By: Judith Lavori Keiser
As parents, we have a tough job – helping our children grow into responsible adults. We’re juggling our own lives while trying to teach our kids to make good decisions, express their feelings clearly and compassionately, and control their actions – skills that are hard even for adults!
Mental, physical and emotional growth takes place in small steps and huge leaps, and is rarely smooth or predictable. How can parents help their children succeed at this enormous task? We teach both by what we say, and by what we do. The more we model behavior we want our children to learn, the better they’ll learn how to become thoughtful, organized, and reasonable adults.
It’s also useful to describe mature behaviors, giving children examples. For young children, this can include giving them choices of what to wear or eat, or what hobbies they might like, to give them practice making decisions. Butgood parenting emphasizes the health, safety and wellbeing of our children above all else. That puts limits on the universe of possible choices: we would never encourage our children to engage in unsafe or unhealthy behaviors.
I would offer my young son the choice of wearing either the blue or green shirt. I knew he looked good in both, so either was fine with me. And both choices fulfilled my primary purpose: protect his skin from sun and cold. When he wanted to stop taking piano lessons, I told him he could choose another instrument, as long as he kept music in his life in some form, since it adds to the quality of life. Again, within the universe of the possible, he had autonomy, which gave him valuable practice exercising choice and making decisions.
As children get older, they grow in physical and mental capability, attaining new developmental levels of skill and ability. They start wanting to participate in more sports, hobbies, and academic activities. And they start to be more open to influences from outside the family. Parental authority stops being accepted without question “because I said so and I’m the mom.” Parents need to continually adjust to the new stages of the relationship, expanding the universe of possibilities, but continuing to allow only choices from within it. It’s a delicate balance between holding them back from doing everything they want to do and think they’re ready to do, and guiding them forward toward what we know they’ll need to be mature adults.
Luckily, there are resources available to take some pressure off parents who are trying to strike that balance. One way for parents and their teens to navigate challenging areas of change is to draft and negotiate actual written agreements with each other. Writing down the agreements shows how seriously the parents take their responsibilities toward their children. The agreements describe the universe of possibilities, which is based on the parents’ concern for health, safety and wellbeing. And the process of negotiating the contract with each other gives the growing child practice making, and explaining, decisions.
Situations where negotiated agreements can be appropriate (and the formality of the agreements) vary with the child’s age, moving from eating, dressing and bedtime to cell phone use, driving privileges and curfews. But the same principles guide how parents should approach all negotiations:
• Explain the universe of possibilities, connecting your expectations to your desire for your child’s health, safety, and wellbeing. For example, in our driving contract with our son, he could not drive to school unless he had at least 6 hours of sleep. Lack of sleep impairs anyone’s judgment.
• Explain that the agreement is a way to live your values. Just because other people take chances with their children’s safety doesn’t make it good parenting.
• Allow for choices within the agreement. This gives you the chance to listen to your child’s mental decision-making process, so you can tell how well-thought out the choices are and suggest other things to think about.
No agreement can contain every possible angle or prevent all possible problems. But there are several good reasons to negotiate agreements with your child:
• a good agreement can prevent many problems
• the process of drafting and negotiating an agreement together will expose many of the factors that go into good decision making and give valuable experience practicing making decisions with a loving guide.
• perhaps most important, the process is a great example of connecting to work out solutions to current areas of conflict and taking proactive steps to anticipate future areas of conflict. That is how a responsible, mature adult handles life, and is a great way to help our children grow one step closer to responsible adulthood – a parent’s most important job.
Judith Lavori Keiser founded The Culture Company to guide children toward empathy through her multicultural peacemaking programs and developed her “Pearls” books and workshops to inspire adults to live prepared and peaceful lives. Reach Judy at firstname.lastname@example.org.