Of the many people who enter my office or seek my support over the course of a school year, a significant portion are parents who are feeling anxious and unsuccessful with their children. Despite their efforts to encourage their children to express their feelings, to provide for their wants and needs abundantly, and to educate them on the reasons for household rules, these parents often feel that they are losing control. These are good parents, and yet conflict is the norm in the home. The parents see their children as angry and demanding, despite the parents’ efforts to provide tons of attention and entertainment for them.
One of my favorite books on this topic is Dr. Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. While the book draws on the wisdom of Jewish tradition, it offers useful ideas and a return to sanity for parents of any faith who are trying to uphold their own values in a culture of fear, materialism, and self-interest. The book gives us hope for raising self-reliant, ethical, and compassionate children in today’s world. Dr. Mogel’s fundamental proposition is that children develop character and learn mastery by being allowed to fall and “skin their knees.”
Dr. Mogel doesn’t present a foolproof plan for parenting, rather she gives a fresh perspective on how we can view our world and our families. She offers guidance for working through the dilemmas of everyday life in this difficult world of ours.
THE PRINCIPLES OF PARENTING
- Accept that your children are both unique and ordinary.
- Teach them to honor their parents and to respect others – family, friends, and community.
- Teach them to be resilient, self-reliant, and courageous.
- Teach them to be grateful for their blessings.
- Teach them the value of work.
- Teach them to make their table an “altar” – to approach food with an attitude of moderation, celebration, and sacredness
- Teach them to accept rules and to exercise self-control
- Teach them about the preciousness of the present moment
- Teach them about your own spirituality.
Would you be surprised to learn that children who are raised with indulgence often grow up to feel unlovable, to require constant affirmation, to lack some basic life skills, and to lack self-sufficiency?
Yet, even when they know this, some parents become deeply enmeshed in their children’s lives. No matter how busy they are, or what other issues need to be tended to, these parents remain preoccupied with their child’s problems. They fret and fix, rather than enjoy time with their children. They do schoolwork for their children, or hire coaches to give their child a leg up on playground games of kickball or basketball. They review every homework assignment before it is turned in, and cannot allow their child to walk to the neighbor’s house alone.
Dr. Mogel points out that fear typically motivates these parents. And it’s no wonder that parents are afraid! Turning on the nightly news can bring stories of murder, abduction, and other forms of mayhem right into the family home. A healthy sense of caution and concern for children is a necessity in successful parenting. However, worrying parents raise worrying children who come to see the world as an overwhelming and threatening place. It’s necessary to separate rational, legitimate concerns from neurotic over-protectiveness. When we overprotect children, we place the burden of our fears on their shoulders as well. Dr. Mogel encourages parents to put common sense ahead of emotion when addressing their own fears about their children’s wellbeing.
So, how does a parent know the worry they are feeling is excessive? Dr. Mogel offers a few warning signs. You may be worrying too much if:
- You notice that even during seemingly perfect moments, you are thinking about potential troubles ahead.
- Your child seems overly cautious or anxious.
- Your spouse, your child’s teachers, and/or your friends tell you, “I don’t know what you’re so worried about.”
Dr. Mogel’s recommended strategy to combat useless worry is to employ the “Twenty Minute Rule.” Allow yourself to worry about your child’s problems for exactly twenty minutes each day, no more. When the twenty minutes are up, make yourself think about something else.
If you would like for your child to grow, you will need to learn to step back and withdraw your power from time to time. The world these children will occupy as adults is complex, with many challenges. When we overprotect children, they become trapped in our fears. Really protecting our children involves teaching them to manage risks on their own, rather than shielding them from every thinkable hazard. Dr. Mogel says, “If children don’t have the chance to be bad, they can’t choose to be good. If they don’t have the chance to fail, they can’t learn. And if they aren’t allowed to face scary situations, they’ll grow up frightened of life’s simplest challenges.” Taking a step back and allowing children some independence can be nerve-wracking, but it is vital to their healthy development.
As difficult as it can be for parents, it is also important to allow children to experience what Dr. Mogel calls “ordinary unhappiness.” Many parents today strive to protect their children from all pain, whether physical or emotional. Normal emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration, fear and even boredom are unacceptable. Only endless joy and excitement will do. Unfortunately, this mindset does a disservice to children. One characteristic of resilient people is that they can tolerate some emotional distress. When parents rush in to rescue or shield, their children do not get the opportunity to learn that they can suffer and recover on their own.
Here are some more tips for breaking the over-protectiveness habit:
- Know when to insist that your child be independent. Dr. Mogel writes, "Having the courage not to pamper or overprotect your child means that sometimes she will be uncomfortable, or unhappy, or even in peril, but that you are willing to take a chance because of your commitment to her growth and development."
- Get children into the habit of solving their own problems. Be careful not to rush in too soon. Try to think of yourself as a coach, not a rescuer. Help your child think and solve problems for themselves.
- Permit your child to make his/her own decisions. While not appropriate for every circumstance, allowing a child to exercise free will does not constitute permissive parenting. Instead, it allows a child to choose, badly at times, and to learn from mistakes.
- Let your child experience the world, warts and all. If we protect children from people who are different, inappropriate, or challenging, they will be too easily frightened and shocked as adults. Try to see the difficult student in your child’s class, or the teacher with whom you butt heads, or individuals with disabilities and differences as opportunities for your child to learn.
- Teach your child not to panic over pain, and don’t panic yourself! Children often gauge how upset they ought to be by watching their parents’ reactions and cues. When a parent reacts with panic, a child will too. As Dr. Mogel states, “Treating children’s daily distresses as an expected and un-alarming part of life is an effective way to discourage them from turning small difficulties into big dramas.” We can help children learn to copy by remaining calm and demonstrating our own resiliency.
- Remember that your children will and should leave you one day. Think of yourself as a hothouse gardener, raising plants for the outdoors by gradually exposing them to hot and cold temperatures. Prepare your child to handle life’s ups and downs by teaching them to tolerate some stresses and extremes!
Next: Read about the Blessing of Longing, or how we can teach children to adopt an attitude of gratitude.
Kate Fierce is the Lower and Middle School Guidance Counselor at Shorecrest Preparatory School. Shorecrest believes in a school-parent partnership to provide the best possible outcome for students. To learn more, join us for a personal tour of our St. Petersburg, FL private school campus.