Remember when your firstborn was learning to walk? He’d take a wobbly step, mouth agape, face serious, and then plop to the ground — boom, boom — and look to you for a reaction. You would go ga-ga, thrilled for him, encouraging his efforts, present and ready to help if he needed you, and he did. You did not scold him, and if he tired, you would happily suggest that he take a break. You knew he would have to try and try again before he would actually be walking like a regular little Joe, so you knew not to push it, and experts said that was a good thing. Don’t push, let him do it on his own, and in time all will work out fine.
So what happened?!
You let him do it on his own, in his own time, and he was fine for the most part. But then he grew older, and he started watching TV, making friends outside of your home and by fourth grade he became the proud owner of his very own iPod Touch. Now the world was his oyster.
One day he actually stopped listening to you — doing what you asked — or at least he decided that he could choose for himself what was best … until the mistakes started happening, which, if he had listened to you, were mistakes he may not have made.
But that’s life.
In a world where children see more than 20,000 commercials a year (if they watch TV like most people do); in a world where pop culture feeds upon eager-to-be-who-I-am kids; in a world where our technological toys want to snare us into their jaws like a flytrap, healthy values matter. Why? Because kids will face adversity as they grow. They will see a lot of shocking things just like their parents did, and they will make a lot of mistakes. There are plenty of forces at work in the world around us that threaten to topple a kid’s potential for good if parents don’t take care. Pop culture’s influences are powerful and all around us.
In a survey by Common Sense Media, the nation’s leading non-profit advocate for kids, 75 percent of parents said that materialism and the negative influences from television, movies, music and technology create a serious problem in raising kids with solid values. The same survey also reported that 64 percent of parents believe media content today is inappropriate for children. More than 85 percent of parents believe that marketing contributes to children being too materialistic, sexual content leads children to sexually activity at younger ages and violent content increases aggressive behavior in kids. Phew.
Learning to Make Decisions
In the book, Your Children Are Under Attack: How Popular Culture is Destroying Your Kids’ Values and How You Can Protect Them (Sourcebooks; 2005) by Jim Taylor, Ph.D., the author says first and foremost kids need to learn to be good decision makers. But it doesn’t happen overnight. Remember that little toddler learning to walk? Practice, practice, practice. Good decision making is a complex process that takes years to master. It begins, Taylor says, with literally educating your kids about decision making. “Children are notorious for making snap judgments,” Taylor says. “And for acting impulsively without thinking,” he adds.
Decision Making 101
Offset your child’s impulsive choice making by giving him a skill set to rely on:
1. Teach him to stop before he leaps. By pausing for a few moments, your kids can prevent a lot of bad decisions from being made. When you see your son about to jump without thinking, stop him and guide him through the decision-making process. When things don’t turn out well, ask him how he could have made a different choice.
2. Tell him to ask, “What are my options?”
There are always several possible choices when faced with a decision. For example, faced with the possibility of stealing a needed pen from a girl’s desk in reach he could a) swipe the pen; b) not take the pen and ask if he can borrow one; c) tell the teacher he needs a pen … you see? There are multiple choices here.
3) Ask himself, how will my decision affect others?
4) Ask himself, is this decision in my best interests?
Parents who can coach their kids into learning how to make decisions for themselves help their kids offset a bevy of negative consequences.
Learning to Be Responsible
“I didn’t do it!” Plenty of kids will wail to their parents when blame is pointed their way. Irresponsible kids will fault someone or something else for their actions in order to NOT take the blame. They can come up with explanations galore often falling into three main categories, Taylor says: Someone else did it; it was someone else’s idea; or another adult was responsible.
In Twenty Teachable Virtues (Perigree; 1995) psychologist and author Jerry Wyckoff suggests parents with young children employ a household rule he calls “Grandma’s rule” to encourage responsible behavior. “Grandma’s rule says, ‘When you’ve done what you have to do, then you get to do what you want to do.’” For instance, your child wants to have a friend over, but her room is a disaster area. She asks if the friend can come over, but you say, “When you’ve cleaned up your room, then you can ask her to come over.”
Older kids who show a lack of responsibility need to continue working through teachable moments. For example, your preteen didn’t do his homework, but he has plenty of excuses. You can say, “We’re not talking about where the fault is, we’re talking about responsibility.” Try not to argue over excuses with your kids, just focus on their ability to RESPOND.
Giving kids of all ages responsibilities is a great way to teach them how to take things on. An easy way to do this at home is with chores:
• Make sure the pet’s bowls always have clean water
• Hang up jackets and put backpacks where they go after school
• Have kids keep track of their daily schedules and needs: musical instruments, sports uniforms, library books, etc.
Turn on any TV show and rudeness is so pervasive that heckling is common place. Bratty behavior and back talk are so common these days that it may be easy to just roll your eyes when your kids call each other names, but … don’t. Acting polite isn’t merely a formality, says Ingrid Schweiger, Ph.D., author of Self-Esteem for a Lifetime (AuthorHouse; 2008). “When kids say ‘thanks’ after something is given to them, they acknowledge that there’s a mutual exchange going on, a give-and-take,” she explains. And by going through the motions, they eventually learn not to expect the world on a silver platter. As your kids grow up, you’ll have to give plenty of reminders to be respectful — gently. If you consistently cue them when they’re young it may eventually become natural, but sometimes a nudge isn’t enough: If you’re taking your kids someplace that requires a specific kind of behavior (say, an upscale restaurant or to meet your boss), make sure they understand what you expect of them: friendly eye contact, common courtesy, bouncing the ball back and forth in conversation. It takes time for kids to master, but it’s worth its weight in gold.
Of course the most effective way to teach kids respectful behavior is to model it yourself, says Victoria Kindle Hodson, co-author of Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids (Puddledancer Press; 2006). By taking a respectful approach and learning to make a connection with people they encounter, Hodson says, kids will be open to exciting new experiences and people and will eventually come to see the world as a place brimming with possibilities. That’s a pretty powerful payoff.
Living Your Beliefs
Many parents wonder how they can protect their kids in this wired new world. They can’t always. Just like in the movie Finding Nemo where the little clownfish’s father, Marlin, says, “I promised him I’d never let anything happen to him!” and the little fish Dori replies, “That’s funny. If you don’t let anything ever happen to him, then nothing will ever happen to him.” Life’s tough. We can’t always shield our kids. That’s why parents have to equip them with a solid foundation they can rely on through tough times and situations. It’s important to start letting them out into the world a little at a time. And for many parents, religion is the basis they use for helping their kids navigate this tricky but oh-so-important transition into the real world.
“Kids know what’s important to their parents, so if you live your life according to your beliefs and clarify them for your kids, that’s another way they learn to identify with your religion,” says Madeline Levine, Ph.D., author of Teach Your Children Well (Harper; 2012). Levine says there are five MOST desirable character traits that parents want from their kids: honesty, strong self-esteem, kindness, good manners and a strong work ethic.
Ultimately we “teach” values best by our own example. The everyday things we do and say influence our kids the most. A cultural backdrop can help (going to church) or hinder (too much too soon), but more than anything else within our control, our values shape the essence of who our children become.