There is no such thing as a perfect parent. I know that from imperfectly raising my own five children! After years of parenting, teaching children in grammar school, and now counseling both parents and their kids, I would like to share some of my observations. Here are 8 things you want to address or avoid, if you possibly can, in an effort to raise healthy children.
1. Abuse Far and away the worst thing you can do to your kid. Children absolutely must have stable, consistent, loving environments if they are going to grow up to be healthy adults. Physical, sexual, mental, and emotional abuse will leave scars that last a lifetime. People can heal, but only with intensive work.The first two forms of abuse are easy to recognize, although I have heard people attempt to normalize being beaten. Just because your parents did it doesn’t mean it is acceptable. Harshness is unnecessary and often counterproductive. Kids don’t need to be bullied into submission. Anglican Bishop J. C. Ryle referred to children as tender creatures, comparing them to a delicate vase that needs instruction poured in drop by drop.
Mental or emotional abuse is trickier to identify. Constant criticism, invalidating, broken promises and overt favoritism are just some examples of emotional and mental abuse. Pressuring a child to perform or look a certain way because it reflects well on us as parent is another example. There is a huge difference between encouraging excellence and developing our gifts, and being pressured to perfection because it pleases a parent. James Lehman in his Total Transformation program likes to say we need to parent the kid we have not the one we wish we had.
2. Enmeshment What does this mean? Enmeshment happens when the boundaries between parents and children are blurred. Sometimes the child becomes a substitute for a distant spouse, becoming a confidant and “friend”. The child is so busy meeting the adult’s needs and carrying the weight of their concerns, the child’s own issues and problems are over shadowed. This can create significant problems for the child and eclipse healthy development. Parents need to let their kids be kids and get their own emotional needs met with other adults. Some great books to read about healthy family boundaries are Boundaries With Kids, Boundaries With Teens, or Boundaries in Marriage by Drs. Cloud and Townsend.
3. Unrealistic or Self-Centered Expectations Where does the child end and the parent begin? Sometimes parents live vicariously through their children, trying to make them what they, the parents, need them to be. Maybe they are trying to make up for things they missed in their own childhood. Or, perhaps it is a point of pride. A friend coached soccer for a group of 4 year olds. He said the kids were delightful, but the parents were competitive and out-of-control! One dad even had to be asked to leave!
Many kids have become a sort of report card for the parents. This sends the message that the child exists for the parent: You are here to make me look good, to help me feel good about myself. Kids can tell if parents are motivated by a desire to help them be better or if mom and dad’s egos are on the line. The latter produces bitterness and resentment in the kids.
4. Overprotection This is so common in our generation that universities refer to “helicopter parents”, i.e. the ones that can’t let go and let their kids grow up. We do this because we love our kids and want good things for them. We also know that life can be a real challenge. Unfortunately over functioning and over protecting communicates, “I don’t have confidence that you can make it without me” which doesn’t produce confident secure adults.
5. Overindulging Entitlement is a growing problem. The sea of luxury cars in the parking lot at my children’s high school nicely illustrates the point. We are teaching our children they are entitled to things it took us decades to earn. Indulging every whim from toys to snacks to…well, you name it, communicates that you can have anything you want in life. This is a disservice to our kids because it is a lie. Life doesn’t work like that. Kids need boundaries and limits. They need to hear “no” from time to time.
I used to teach and serve as an administrator in a private school. I saw firsthand that most parents think their kids are above average, special, or exceptional. Whatever happened to the bell curve?!
One rare exception was a father who pulled his kids because he saw they just weren’t academically strong enough for the school’s rigorous curriculum. He was fine with that. He found another school that was a better fit for them. Wow! Talk about loving your kids just the way they are! No ego on the line there!
With the best of intentions we tell our kids they are wonderful, exceptional, special, etc. It is important to let them know they are special to you, and NOT the center of the universe.
6. Hypocrisy Kids study us. We are their mentors and role models whether we like it or not. Failing to walk the talk is a fast path to cynicism and disrespect. For those of us in the faith community, this is really important. If you truly want to have influence over your children and their choices, be someone they respect, someone they want to emulate. Saint Francis said “Preach the Gospel always, use words sometimes.” I think this can be applied to anything we want to pass on to our kids. Show them–rather than tell them– what kind of person you hope they will be.
7. Divorce and the custody wars that often follow. It’s been said that the kindest thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother (and vise versa). Scripture says God hates divorce and no wonder! Divorce is a tragedy and it can be very hard on our children. Not all marriages can be saved, but if your marriage is salvageable, fight for it! And if divorce is unavoidable, parents must put their animosity aside and cooperate in parenting their children. I have seen too many broken-hearted children caught between warring parents. My article, Co-parenting After Divorce, gives some ideas about how to navigate those choppy waters.
8. Neglect Kids need time and attention. This is hard, especially because in many homes both parents have to work. Nonetheless, children learn from their parents. Are we trying to build a relationship with them? A significant investment in building a relationship buys us influence. Our attention or lack thereof is sending a very clear message. Do we show them by our presence that they matter?
I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, a registered nurse, and a mother of five.