My goal as a parent is to help my children grow into kind-hearted, honest, authentic, hard-working adults that make a difference in their communities. Most days, especially in the midst of the toddler and preschool years, it feels like parenting is just a matter of keeping them alive and getting us to bedtime without too much catastrophe. But one day, these little minions will be grownups and I can’t help but feel like one of the most important aspects of parenting is helping them develop their personality and character.
After reflecting on my years as a high school teacher and as a mom of two, I developed a list of the ways I have helped guide and affirm the character development of children, from the toddler years through adolescence.
1. Tell them what you’re feeling.
How often have we tried to hide our anger or sadness from our kids? After my husband died, I didn’t want my son to see me cry. As someone wiser than me pointed out, my son needed to see me miss his dad. He needed to know it was okay to be sad. He needed me to demonstrate that anger, sadness, and disappointment were normal emotions.
Let’s practice telling our kids exactly how we are feeling so that they will know how to process and express those emotions in a healthy, constructive way.
2. Validate their negative emotions.
I used to tell my 3-year-old to “calm down” or “stop crying” when I felt like his tears or anger were unjustified. I realized that I was teaching him that expressing anger and sadness was unacceptable.
As an experiment, I used one of my tried-and-true teaching techniques the next time he lashed out in anger: when he screamed, I told him I knew he was angry and could understand why. When he felt understood, he was able to calm down and began to learn more appropriate ways to feel and express anger.
Our kids will experience negative emotions, so it’s important that we help them learn to manage those feelings.
3. Help them identify their strengths and weaknesses — and your own.
We all have things we are good at and other things that could use improvement. The same goes for our kids. When we are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, we can give them tasks they will excel at and help them grow and mature in the areas where they struggle. As our kids grow older, we can teach them to exercise these self-growth skills on their own.
When we are honest about our own weaknesses, we teach our kids that it’s okay to not be perfect.
4. Teach them and demonstrate how to ask for and accept help.
I don’t know many adults who like to admit they need help. We like to be strong, independent, and self-sufficient. For a long time I lived in a fairytale world where I really was able to accomplish every goal and fulfill every responsibility on my own. Eventually, we all meet a challenge that is more difficult than we are equipped to handle and we have a choice to make: feel discouraged by our circumstances or ask for help and rely on other peoples’ strengths instead of our own weaknesses.
Let’s teach our children that it’s okay to need help so that they never feel like their weaknesses are failures.
5. Surround yourself with healthy relationships so your kids know the importance of community.
Whether we like it or not, our kids are always listening and watching. If we want our kids to develop healthy, affirming, positive friendships, we must model them. Demonstrating how to make honest, dependable, loyal friends will help your kids choose good friends of their own.
6. Value their honesty.
Kids are smart. If we reward them for telling us what we want to hear, they’ll never be honest. Reward their courage to tell you what they really think, and try not to discipline them for disagreeing with you. I want my kids to be comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions about breakfast foods and bedtime now so that when they are teenagers and, later, adults, they’ll still feel safe to share.
Let’s encourage our children to have honest and open conversations.
7. Validate their opinions without giving them authority.
One of the first things I learned as a parent was the general rule that if you give a child an inch, they’ll take a mile. Case in point: once kids learn they can say “no” to something, they’ll say it to everything. It’s possible to maintain your role as a parent and help your kids learn to develop their own opinions.
You can affirm your toddler’s “no” to bedtime and then put them to bed anyways. You can affirm your preschooler’s desire for ice cream for dinner and then give them a healthier meal instead.
It’s okay for our kids to have opinions, but that doesn’t mean we have to say yes to every request.