This blog post is an excerpt, with some additions, from the blog post “Other people, our moral mirrors: Part 1, negotiating needs.” I decided to make it a separate blog post as a quick resource for parents who might want to focus on the specific ideas here.
When clients come to me seeking parenting support, I have some basic principles for them to consider. Keep in mind, these are “aspirational” principles, meaning that perfect implementation will never be possible, so just do the best you can to reach them when you can.
Principle number one: “respect for yourself and your children, always.” To the extent possible, everything you do related to your children should role model respect for yourself and your children, no matter how difficult they are being. See them for what they are: children (and also the limitations they have based on their age and development). This doesn’t mean, “always be nice.” You can be firm, even strict at times, especially when doing so is part of demanding from them that they respect you, but also respecting them as a separate person trying to figure out complicated issues (little monkeys). It is entirely possible to be both frustrated and respectful. Teaching your kids how to do this by role modeling it when they frustrate you is a vital part of their development.
Principle number two: “children do what works until it doesn’t work anymore.” This basically means, if you reward a child’s negative behavior (even unintentionally), they will continue the behavior, no matter how much you wish they’d stop. So, it is not a good idea to placate a tantrum with a cookie at Target to make it stop, or they will throw another tantrum next time you’re at the store, expecting you to cave. If you stop rewarding the behavior, and give them more appropriate alternatives, and do so consistently, even when they resist, they will eventually stop and usually follow a different and hopefully more appropriate path. Any short term gain you might achieve with rewarding negative behavior will have long term hardship waiting for you. Follow through is everything!
Principle number three: “monkey see, monkey do” or “garbage in garbage out.” Our children watch us much more closely than we think they do. They also assume that whatever we do is acceptable, when it often is not, at least for them. I remember the first time my son swore at me—he was much younger than I ever would have expected for him to start using that kind of vulgarity. I had no one to blame except myself, since I’d obviously used the same term around him to the point that he assumed its casual use was acceptable. Crap! These three principles are designed to foster a secure, reliable, rational and respectful environment in which our children will hopefully learn from us how they can seek to have their needs met in a manner that respects boundaries and recognizes the needs of others in addition to their own needs. At the root of attachment theory are two vital words for us when we are children and for the rest of our lives: “secure base.” Children want to know, more than anything else, that they can count on their parents to provide a consistently secure base for them. Do this and you will have greatly increased your chances of raising a well-adjusted child into adulthood.
As an addition to the three principles I’ve explained in this post, I will add this overall summary to what I think most of us as parents want for our children when they reach adulthood. We want our children to be: “Value-driven (make decisions based on a strong sense of their personal values), self-regulated (they are aware of how they are feeling and the actions necessary to contain those feelings), act with self-interest (they know what the want and need and how to express their wants and needs), along with due consideration for the needs of others (their feelings and actions are formed within the context of what others might think or need as well).” The three principles above will help us help our children achieve these goals for the kinds of people we hope our children will become in adulthood.