Opinion

How to be a Responsible Parent

Originally published in the September/October 2007 Issue of TEACH Magazine

By Richard Worzel [Traduire]

One thing I hear from teachers on a regular basis is that a small, but growing percentage of parents are ignoring their responsibilities as parents, that they are leaving their kids to grow up as uncivilized savages instead of learning how to be responsible human beings. Such parents are shirking the jobs they (probably) volunteered for, and endangering the rest of us, harming themselves, but most of all harming their own children. Their kids come to school as ill-mannered, foul-mouthed brats with an attitude that makes it hard for them to learn, and interferes with teachers’ ability to teach other kids as well. So how should you, in this day and age, be a responsible parent? What is the job description that goes with the position?

Well, first, children need to know that there are limits to what they can do and how they can behave. This isn’t just to keep them pacified and manageable; it’s also to help them feel safe and develop confidence. Minor children of all ages, including teenagers, will test the boundaries that you set, pushing against them, and they’ll do it partly because they want to know where they are safe. If your messages are consistent about what they can and can’t do, then they know that as long as they stay within those boundaries they will be secure. If your messages are not consistent, if you’re harsh and unreasonable when you’re feeling cranky, and easy-going and permissive when you’re feeling good, then you’re sending mixed messages, and you create anxiety in the minds of your children. They never know how to act, and wind up focusing on your behaviour rather than their own. Moreover, when you are inconsistent, you are guaranteeing that they will give you a progressively harder and harder time, nagging and whining to get their own way. If, on the other hand, they know that when you say “no”, it’s final, then they will stop once you’ve said no.

What this also means is that you have to think through what limits you set, and not just for today, but for years to come. For example, my wife and I made it an iron-clad rule when our kids were young that, except when we were playing with them, we never lied or exaggerated. When our kids were older, they knew that they could absolutely rely on what we said to be true, whether it was about drugs, or sex, or our reasons why they couldn’t stay out past a certain time. Sometimes that was uncomfortable, as when they asked where babies came from when they were young, or what we thought of marijuana when they were older.

Being consistent also means exercising a great deal of self-control. Disciplining children is never easy, but it has to be done, not by hitting them, but by making sure they know there are consequences for inappropriate actions. And the discipline has to be measured, meted out without anger, and consistent from one event to another so your kids learn what’s right from what’s not. Parents who fail to discipline are setting their kids up for failure, and dumping their garbage on other people, especially teachers. If you don’t discipline your kids, or if you aren’t consistent about it, your children will be disruptive and probably rude, which will make them hard to teach and jeopardize their future careers, their ability to get along with other people, and their ability to fit in successfully in society.

Next, you need to love your kids, and that means you need to spend time with them. You absolutely cannot substitute “quality time” for “quantity time”. Quality time is a cop-out, an attempt to buy love. If you don’t spend time with them, the message you are sending them is that they’re not important. And since you are the most important things or people in their lives, they will draw conclusions about their own self-worth from your actions. Buying them presents may make their faces light up, but spending time in the evenings, on weekends, and on holidays together will make them feel good about themselves and about their relationship with you, which will become even more important as they get older.

You need to model the behaviour you want them to have. They usually won’t pay much attention to what you say, but they will watch what you do and take that as an indication of what they should do. If you lie and cheat, behave rudely to other drivers, overeat, act the couch potato, or yammer on your cell phone ignoring the people you’re with, and irritating the strangers around you, you’re giving them permission to do the same. When you get involved in community work and invite them to join you, you send a message about how to be a responsible citizen in far stronger language than any amount of empty preaching.

These two things – spending time with them, and being a good role model – are the toughest and require the most self-discipline because there’s always the temptation to ease off, and you can’t. Next, let them know what they can’t do. Set limits on the amount of time they spend gaming, on the Internet, talking to friends on the phone or texting. Establish rules about what movies and videos they may and may not watch – then monitor what they are watching and be consistent and appropriate to their ages. They may at times find ways around your restrictions, as when they visit friends. If you find out about it, tell them they can’t visit those friends anymore. If they want to spend more time playing online computer games, then work out a system whereby they can earn such time by getting ahead with their schoolwork. Make sure they know they’re supposed to say “please” and “thank you” and be courteous towards others. In short, teach them how to behave, because they won’t know unless you do.

This will provoke arguments and heavy-duty eye-rolling, but it’s important. There are a lot of things out there that can harm them emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. And our society seems to be doing its best to undermine your efforts as parents. In particular, you’re being told that it’s your responsibility to insulate your children from all the negative effects of a society that has a commercial interest in corrupting them with inappropriate films, videos, computer games, and more. It’s almost as if organizations are attempting to entice your kids to wallow in the mud while they simultaneously tell you it’s your job to keep them clean. It’s unfair, and it makes a tough job even tougher. Jim Garbarino, a sociology professor at Cornell University, describes this environment as a “toxic society.”

Some parents believe that our schools should teach behaviour and courtesy. I’ve had teachers tell me about parents who berate them because their children are rude, as if it’s the teacher’s fault. They’re wrong. Schools can only continue what the parents have largely done. If your kids are rude, then the reason is probably you.

And finally, make allowances for yourself. Parenting is difficult, and no one can ever be perfect at it. Don’t let the guilt of past mistakes drag you down or make you angry with them or yourself. Do the best you can, and when you slip, resolve to do better next time.

Richard Worzel (@futuresearch) is Canada’s leading futurist who speaks to more than 20,000 business people a year.

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