Why good values alone aren’t good enough in parenting

My husband and I went to a really great parenting talk last week by educator Andrew Mullins from Australia… I liked it a lot, and not just because of his charming accent, which made everything sound so friendly and hopeful! It was very positive and practical, and focussed on 15 specific parenting tips or goals to consider in helping prepare your child for adult life.

One of the things that struck me was that he emphasized the need to help your children build specific good habits, or virtues, that put together would give them strength of character and the ability to live well as adults. Rather than focussing on trying to make them happy now, he encouraged parents to look ahead and help kids acquire the skills they will need to live as happy adults…things like honesty, courage, perseverance, generosity and a spirit of service.

These virtues aren’t aquired simply by parents having good values themselves, although of course that’s important, too. But values without specific expectations to live up to them are like good intentions…nice but not necessarily effective. “I meant to finish the dishes…but I got distracted…” So it’s important to let your kids know what you expect and to follow up and make sure it happens. Inspecting their work makes sure it gets done and also gives kids a chance to feel proud when they’ve done it well and impressed you. It can be a lot of work to get kids to do chores, but feeling useful actually makes them happier in the long run.

Habits, Mullins explained, are formed by repeated actions, so if you want your kids to acquire them, you need to help them practice those good actions (like making their beds, completing a task, helping others) over and over. It’s also good to explain to them why these things are important, so they can make their actions their own, and form their minds. So the key combination is a solid explanation and many opportunities to repeat the good action. Whether or not they like this action, for example helping with the dishes, doesn’t matter that much. What matters is that they get used to it, so that later, when they grow up, getting them done will be automatic.

Good parenting, explained Mullins, requires a balance between being affectionate (very important) and being sufficiently demanding. Usually we can lean more towards one or another, but a balance is important here. We want to help our kids grow and strive for greatness with a lot of affection and support, knowing how to help them do their best…without being either harsh or overly indulgent.

Mullins, who I believe did his thesis in neural development and virtue acquisition, described how mirror neurons in young children help them learn by copying or mirroring what they see. He joked that to see our kids worst defects, we had only to look in the mirror! But this goes for their virtues as well. Kids will copy what they see, therefor it’s of utmost importance that we strive to live well ourselves, and to do it with a smile!

I really encourage you to check out his book, which has many more helpful tips, written in short, straightforward chapters for busy parents! My husband and I have been reading this book a little at a time together, and then taking a few notes about a concrete way we could apply this advice in our family life. We even had a family meeting to talk about it and make a plan together.

Parenting for Character: Equipping your Child for Life

Perhaps some of you were also there at the talk…what did you find the most helpful? Or what is the best parenting advice you’ve been given…whether there or elsewhere?

The Perfect Parent Lives in Timbuktu (and is likely a Sasquatch!)

I haven’t met the perfect parent. It’s not me. It’s likely not you either.
But that’s ok. Children are born of love, not perfection.

Still, sometimes we wonder if there is a scientific formula for being the perfect parent, a special combination of elements that will help us get it just right.

Our society encourages this; we are told we must have the right economic, educational, medical, emotional, and intellectual circumstances to responsibly have a child. It seems a very dangerous and risky business, and one must be perfectly prepared.

Sometimes people wait their whole lives to be perfectly ready. Baby room painted just so. Millions in the bank. 800 parenting books read. Relationship so stable it makes mountains look wispy and wobbly. Health just so, taking the right 60 vitamins, and doing yoga 10 hours a day.

What happened to something that used to be so natural? A creative overflow of love? Isn’t the sincere love between parents already giving your child a lot, especially in today’s world?

But our fear of being imperfect parents in an imperfect world really paralyzes us so much as a society. We fear traumatizing our kids and are haunted of visions of their future therapist’s couch before they even leave their cradle.

We are told we better consult the experts constantly, because we as “mere parents” (just rabbits really) know nothing. I don’t think all this fear is actually making us better parents, just less confident and optimistic ones.

If we risk having one, we think we shouldn’t have another, because we’re not perfect yet. The funny thing is though, that having another child helps us to grow better, more mature, relaxed and confident, and therefore helps our first child, too. Experience is a good teacher.

So please don’t let fear of your imperfection stop you from loving; that would be a terrible tragedy. None of us had perfect parents, but we’re still glad to be here, in this messy, imperfect, absurdly beautiful world.

While I haven’t met perfect parents, I have met perfect babies.
Actually many of them.
More specifically, ALL of them.
Each baby is perfect.
A perfect gift, a perfect miracle, a perfect parcel of love.
Each one makes the world more beautiful. That means you, too.

Siblings help each other to grow as well, precisely through their imperfection, their foibles and stubborn streaks; experiencing all this children learn, in a context of love, how to get along with, embrace and accept others.

If we are teaching our kids to love, to care for others and help them when they are down, we are doing a lot toward making the world a better place.

My kids can squabble as much as the next ones, but I was happy to see my older girls stepping up and caring for the younger ones this week when they weren’t feeling well. Here’s a picture of my 5 year old reading bedtime stories to her little sister. Without being asked. That made me really happy.

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So stop worrying about being perfect, unless you want to go live with the Sasquatch, who can maybe give you some pointers.

Personally, I think what you need as a parent is love, commitment, and a willingness to adapt and grow, because as much as parenting will make your children grow, it’ll make you grow more.

Happy trails! And may you be abundantly blessed in love.

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