Note: Readership of this blog stretches to over 150 countries and as we prepared to post this particular essay I realized the message is most applicable to parents in the western world…parents who have the time and money to over-complicate things. In much of the developing world where basic survival is the challenge, parents will viscerally understand this mechanical sensibility because they live it every moment.
Flash! Your child doesn’t need a psychologist and neither does your family need a counselor. You don’t have to attend every soccer game. It’s not life and death if you can’t talk to your five year old son every time he needs attention. Your pre-teen daughter will survive without a cell phone. And, the kids can entertain themselves most of the time.
Massive doses of empathy, swooning, and the center spotlight are precisely what your child doesn’t need.
In your own head, expunge guilt and social expectation about child rearing. Stop the hand-wringing. Then, root down with systems mindset simplicity to first identify goals, and then develop a protocol to achieve those goals in order to give your kid a better chance at growing up strong, happy and productive (while assuring that you, the parent, have a life…).
In the systems mindset approach to life, there are just a half dozen fundamentals:
- Keep things simple
- Grasp that the world is a collection of individual 1-2-3 step linear systems
- Understand that every result in your life is the product of one of those systems
- In improving things, stay within your circle of influence
- Always use Point of Sale strategy (Do it now!)
- Trying to make things too perfect will ruin your life
For the record, from 1981 through 1996 – from their grade school years through college – I was the single custodial parent of two children (a boy and a girl, two years apart in age). I had to get everything to work efficiently in order for our little family to survive. From the start – and before the “systems epiphany” occurred that I discuss in Work the System – I realized that raising children is a mechanical task. So I started with the question, “As a parent, what exactly is my job?”
Here are some common aspirations that parents hold for their children. Too often, mom and dad will sweat blood to insure their child will:
make them proud
be a hard worker
be a contributor
put family first
be ecologically aware
have sensitivity toward other cultures
become a good ____________ (Christian, Buddhist, citizen, etc)
become a ____________(Doctor, career military officer, teacher, etc.)
not be a trouble-maker
These aspirations are noble, but there are two huge problems: First, as the child matures, those aspirations fall outside the parent’s circle of influence. And second, they are not at the core of the parent’s responsibility. One must go deeper in order to nail the fundamentals that can actually be affected long-term. By way of example and in order to better portray the systems mindset approach, here’s the strategy I used.
I decided it was my job – and within my capacity – to instill just three primary attributes in my children. If I could do this, they would have self-control and be equipped to forge their own paths. Here are the three simple attributes:
- Strength and resiliency
- Character integrity
- Respect for others
Instilling those three attributes in my children was my “Parenting Strategic Objective.” I calculated that if my kids had strength, stamina and integrity, and were respectful of others, they would be in good shape to decide for themselves what they wanted to do with their lives, what to believe, and how to perform socially. If I could drill home the strength/integrity/respect attributes, I would succeed in my job.
Yes, it goes without saying that it is critical that children be provided opportunities, be challenged mentally and physically, and that they are channeled into a variety of learning experiences…but that is not the point of this post.
My absurdly simple “Parenting Operating Principle” was this: In every decision that I had to make regarding my children, I asked myself what choice would help them stay honest, become tougher, and maintain respect for others? I ignored the complex psycho-babble and the feel-good theory and I didn’t need a shelf full of child-psychology books to guide my every move.
I challenged my children to make decisions and deal with the consequences.
And, the flip side of the strength/character/respect parenting formula? I would not:
- overprotect them because doing that would not help them develop the thick skin that is necessary in life
- provide incessant praise because that would not be a fair representation of the adult world and it would spoil them
- look the other way when there was even the most minor character lapse with others. No grey area here.
So as I look back to my own parenting experience, here are some examples of how my guidelines translated to the real world. (Of course, your bottom-line parameters could be different and if so, the real-world effects would also translate differently):
1) Grownups and kids together: In a social setting of both adults and children, the child plays a bit-part in the interaction. In this mix, it’s adult conversation. The child watches and learns and is not the centerpiece of the gathering. Be kind: Give your child time to learn and grow by your example. let them be children for a while. Don’t force things. They’ll have their day when they become adults.
2) Who is in charge? The adult. The parent and the child are not equals. A family is not a democracy. Call it a benevolent dictatorship. The role of the parent is to mentor and direct. The child’s job is to be mentored and guided. This positioning is the most compassionate for the child. The alternative to this hierarchy is the all-too-common (in the West, mostly) child-managed family which is semi-chaos, with the parent constantly on-alert and the child becoming detached and self-important. It’s not natural and it’s painful to watch, as the family social dialog wallows in endless parent-child negotiation, with the parent’s pleading ultimately degenerating into threats. (At the risk of being accused of child-abuse: In the good old days, an occasional swift and unemotional swat to the butt had its value in stopping manipulative BS and incessant back and forth dart-throwing. In the real world, “Because I said so” is a powerfully effective positioning statement if there is potency behind it. Ask Kim Jong un…).
3) Mutual respect: A child’s disrespect for the parent is not tolerated. Yes, the parent must be worthy of respect and of course the child must also be respected.
4) Protecting the child’s ego and self-worth: Of course, in the normal flow of life-events, disappointment and failure are going to occur. Let these occurrences happen for the child, knowing they are character-building exercises. From Dr. Clarkson in Downton Abby: “harsh reality is better than false hope.” Childhood tough-times are a necessary part of becoming a strong and resilient adult. And altogether reject the you’re-so-special mentality. It’s insipid.
5) Discipline: Use simple psychology. Transgressions are pointed out every time (the only sure way to prevent future transgressions). Good behavior is rewarded only when something exceptional is exhibited (because every-day good behavior is expected, and not some beyond-the-call-of-duty performance). Consistency is key. In quick order, infractions diminish as accomplishments multiply.
More about discipline and respect: The parent acts like an adult and is in control, managing things. The child operates within a range of activity that is orchestrated by the parent, and those activities never include disrespect for others. Any time there is disrespect, the child is unemotionally removed from the situation – socially shunned – until he or she is ready to conform to social expectations. There is no negotiating or pleading. immediately yet calmly removing the child from the situation happens every single time. This dispassionate tact is astoundingly effective in changing behavior while the household remains calm. Again: The key is to take the action every single time, without exception.
I’ll say this here: Back in the mid 70’s when my kids were small, there was the beginning of a cultural swing from a society that emphasized being a grown-up, to one that encourages childishness. Now it’s the rampant social norm, with even our leaders – on both sides of the aisle – showing a penchant for taunting, pointing fingers, making excuses, indulging bullies… metaphorically speaking, snatching someone else’s sandwich while spending the lunch money somewhere else. Nowadays it’s an uphill battle in the face of this ubiquitous social infantilizing in educational, political, media and entertainment venues. (But, the good news is that this trend is reversing.)
Love: Never did I suggest to my children that I wouldn’t love them for something they did or didn’t do, using this cruel manipulation as a tool. My love was a given, and had nothing to do with the actions I took as a parent.
The best parent is one who has simple and reasonable end-goals for the child and who systematically makes parenting decisions based on reaching those goals. It’s a deliberate mindset that is in constant quiet action.
I’ve described my own simple systems mindset parenting method here but I will boil it all down even further: If your goal as a parent is see your children grow up to be happy contributing adults, don’t indulge them now because doing that will promote weakness and narcissism.
Final Absolution: Once your child reaches a certain age, he or she begins to make decisions that have long-term effects. If these are bad decisions, it’s not your fault. You’ve done your job. Let them go.
Photo byendbradley via flickr used under a creative Commons License.