying. We do the teaching, guiding, reminding and supervising, only more often and for longer. It’s not about upping the intensity. It’s more about not giving up.
Connecting behaviour with results
To have a positive impact on the world, children must learn that results, both good and bad, come from their actions, words and decisions. Nancy Eisenberg, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who specializes in children’s social, emotional and moral development, says research shows that kids tend to display more unselfish, caring behaviour if their parents point out how their behaviour affects other people. That doesn’t mean that explanations and reasoning should be our only discipline tools. But it does mean that in the long run, kids learn more from “When you took her toy, you made Jessica sad,” than “Stop that” or “That was a rotten thing to do to your sister.”
These findings also support what people like Coloroso and Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn have been espousing for years. Discipline is about teaching rather than punishment or retribution. Yelling at or removing privileges from a child who breaks a window through her own carelessness teaches her only that the consequence of breaking a window is that she’s in trouble. What she really needs to learn is: what problem was caused by her action; how the problem gets fixed; and her part in fixing it. Depending on a child’s age, that might involve helping to clean up the mess or helping pay for new glass.But, perhaps even more important, children need to learn that their positive behaviour has consequences too — good ones. People listen to you and treat you well when you are nice to them (for more on manners, see Courtesy Calls), it can feel good to help others, and putting the shopping cart away in the corral makes it easier for the next person to park.
We can help kids learn these things by pointing out to them when their actions have had a positive impact. Another part of it is letting them make mistakes. “We need to let kids make mistakes, help them own the mistake, fix it, learn from it and move on,” says Coloroso. “Raising kids is about gradually increasing a child’s responsibilities and decision-making opportunities, and decreasing limits.”
Great people are usually good at a lot of things. They have confidence and a sense of who they are. We can’t just hand these attributes to children. They develop out of experience and opportunities that give kids a chance to learn not only what they’re good at, but where their passions lie.
Opportunity and experience come partly from situations we put our kids in — school, lessons, sports, programs and everyday activities like chores and helping us bake cookies. But early in life, unstructured play is a key but sometimes forgotten aspect of developing thinking and competence. As kids play, they are constantly deciding what to do, trying out ideas and seeing results. This applies to everything from a baby shaking a rattle to a 10-year-old Lego whiz building an ornate structure.
For instance, when Martha Whatley’s son Ian was a young teen, he spent a good part of one summer making an amphibious bike, with outriggers and floats, and paddles attached to the pedals. “At the end of the summer, he managed to get it across a neighbour’s pond,” Whatley says. He never used it again. This was one of several of Ian’s “useless” but highly creative inventions. Another was glasses with battery-operated windshield wipers. “They were enormously silly things, but they actually worked,” Whatley laughs.
My wife and I sometimes joke that Ian, now 19 (and a friend of one of our boys), is the teenager that middle-aged people would pick to be marooned with on a desert island. He has brains, manners and social skills, but above all else, he always seems to know what needs to done and he’s ready to do it, whether it’s studying, planning bike trips and band recording sessions, or simply being helpful. How he got to be this way is likely due to a combination of factors, but I’m convinced the amphibious bike had something to do with it.
Granted, most kids aren’t going to do what Ian did. They’ll be hockey and soccer players, guitar pickers, skateboarders, gymnasts, artists or devisers of grand Dungeons and Dragons scenarios. The point is that when kids find and follow their interests — Ian’s sister is pursuing the much less wacky passion of learning to ride and care for a horse — they learn to solve problems, acquire skills and develop the self-confidence that comes from knowing you can do things that lead to results.
Whatever you do, don’t let me or anyone else tell you there is only one way to raise a great kid. As Whatley says, “I know all kinds of kids. They were all raised differently, and many of them are great. There isn’t really a formula.” All you have to do is look around a bit and you see it’s true: great kids who went to church, great ones who didn’t; ones who excelled in sports, others who wouldn’t know which side of a baseball was up (tricky question, that); kids with strict parents, kids who grew up with very few rules.
And lastly, let’s not think that a great kid is all about illustrious achievement. I recently met a woman employed in the relatively humble occupation of personal support worker in a retirement home. She spends her days making frail, elderly people a little more comfortable. I doubt she’ll ever be famous or rich. But she performs her duties with amazing cheerfulness and kindness. And she loves her job. She’s found her life’s work, she told me.
I’ll bet she was a great kid.
*Names changed by request.