A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a young woman who was good at everything. Although she was only in her early twenties, she was an expert in the kitchen, passionate about cleaning, attentive to the needs of children, had a green thumb, was skilled at raising animals and was able to give an articulate speech in her field of activity.
The fact that her parents involved her daily in household chores did not push her to neglect her studies, as some parenting folklore goes. On the contrary, she had finished university, enrolled in a master’s degree and wanted to pursue a doctoral program.
When I was her age, I knew at most how to peel an onion, my domestic performance being the direct fruit of the prejudice that children must be left to study and play, not to be put to work. Having had everything given to me on a platter (literally, usually in a double-sized portion and in front of the TV), I had become comfortable, clumsy and dependent. Long overdue, I began to catch up on the lessons I had missed: Doing household chores, managing my budget carefully, spending more time in the kitchen and giving up the idea that others should solve my problems.
Unfortunately, parents can too often fall into the “They’re too young, we don’t want to take away their childhood” trap. As a result, children can fail to be held accountable or set separate tasks from school, which in turn inhibits their numerous developmental opportunities.
The science of raising a child means more than listening to your instincts. Beyond experts’ opinion on modern parenting, we can also learn valuable lessons from the way we were raised ourselves—from the successes and mistakes of our parents, without punishing them for what we consider to have been wrong, insensitive or inappropriate. After all, perfection on planet Earth is impossible.
As far as I am concerned, the example of my own parents led me to conclude that there are four things parents do wrong when raising, caring for and educating children.
Mistake 1: Lack of real life lessons
The author with her parents.
As earlier mentioned, my only childhood obligations were to study, play and eat everything on my plate. To be honest, there are valid reasons for this state of affairs, one of them being the lack of free time: Classes, homework and extracurricular activities can last for hours and hinder any intention to cultivate the practical life of our young ones. There is no more time or energy.
However, taking small steps can lead to miracles. Even before officially starting school, children should be familiar with certain easy tasks: Picking up toys, making the bed, watering the flowers, etc. As they get older, new chores can be added to the list of daily and weekly tasks, depending on the availability of the child, their physical stamina and their degree of maturity. The instructions must be simple and clear, and the encouragement, on point. Children like to feel useful and receive verbal confirmation of the importance of their achievements.
As long as they are not presented as a chore, but as part of a daily routine, household activities will teach children patience, discipline and perseverance. They will increase their self-esteem, as well as their ability to accomplish what they set out to do. They will strengthen their sense of personal independence, an ingredient necessary for their emotional balance.
Mistake 2: The importance of grades and comparing to others
Every parent wants what is best for their child, but some parents confuse this with straight As. Often, adults—parents and teachers alike—fail to remind our children that the coveted success in adulthood depends not just on top grades, but on other factors as well.
As a child, I was among those who felt the pressure to achieve at school. Needless to say, over 80 per cent of the information I’ve accumulated has evaporated as if by magic. In fact, it evaporated in a perfectly explicable way: It had either been superficially assimilated in the first place (memorised, or purely theoretical, without a direct connection to real life) or did not represent topics of interest that I felt I needed in the long run.
Since then I have discovered a few things that are important in the learning process. Looking back, I would have preferred to have been involved in extracurricular activities—so beneficial to the development of personality, imagination and creativity, rather than striving for the false assurance of getting straight As.
The importance given to grades and the constant comparison with others can give children the impression that they are mere trophies; that they have value only when they know their lessons by heart. Moreover, the exclusive hunt for grades and prizes creates frustrations, inferiority or superiority complexes, and physical and mental exhaustion.
In my personal experience, the best parenting strategy in terms of education starts from the idea that the priorities in the learning process are intrinsic motivation, stimulating curiosity and deepening areas of interest. The results come last.
Mistake 3: Appealing to the standards of the majority
What will people say? A seemingly harmless phrase that affects many.
Society is full of judges whose habit, lack of occupation or inability to manage their frustrations push them to scrutinise other people. Those were the ones once invoked by my grandparents, for fear of public shaming, and by my parents, who made sure to warn me that the world was always on the lookout for anyone who broke the rules.
Relating to the standards of the majority favours conventional thinking, conformity and the fear of criticism, turning a child into what others want them to be. What is really beneficial for children is to appreciate the opinion of important people and not to regulate their behaviour for the sake of just anyone.
In one form or another, we all seek validation: We want to be accepted, to be told that we are on the right track. However, behavioural standards do not depend on the intrusive opinions of strangers who believe they know everything, but on the value system of the reference group, family and close friends. They come from our own beliefs and needs.
To protect our children’s identity and authenticity, parents need to teach them how to think on their own, without constantly seeking approval from others. Behaving with integrity comes from a relationship with God and an understanding of His morals and principles, and not that of the world’s.
Mistake 4: Displaying negative emotions
There is a popular meme: I don’t run from problems. I sit on the couch, play on my phone and ignore them, like all the other adults.
I resonate with this because I also often deal with difficulties by resorting to traditional avoidance behaviour. After that, I instinctively think of my mother, of how she felt difficulties when I was little, of her negativity, of her general anxiety.
I know that this scenario is common, that many children witness their parents’ dramas, drawing harsh conclusions about the world and life. Unfortunately, it often happens that adults vent in the presence of their children, talk about fears and challenges without thinking that excessive pessimism is seriously harmful to their kids’ emotional wellbeing. In the absence of filters, the little ones look at reality through the eyes of parental figures and live it likewise.
The display of excessive negative emotions should be avoided. The constant emotional charge overwhelms the children, takes them away from their playful universe, full of age-specific joys. It turns them into gloomy, reserved and fearful beings.
Children do not have the strength to assimilate older people’s problems. Thus, in order to have empathy and a solid shoulder to cry on, adults should turn to their peers.
This isn’t about shielding children from the realities of the world or even from sadness, but from instances of overwhelming and all-encompassing negativity. Share your problems or grief with them, but when it comes to children, there should also always be space for hope.
Parenting. Learning from positive examples
Parents are the easiest people in the world to judge. Whatever they do and say is often used against them by other people who are convinced that they have the ultimate truth about raising children—even if they’re not their own children. The statement is, of course, a generalisation, but it captures the essence of a tendency, that of looking at others’ realities through our own lens, without taking into account what makes us real and unique: Free will.
When they reach adulthood, children will either criticise or praise their parents. Many would position themselves in the middle—negative feelings intertwined with joy. Of course, there are things we wish our parents had done differently, but they also made sacrifices for which we are grateful.
And while I’ve learned about some mistakes from my parents, there are also other parenting lessons that have naturally sprung from a positive place. Lessons such as patience solves any situation; the child can be disciplined without a beating; siblings should not be treated preferentially; affection is shown through words, gestures and deeds; flexibility is at least as compelling as strictness; permissiveness does not mean pampering; meekness blurs many flaws . . . these are just some of the guiding principles of the unconditional parental love I have received.
The opportunity to explore the good and bad aspects of the actions of our parents, grandparents and other important figures is available to anyone. What can we do to make the process fruitful? The Bible has a pertinent answer: “Hold on to what is good.”
This article first appeared on ST Network.
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