After reading my "Kitty Couture" column this week, BloggingStocks producer Amey Stone asked that I write more about what parents can do to encourage healthy character formation in their children. It's a wonderful question that we don't often articulate. It's right at the center of what good parents are doing. Thank you for asking, Amey. It got me thinking.
In the early 1970's, when I was first working as a clinician with young children, three books combined to form my viewpoint about a parent's job.
The first is Peoplemaking, written by Virginia Satir, one of the founders of the family therapy movement. Satir talks about three parenting styles: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. The authoritarian parent is the boss and obedience is a high priority. It's the ,"Do it because I said so" school of parenting. The permissive parent places a child's creativity and self-determination high and asserts little leadership. Finally, the authoritative parent leads by example and explanation. She is the boss 100% of the time but 99% of the time her children don't have to know it. Door number 3.
Second is Parents are Teachers, a behavioral psychology book, written by Wesley Becker. It's dry reading but it's the nuts and bolts of how behavior is learned, how reinforcement actually works. It's essential reading for the authoritative parent. A good teacher makes it easy and fun for a child to learn.
Third is Your Child is a Person by Adler and Chess, a study that looked at traits measurable from birth - things like intensity of a baby's response, reactions to new stimuli, activity level - and then followed up through childhood. The conclusion: temperament doesn't change. It can be shaped or altered. An intense baby will be an intense adult, a "shy" (slow to warm up) baby will be, more or less, a shy adult.
A child's behavior and character, seen through the lens of these three books, is formed by the unique combination of the child's temperament, the parents' style and the efficiency - and kindness - of our teaching methods.
In a time of "helicopter parents," too many activities, and too intense a focus on "positioning" our children for success, consider a bit of what I like to call "benign neglect." Relax and enjoy your children, lead by both example and explanation, assume that - until proven otherwise - your child's behavior today is likely a normal developmental event. Let your joy in your child show in your eyes when you look at him. In early childhood, smooth the path in front of him so that he is able to cope. If a young child is having tantrums, avoid situation that overwhelm him. Read him carefully. He signals his stress, in his own way, before he falls apart.
Finally, let him play!
Play is intrinsic to childhood and the momentum of our society is stamping it out. Play is how children work out their feelings and dilemnas. Play - not lessons - is how children naturally learn. Play doesn't require elaborate equipment, the cost of instruction or transportation. It doesn't require a vast, overwhelming assortment of toys. Except to smooth the path, it shouldn't require more than your occasional reactions and participation. Only-children are apt to be achievers as much because they learn to play alone as for any other reason.
By and large, it's free.