By Kathy Caprino
July 21, 2014
Anyone who parents for any amount of time has learned a few key universal lessons: parenting is hard, it can be confusing and paralyzing, and we often blow it, despite our best efforts. While parenting “perfection” isn’t within reach for most of us, what we can all achieve is learning from our mistakes and modifying our approach, behaviors, language, and mindset so that we support our children to become all they wish to be in the world.
Towards that end, I was interested to learn from Dr. Tim Elmore (the expert who provided fabulous parenting tips in the Forbes post that went viral – 7 Crippling Parenting Behaviors That Keep Children From Growing Into Leaders) about what he would do differently as a parent if he could.
Based on his work with thousands of parents and teens over the past 30 years, Tim shared with me the 5 critical do-overs that he (and many other parents) wish they could have with their kids.
“Next month, my wife and I will officially be ‘empty nesters.’ This new life station has made me reflect on my parenting skills. At our non-profit, Growing Leaders, we ask parents what they’d do differently if they had to do it over again. In recent years, we’ve seen a pattern of “over-protection and over-connection” in many. In light of our findings, I’ve observed that there are five critical “do-overs” that a majority of parents wish for – and can still make – to enable their kids to become more prepared, confident and successful in their adult lives."
Do-over #1: “I would do less preventing and more preparing.”
In our efforts to insure our kids experience no major catastrophe in their childhood that would negatively affect their lives and emotions, we find ourselves reminding them incessantly:
- “Don’t forget your backpack.”
- “Don’t forget to take your meds.”
- “Don’t forget practice is at 4:00.”
- “Don’t forget your homework.”
- “Don’t forget your grandma’s birthday today.”
When we constantly remind them of important items or tasks, they learn dependence on others for functions they should be taking ownership of themselves. We actually enable them to rely on others rather than on themselves, and sadly, we’re encouraging them to blame others when things go wrong instead of claiming accountability for their lives.
Consequences are a natural part of life. In fact, our world is full of equations—if you do this…this will be the consequence. Parents must consistently demonstrate and model the right type of equations and consequences for their kids.
Do-over #2: “I would have offered fewer explanations and many more experiences.”
Many parents I surveyed were predisposed to giving lots of boring, wisdom-filled talks to unsuspecting (and often resentful) children. They asked themselves, “Doesn’t my kid realize how much grief he’d be spared if he just listened to what I’m saying?”
Looking back, it’s clear that kids don’t learn well from parent’s empty lectures. They learn much more effectively through engaging in their own lesson-filled experiences. I love having conversations with my kids, but they’re much more effective following an experience they can learn from.
A powerful parenting approach is to cultivate environments and experiences for our kids to grow from – not to just “talk at them” about life. Parents’ goals must shift from control to connection. Control is a myth—as any parent of a teenager will tell you. We can’t control them, nor should we. What they need is life experience to teach them how to operate effectively in the world.
In many ways, the role of a parent has moved from “Supervisor” forty years ago, to “Superman” today. Years ago, parents supervised their children’s growth, but kids did the work of growing up themselves.
Today, we’ve mistakenly come to believe that “good” parents should rescue their children from hardship, explain away their faults, negotiate their grades, intervene for them – not recognizing how these behaviors disable them later in life.
The harsh truth is that children’s social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual muscles atrophy when they’re not exercised.
Do-over #3: “I would have risked more and rescued less.”
We live in a world that warns us of danger at every turn. Toxic. High voltage. Flammable. Slippery when wet. Steep curve ahead. Don’t walk. Hazard. This “safety first” preoccupation emerged over thirty years ago with the Tylenol scare and with children’s faces appearing on milk cartons.
We became fearful for our kids. So, we’ve gone overboard insulating them from anything that is risky. Unfortunately, over-protecting our young people has had an adverse effect on them.
Research shows that children of risk-averse parents have lower test scores and are less likely to attend college than offspring of parents with more tolerant attitudes toward risk. Sadly, adults continue to vote to remove playground equipment from parks so kids won’t have accidents; to request that teachers stop using red ink as they grade papers and even cease from using the word “no” in class. While the intent to protect students often comes from love, parents are seriously failing at getting children ready for a world that will be anything but risk-free.
Do-over #4: “I would be less concerned with schools and more with skills.”
Many parents work tirelessly (some even fanatically) to position their kids to get into the best colleges possible. We bought into the notion that the right school guarantees a great career. What many don’t realize is that the rules are changing. More and more employers are begging for skill sets, sometimes soft-skills that many graduates simply don’t possess.
Nearly three-quarters of hiring managers complain that Millennials – even those with college degrees – aren’t prepared for the job market and lack an adequate “work ethic,” according to a survey from Bentley University. Frequently, jobs are ready, but kids aren’t. (To be frank, I don’t know one employer who’s asking about GPA in the interview.)
Childhood may be about safety and self-esteem, but as a child grows, maturation requires them to master more than school exams or video games. Genuine growth is about building life skills that shape their identity, confidence, and potential success. In other words, not only does the parent need to risk more, so does their young adult.
Growing up means venturing out, working and assuming risks on their own. Neuroscience reminds us that risk-taking behavior peaks during adolescence. Teens are apt to take more risks than any other age group. Their brains program them to do so. They test boundaries, values and find their identity during these years. This is when they must learn, via experience, the consequences of certain behaviors.
Our failure to let them risk and build essential life skills may explain why so many young adults between the ages of 22 and 34 still live at home, haven’t started their careers, or had a serious relationship. Normal risk taking at fourteen or fifteen would have prepared them for decisions that require these big steps.
Do-ever #5: “I would focus less on possessions and more perspective.”
The #1 growing demographic of at-risk kids are teens who come from upper-middle class homes. Why? The more resources they have, the less resourceful they become. Possessions without perspective can lead to real trouble.
Parents share that if they were to do it all over again, they would reward less and rewind more. In other words, they’d go lighter on all the “stuff” they gave their children. Less ribbons and more reality…offered with lots of TLC.
They’d provide their kids with many more opportunities to build perspective – to discuss what’s happening to them, delay gratification, and debrief after challenging times. In fact, I’ve found if I choose to not buy them “stuff” it often requires an emotional conversation. Sadly, I’ve met parents who, because they didn’t have time to spend with their kids offering perspective, tried to make up for it by buying them “stuff.”
Perspective comes when we furnish kids with both autonomy and responsibility.
Whenever they request autonomy (the ability to act independently from adult supervision), we need to provide them an equal amount of responsibility. One without the other creates unhealthy young adults. If my son wanted to borrow the family car for the night, he needed to fill the tank with gas. Teens who get lots of autonomy (and possessions) with little or no responsibility become irresponsible brats.”
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Dr. Elmore’s “do-overs” above share one core theme – we, as parents, need to do one thing very well: prepare our child for the path, not the path for the child. For more about effective and productive parenting, see his new book Twelve Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid.