Let’s get this straight up front: parenting is not easy. There is no road map that lays out every step to take to lead your children to successful adulthood. There are plenty of judgment calls. Life is ever-changing, full of seasons for us, our spouse, and our kids. What’s more, our kids are individuals with their own thoughts, interests, and temperaments, and personalities. And even during those times when we seems to have things under control, life throws a curve ball. As a result, most fathers spend a lot of time wondering if they’re doing a good job raising their children. Next week, I’m going talk about raising sons in particular. Today, I’m going to look at five temptations that will derail our parenting.
Before I get started, let me give a disclaimer. I have four kids – three boys and one girl – ages eight through 12. They all have their issues that they’re working through. Even though all four of mine are all doing pretty well so far, I haven’t yet raised a child to adulthood. I haven’t had to navigate puberty, dating, driving, alcohol, drugs, etc. As a result, I’m no proven expert on the topic of raising kids to become successful adults. I recognize that and want you to be aware of it. So, my thoughts below are humbly offered and loosely held. That said, I believe them to be true based on my experience and observations.
While there’s no road map for raising kids, there must be a destination, a point that you’re trying to get to with your kids. If you ask the average man about his ultimate goals for his children, he would likely struggle to give a coherent answer. After stumbling around, most fathers would say that they want their children to be happy. Happiness. It’s a great thing. Ultimately, it’s what I want for my kids. I want their lives to be full of happiness. But I don’t just want general happiness that ebbs and flows with the events of the day or week or month or year. I want them to be deeply content. I want them to be satisfied. But I want more than that for them. I also want them to add value to the world, as I believe doing so is necessary to achieving deep contentment with our lives. I don’t want to raise consumers who use their abilities and relationships solely to promote their own happiness. I want them to become highly functioning and highly capable adults who make everything better in their spheres of influence. I want my boys to become good men who are good at being men. I want my daughter to become a good woman who embraces her femininity and uses it to make life better around her.
So while the destination is clear, we too often get lost on the way. There are a few ways that most of us consistently mess up, all of which are related and overlap. Let’s look at five of them.
First, it’s tempting to use happiness as a guiding principle, rather than recognizing that it is a byproduct. Instead of making parenting decisions based on what will create long-term contentment and satisfaction, we are guided by keeping our children happy now. To be clear, I’d rather my kids be happy than not whenever possible. Happy children typically make a parent’s life better. But, happiness cannot be a guiding principle in child-rearing. A parent whose guiding principle is his child’s happiness will give the child things that he should not have and raise a child lacking the self-control to make good decisions later in life. It will lead to selfish, enabled, incapable children who, ironically, are not happy. Most of what makes us happy in life is the result of struggle, not ease or comfort. In short, happiness is typically the byproduct of doing the right things in life. If you chase happiness in the short-term, you typically forfeit it in the long-term. In raising our kids, our eyes always have to be on the long term. Our children will be kids for 17 years, they’ll be adults for over 50 years. Take the long view.
Taking the long view works both ways. It doesn’t hurt to give a child what he wants at times or to put on a movie so you can get some rest. It’s what you do 80% of the time that matters. Consistently requiring your child to go without the food, clothes, toys, games, gear, events, etc., that he would like to have, but that are not needed will enhance the child’s self-control and his ability to be content without “things”.
Second, it’s tempting to organize all of our kids’ activities. It’s tempting to put them in as many extracurricular activities as our schedules will allow. One of the great things about modern society is that kids have so many more options for growth and learning than in the past. There is seemingly a club or event for every possible interest. Like sports? There are tons of athletic teams that play most months out of the year. Like drama? Acting classes and opportunities to act in plays abound. Like art or music? You can find a class or instructor with ease. The same goes for archery, Legos, video games, etc. There is a summer camp for everything. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, and I’m thankful that our kids have such opportunities. The problem arises when we cram our schedules full of these activities. Kids who are too frequently directed never learn to self-direct.
