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A dozen things to say to your children

Jul 1, 2019

I am interested in the idea that parenting, at least in part, is a process of conveying messages to our kids. Sometimes we communicate these messages simply by saying them or writing them. Sometimes we convey messages through our behavior. Below is the current list of my 12 favorite messages. Yours may differ!

1. I love you as you are and I always will, no matter what.

Back when I was formally studying psychology (mid- to late-1970s) there was a lot of conversation about conditional vs. unconditional love. I maintain a belief that children are very much helped and reassured by unconditional love. Of course, we don’t have to unconditionally approve of all of their behavior!

2. God loves you as you are and always will, no matter what.

In other words, about this, Father Fallon is right!

3. You are someone I would enjoy being with, even if you weren’t my child.

Years ago, I read Howell Raines’ book Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis. I stole this one from the book, in which Raines says something like it to his son as his son was leaving for college. It has stuck with me over the years.

4. I like you just fine. But, it’s not my job to be your friend. I’m your parent.

I think most parents, especially in recent years, have come to understand that our children don’t need us to be their friends. They can get friends closer to their own age. (So can we!) They need us for guidance, for limit-setting, and for the roles that are appropriate to us as parents.

5. Is there anything I can do to help you? Do you need or want any advice?

When our children are going through tough times, we want to fix their problems. Many parents believe they should always act as their child’s advocate, even when it might be best to let them work out their own problems, or to learn that suffering is part of life. Or, we want to provide them with advice for how they can fix their problems. The difficulty is that people, including children and teenagers, often aren’t really looking for advice. They are looking for an understanding, caring, and sympathetic ear.

6. I’m sorry about that thing I said (or did).

Are you perfect? Right. Me neither. Some of us worry that if we apologize to our kids for the inappropriate things we say or do—often when we are angry or otherwise emotional—that we diminish our authority in their eyes. Not so. If we do wrong, we ought to respect our kids enough to say so and to apologize. It’s also a way of helping our children build the skill of taking responsibility or their mistakes, a habit that tends to be in short supply.

7. If you are in trouble, tell me--no matter what’s going on. I may be angry, but my first concern will be helping you and your safety. We’ll talk about punishment or consequences later on.

I don’t think the parents of teenagers ought to be surprised if a teenager in trouble doesn’t tell us. When you think about it, it’s a pretty tall order to ask a teenager to tell us if they are in trouble, especially if they can come up with an alternative to telling us. But it’s a healthy message to offer.

8. My concern is not what your friends are able to do or what they have. I’m your parent and that’s what I am focused on.

I doubt I’ve ever met a child who hasn’t tried to persuade his or her parents to allow him or her to do something, or get something, or go someplace based on the “all the other parents are allowing it” argument. Your child will assert that every other second grader in his or her class has a smartphone. There is no reason to hold this argument against the child. Just don’t fall for it.  (Although, he or she may be right about the smartphones!)

9. You must be proud of yourself. Here are some things I admire about you.

This is a way to praise a child. Often, we go the route of “you’ve made Mom and/or Dad so proud and happy.” That’s not a bad approach, but the message is that the child’s accomplishments are good because they please the parent. The approach in the message above is “your accomplishments are good things for you.”

10. I am not able to solve all your problems or correct all the injustices done to you.

This one is tough. Sometimes when our children are truly mistreated, we have to step in and help them, especially when they are very young. But there is a thin line between appropriate intervention and the “helicopter” parenting we’ve heard about lately. If we are too quick to intervene in our children’s problems, we might be in danger of conveying some unintentionally unhealthy messages, such as “you couldn’t possibly have what it takes to solve this problem yourself.” Or, “whenever you get in trouble, you can count on me to sweep in and fix it.”

11. Minimize the role of alcohol and drugs in your life. So much to say about this, so little space. There is a double standard about alcohol vs. drugs. Objectively, there is no other substance of abuse, with the possible exception of cigarettes, that does more harm to more people than alcohol. And, research is clear that the earlier a young person takes their first drink, the more likely they are to eventually end up with a drinking problem. Watch this space for a future column on teenagers and alcohol.

12. Here is what I expect of you: Treat others with respect and kindness. Make yourself useful.

You will have other messages, I am sure. Do consider the value of thinking about what your expectations are and communicating them clearly and often.


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