In the “For Better or For Worse” comic strip last week, the little boy was complaining about having to do chores. “I’m a kid, man! Kids are supposed to have fun! Why can’t you wait till I’m grown up? Then I’ll work!” His dad replied, “Because by the time you’re grown up and ready to work…you won’t know how!” Dad was seeing the big picture, and he knew that childhood is largely about learning how to become a grown-up. Yes, there should be plenty of play. Absolutely! But if we don’t focus on teaching skills along the way, our kids will not know how to be successful adults.
Take a few minutes to picture your child at age 18, walking out the door into the world. You want him to thrive out there! What character traits and skills does he need to navigate the challenges life will throw his way? Make a list. You might start with some basic words like honesty, integrity, perseverance, self-control, empathy. Keep brainstorming until you have a solid list of 15-20 traits/skills. Then put it where you can easily see and add to it, as more ideas come to you.
Here’s how to use that list as a guideline when your child is presenting a challenge. Think about the behavior he’s using and what trait/skill he’s lacking that is contributing to the problem. Then, think about how you can teach that skill so that, after practicing some new habits and strategies, your child will exhibit that problem behavior less.
Whether it’s two-year-olds throwing temper tantrums (lacking emotional regulation skills), 12-year-olds not doing homework (lacking persistence, confidence, or time-management skills) or 16-year-olds making poor decisions (lacking self-management or impulse control), parents can turn challenges into teachable moments if they look at the big picture. This means not just figuring out how to solve the problem in the moment, but how to keep the problem from recurring. Parents are frequently tempted to give in to, ignore or punish problem behaviors, but the bottom line is, these responses don’t teach skills.
Teaching takes energy and patience. Expect to practice a skill with your child for several weeks (months if the child is very young), and then notice his progress. If he appears to be mastering the skill, take a step back and allow him to do the task with partial independence. If he is successful, let him practice at that level for several more weeks (or months) before taking the next step back. Eventually, he will be completely independent and you can give each other high fives and celebrate his success together!
You will doubtless be teaching multiple skills with multiple strategies at the same time, because kids don’t conveniently present us with one challenge at a time. That’s ok! Keep looking at the big picture. Don’t get too stuck in where your child IS. Envision where he CAN be, and take steps together, to help him get there!
Eva Dwight offers life coaching to adults and teens. For more information, go to www.creativecoachingconversations.com.