Kids need undirected, unstructured free time to play. They need to join with other kids and organize their own informal fun activities. It builds their imaginations. It stokes creativity. It teaches problem solving and conflict resolution. It makes them stronger and more mobile. It builds friendships. And it doesn’t put strain on the family’s schedule. Kids need structure (see my recent post on summer projects), but they don’t need every activity planned and organized for them. Unleash them to build their own world and make their own decisions on a scale that they can handle.
Third, it’s tempting to do everything for our kids. From unzipping every jacket, to opening every lid, to basically doing entire science fair projects, we’re tempted to keep our kids from having to struggle and work. We’re tempted to keep them from having to use creativity, imagination, and extended effort. While it might be easier most of the time to “just do it myself”, that mode of operation is a disservice to our kids. Achievement and accomplishment are major contributors to happiness. Kids who aren’t forced to struggle and accomplish things are much less likely to do so as adults. Instead, they’ll just look to others to do things for them, whether it’s their friends, their spouse, or the government.
Not only do such children never obtain the happiness of accomplishment and achievement, they never develop any skills. As a result, they never have the satisfaction of knowing that they are capable people, people who have the ability to do meaningful things. Their mindset becomes “not only have I not accomplished anything worthwhile, I can’t. I don’t know how.” No meaningful accomplishments + no skills = no confidence. We cannot raise confident kids unless we force them to accomplish things on their own. All meaningful accomplishment involves extended effort and struggle. We have to have the fortitude to make our kids work, let them struggle, and let them fail without intervening.
Fourth, it’s tempting to make our kids the center of the family. As I noted in this post, the sheer volume of their needs and activities means that parents spend most of their time caring for their kids, transporting them, and attending their events. It’s easier to cater our family meals to their preferences than to fight with them over trying new foods or eating what’s been made. It’s easier to let them do that extra activity than to fight with them about it. It’s easier to go to that extra baseball or softball tournament so that “they don’t have to miss out”. When we orient our entire family life around our child’s activities and interests, it’s easy to communicate that they, not the parents, are driving the bus, that they are the most important members of the family. Not only is that a destructive mindset for a child, it’s an unhealthy one as well. While a child may like being the center of attention and the focal point of the family, a child who does not sense leadership from his parents will not be secure. Kids crave the security that comes from knowing that their parents are in charge, that they have things under control, and that the family has a vision and a purpose.
Oh yeah, there’s no better way to turn your wife from your lover into your business partner than to center your family on your kids.
Fifth, it’s tempting to put electronics in our children’s hands too early. I’m on board with children needing to be able to use technology. But, here’s the truth: learning to use technology is not difficult and most will learn it in school. It’s not a lifelong journey that kids need to start when they’re six in order to master it when they’re adults.
As most of us are learning, there are significant downsides to electronics. A substantial portion of adults are addicted to their phones. I know it’s a habit for me to grab my phone whenever I have downtime, and I didn’t have a smartphone until I was in my thirties. Imagine the struggle of an adult who’s had a phone or a tablet since they were a child. Here’s a fact that I observe in most kids who have phones and screens: the technology dominates their free time. They read less. They ponder less. They’re less creative. Think about who will solve the greatest problems of the next generation: will it be the child who is most familiar with technology, or the one who is able to sit quietly, think creatively, and ponder things? I’d go all in on the latter. The former will be a dime a dozen; there will soon be few who can do the latter.
Kids with screens are more connected to their friends. Phones and tablets allow kids communicate with each other all day, every day. Here’s the end result: kids get shaped by their peers at a younger age. A parent’s influence over their child decreases with each passing year, while the influence of their peers and society increases. For kids with screens, the rate of parental influence decreases much more quickly. So, if you want your child to reflect more often, ponder more deeply, and draw their cues for living from you and your spouse for a longer period in their lives, limit your child’s screen options and time.
As most from my parents’ generation recognize and admit, it’s harder to navigate raising children now than at any point in history. Our world has changed, and we have to figure out how to raise our kids on the fly in the midst of that change. As I stated at the outset, I’m not the guru preaching to you; I’m the guy walking through the fire right beside you. Still, I’m confident that avoiding these pitfalls will result in better children, better families, and better communities. Next week, I’m going to give you a few rules on raising sons. Until then, press on. This is the man’s life.
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