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. Here are the top tips for raising a great kid.
Excerpted from the article "How to raise a great kid," from our July 2008 issue.
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?
To teach moral behaviour, we must first guide our kids toward acquiring four core abilities that enable conscious moral thinking: self-control, emotional regulation, conscience (which starts as a parent’s external voice and gradually becomes the child's own inner voice) and empathy.
We don’t exactly hand these tools to our children — 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 home, 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.”
Discipline is about teaching rather than punishment or retribution. Yelling at or removing privileges from a child who breaks a window 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 it gets fixed; and her part in fixing it. But, perhaps even more important, children need to learn that their positive behaviour has positive consequences, too. People listen to you and treat you well when you are nice to them, it feels good to help others, etc.
It's also important to let 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.
Don’t let me or anyone else tell you there is only one way to raise a great kid. As Martha Whatley, a wise mother of four from Lakefield, Ont., 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, and you see it’s true: great kids who went to church, great ones who didn’t; ones who excelled in sports, others who didn't; kids with strict parents, kids who grew up with few rules.
And lastly, let’s not think that a great kid is all about illustrious achievement. I recently met a woman employed as a personal support worker in a retirement home. She spends her days making elderly people 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.
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