Parenting can be a scary thing.
There’s the obvious scary aspect of just trying to keep your kid(s) healthy and safe. And then there’s the not-so-obvious scary aspect of building an emotionally healthy kid.
By “emotionally healthy” I mean raising a kid that makes good decisions, thinks critically for themselves, and is kind to others. Teaching this is a lot less straight forward than teaching a kid to eat their veggies and put down the candy.
In my own parenting life (I have a 1 year old son and daughter that turns 3 in April), I’ve been using a simple filter to evaluate the daily moments and situations with my kids. It’s not a perfect science, but parenting never is, and this at least gives me a framework to operate from.
That framework evaluates three things: presence, freedom of choice (and consequences), and boundaries.
Presence is the simple act of…being present. Like, actually present, with phone out of sight and attention focused on my kids. Kids are significantly more observant than we realize. And the hard part is that they don’t vocalize what they recognize. If our two year old sees one of us on our phone when we’re supposed to be playing with her, she likely isn’t going to say “Put your phone away and play with me!” but there’s a decent chance that the moment registers with her, and chips away at her trust that we’re in the moment and enjoying playing together.
This isn’t just relevant to phones either. When we’re absent-minded, it’s obvious. When we’re sitting there thinking about work, or our to-do list, or something else that takes us away from the moment with our kids, we’re choosing the arbitrary over the important.
Freedom of Choice (and Consequence)
Raising a child to be able to make intelligent choices on their own is perhaps the best tool we can give them. After all, they’re going to have to do it for all of their adult lives, and if they aren’t well-equipped to critically think through decisions, they’re screwed. The problem is that we strip this away from them when we are constantly trying to protect them. The term “helicopter parent” has become popular in recent years because there seems to be a rise in parents that try to make every choice for their child, instead of letting them naturally learn the course of decision = consequence.
My wife and I use a strategy that helps develop our kids’ decision-making muscle by regularly position choices as questions. For instance, if our daughter is refusing to put her coat on before leaving the house, we will ask her something along the lines of “Do you want to put on your coat yourself, or do you want to carry it to the car?” By putting the decision in her hands, she gets to feel the control and reward of making a decision on her own. If she chooses to put the coat on, then great! But if she chooses to carry it instead, she will feel the cold air, connect the dots, and likely ask to put it on later. It’s a win-win. Kids at this age don’t seem to realize that there could be a 3rd or 4th choice. They view the decision in a binary manner, and this allows them to build confidence in being able to make choices before they get older and the consequences are higher.
The flip-side of raising children that are used to making choices and decisions is that they also have to be shown where the boundaries are. To piggy back on the above example, if it’s 15 degrees below zero outside and snowing, I’m not going to let my kids go outside without proper clothing. To do that we have to draw a hard line in the sand. As another example, I will let my son crawl up and down a few stairs and try to climb down from the couch, because I think it’s good for him to explore and learn where his freedom has his limits. If he falls in either of these situations, he’ll be just fine and hopefully he’ll be a little bit wiser about what he can and can’t do. But if he wants to climb on something that I know could truly hurt him, that’s where my line in the sand is. If his actual safety, not just some bumps and bruises, are at stake, that decision becomes mine, not his.
Boundaries don’t just apply to keeping kids safe either. They apply to daily interactions as well. Our daycare provider is really great at keeping boundaries with the kids. If I’m at her house and talking to her, my daughter will inevitably come over and start talking to me as well. Our daycare provider will calmly look at my daughter and say “What are my lips doing?” To which my daughter replies “Talking.” To which our daycare provider will reply “What do you do when I’m talking?” To which my daughter will reply “Be patient.” It’s a small, but beautiful example of setting boundaries for our own personal happiness and sanity. Kids don’t just need to know where the boundaries are – they actually want to know where they are. They’re what provide kids with a sense of safety and security in this big, scary world they’re learning about. They may throw a tantrum when they butt up against these boundaries – but these types of tantrums are emotional responses to not getting what they want, not long-term displays of resentment.
Raising kids is scary and difficult. But we can do our best to make the most of each day and situation by asking ourselves a few questions.
Am I present?
Am I helping my child learn the freedom of choice and consequences?
Am I providing necessary boundaries to their freedom?
They won’t all be relevant to each situation, but if we can simply check one of the boxes in each moment, we’re likely doing our best to raise emotionally healthy children.