The Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Kids

Taking care of your own emotional health and well-being is the single most important thing you can do for your kids.  Period.

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Replacing Your Unfounded Parenting Fears With Empathy for Your Child

If I had to sum up what is wrong with our society in one sentence it would be this:  “Too much fear, and not enough empathy.”  This is especially true in our dealings with children.  I struggled for far to long (and still do at times) with the misguided and unfounded fears of parenting.

What if someone yells at my child?
What if he turns out to be ungrateful?
What if people think I am a bad parent?

All these concerns are not centered around the well being of my child, but my own personal fears, prejudices, and desire for comfort.

I strive now to replace these with more important questions.

What is best for my child?
How must my child be feeling in this situation?
What might she be thinking?
How would I feel if it was me?

Being empathetic toward your children not only allows you to care for and protect our societies most vulnerable individuals, but also shows your child the importance of being compassionate.  It empowers them, and helps them to realize that it is okay to have feelings and emotions, and they are not something to be afraid of, hidden, bottled up, or dismissed.  It creates a healthy environment where burdens are shared collectively, and conflicts are resolved respectfully.

Conversely, hitting, time-outs, yelling, control, bribery and artificial rewards (which in my experience are almost always rooted in fear) let children know that their feelings are unimportant and insignificant.  Children learn to keep their emotions, desires, and thoughts to themselves.  Either out of fear of being labeled a whiner (or worse), or simply because they don’t think anyone cares.

Daddy, Why Aren’t You Helping Me?

When I was a new father my wife and I lived quite far from our families.  We made a trip to our home town when our first child was about a year old.  Her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were excited to see her.  So when someone reached to take her, I gave her up right away.  She grabbed onto my shirt and started to cry, but was pulled away into the arms of someone who to her was a stranger.  She looked at me, confused at first, then her eyes filled with terror as she continued to cry and reach out to me.  My family assured me that this is just what kids do, and you have to let them cry sometimes.  But she wasn’t “just crying,” She was telling me something.  She was trying to communicate.  “I’m scared, daddy,”  “I don’t know what’s going on,” “I’m not sure who these people are,” “Daddy, why aren’t you helping me?”  But her pleas fell on deaf ears.  I did not want to make waves or upset my family.  What would they think of me or say about me if I wouldn’t allow them to hold my child?  I figured it wouldn’t do much harm, so I did my best to ignore her crying.  My wife, however, did not share this sentiment.  She put our daughters needs before her own fears, and refused to ignore her desperate cries.

The Result?  I severely damaged the relationship I had been building with my daughter, and she learned that she couldn’t trust me.  She didn’t feel safe with me anymore.  For some time after if I was holding her, and something made her feel uncomfortable, she would seek out my wife, someone she knew would listen and understand.  Someone she could trust.

Even though a lot has changed since then, we still don’t live in a perfect house where it’s all daisy chains and unicorns.  We are haunted by the ghosts and scars of fear and control.  But every day we increase the love, the compassion, the respect, and the empathy, and every day we grow a little closer.

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Inside an Elementary School

Occasionally for work, I make visits to local elementary schools.  I have the opportunity to see the way many (if not most) children are spending the bulk of their waking hours.  Having four young children myself, I know what they are capable of.  Children are creativity machines, always singing, dancing, building, digging, experimenting and exploring.  They have a tremendous drive to take in as much of the world around them as possible.  They are bursting with excitement at the newness of everything.  Imagine having 200-300 of these little imaginative beasts crammed into one area!  What would that look like?  What would they learn, create, and discover?

Well, I have seen what it looks like, and it is quite disturbing.  Today was my first visit of the school year to a few local elementary schools.   Each of the schools I visited was the pretty much the same.  None of the children spoke (At least not loud enough for me to hear).  They moved silently in single file lines, and the only sound was the commands and reprimands of the adults.

You couldn’t have asked for more docile and obedient children, but the school staff still found reasons to chastise.  One student put out his arm, and ran his hand along the wall as he walked (still in line) toward the cafeteria.  “Aiden, the wall does not need dusting!”

As I made my way through the school, I heard a teacher inform the students that they ought to walk “Single file through the hall please, quiet as a butterfly,” on hearing this, one of the more spirited children gently flapped her arms (like a butterfly), “SASHA!  We are not birds!”  Whoa.

It was pathetic.  The teachers were really grasping at straws.  On my way out I heard “Why would you put water in your hair!? Why? Just, WHY!?”  I turned to see a boy, not drenched as I was expecting, but patting his slightly damp head with his hand.

These are young kids we are talking about, anywhere from 4 to 10 years old.  I can’t believe that I am the only one who doesn’t think this is a natural or healthy way for them to behave.  And it is not enough for them to be silent for six hours, and walk in single file lines, but they need to keep their arms at their side, not touch anything, and whatever you do, don’t let any of them put water in their hair.

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