Have you ever seen an adult throwing a temper tantrum and behaving childishly? I get second-hand embarrassment when I witness that. Those incidents spur me to raise my children with the end goal in mind: competent, kind and respectful adults.
I was a high school exchange student in Germany when I was 16. One of the things that stuck with me was that, due to a comprehensive public transportation system, teens and even children were allowed much more freedom to travel without an adult. In general, teens were trusted with “adult” things, and far from being delinquents, they handled themselves responsibly. It was definitely a paradigm shift that stuck with me. Children handle responsibility remarkably well, especially when they are given opportunities to practice it.
Our natural tendency is to overprotect—protect our kids from the world and protect the world from our kids. But kids have to take risks in order to learn how to manage risk. This is especially hard with multiples and the health concerns that often come with them; risk is the exact opposite of our goal after what we went through. When my kids started to climb, I would spot them the first few times, pointing out where their foot should go if they got stuck. Once they showed proficiency, I could take my seat. They probably have my mantra, “Don’t climb higher than you can get down yourself” embedded in their brain. As a result, I rarely have to rescue them, and they are all physically adept. The same concept can be applied to all areas of parenting: teach them up close, help them if they get stuck but do not rescue, and they will learn that they can do it themselves.
Kids thrive when they have a sense of purpose and when they feel needed and a part of something. I was challenged –I mean, blessed!—with an oldest son with an insatiable curiosity and lightning fingers. He stretched my patience to the limit, and then I saw an episode of the Duggar show, where a toddler was kept happily busy bringing Daddy all the trash cans in the house. Jim Bob stayed calm and thanked her for every one, even though he clearly did not want them at that moment. Something clicked; kids want to help. They will do a terrible job at first, but instead of stopping them, we should thank them for their efforts and provide an example for them to follow. As they grow, they will get better. Once I adopted the “give them a job” style of parenting, my son never slowed down, but more of his energy was spent on activities of which I approved. Soon he was a two-year-old carrying the diaper bag, folding washcloths, and cracking eggs for breakfast.
Parenting for the long term means enforcing discipline consistently from a young age, so that kids can trust our rules and not test them constantly. It takes a canny parent to always say what you mean and mean what you say, so the simpler, the better. I have just a few rules that I repeat like a broken record, so we can all remember them. How many of us have, in a moment of frustration, said, “If you don’t behave, I’m going to leave you here!”, and then we have to make the walk of shame with a kid under each arm, because of course we cannot really leave our kids there? Children will take full advantage of idle threats, so we have to carefully make enforceable statements. Instead, I would say, “Would you like to leave on your feet or in my arms?” Either way, I get the desired outcome—my child in the car. Now that my kids know that I am willing to inconvenience myself to enforce compliance and I will keep the rules every time, the battle of wills happens much less. Just remember, children cannot yet consistently apply the same rule to new situations, so they need to be reminded.
In order to make enforceable statements, parents also have to let go of that which they cannot control. I cannot make my child sleep, but I can make them lay in bed quietly and make them wake up at the same time, whether they have slept or not. I cannot make them eat all their food, but I can make them sit at the table during meal time. I have too many kids (don’t we all!) to force each one to finish their chores in an hour, but I can make their beloved screen time dwindle, the longer they take. By controlling only what I can control, kids learn to trust my discipline and learn to control themselves.
Children love to feel big, and childhood is a gradual handover of power from parent to child. I take every opportunity I can to have the kids do a task that stretches them. With my four year old, that is making oatmeal in the microwave. With my ten year old, that is ordering pizza online or making a short shopping trip on his own. My goal is that they have most of the life skills they need by the time they are adults and that, if they do not know it, they know how to find out. And the best part of handing out tasks like this is that children love them! They love to feel like a grown-up and challenge themselves.
What a wonderful sacred task we have been given, to raise these tiny humans into adults. We get to guide them as they discover, learn, and grow. I cannot wait until my children are adults, not because I dislike their childhood, but because I look forward to seeing the people they will become.
Aubrey True is a mother of five kids under 11, including 4 year old twins. She has lived in Azle and Weatherford for most of her life. Her interests include coffee, reading, minimalism, and cognitive behavioral therapy.