Today’s typical parent, raising two children, is experiencing twice as many problems as did a parent 50 years ago who was raising ten. The lament, “Raising children is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” never came out of the latter’s mouth. Why?
Times have changed, you say. But since the dawn of human history, times have constantly changed. Nonetheless, the sorts of problems— both in kind and quantity— that today’s parents experience in the course of raising children were “unheard of” in previous times.
The answer to “Why?” is that nearly two generations have passed since American parents began to stray from the principles that had successfully steered the ship of childrearing for thousands of years. The fact is that while a minority of parents translated those principles badly, the principles themselves were unimpeachable. The further fact is that even though times have most definitely changed, those old-fashioned notions still work to the very best interests of both parents and children.
Paul McCartney and I both believe in yesterday. I am convinced that although times have most definitely changed, those principles still work to the very best interests of both parents and children. New ideas are not always (or even usually, for that matter) better than “old” ideas.
1. Principle One is the foundation that supports the other four: It’s about the family, not the children. In other words, in any decision-making situation, consideration of the family unit should take precedent over consideration of any individual child (the exceptions are rare and obvious). In today’s all-too-typical family, however, parents tend to pay so much attention to children that the needs of the family itself as well as the needs of the marriage (or, as the case may be, the needs of the single parent) fall slowly by the wayside. The problem is that the suffering of the family unit or the marriage is rarely immediately evident, and by the time the symptoms of “disease” become obvious, the damage is sometimes irreversible. In a two-parent family, the marriage came first and needs to remain first… lest it become a mirage. Likewise, single parents need to always remember that they cannot take adequate care of their children unless they first take adequate care of themselves.
2. Principle Two is equally counter-cultural: Where discipline is concerned, it’s about communication, not consequences. Proper communication— knowing how to talk to a child, especially when one is conveying instructions— will prevent most behavior problems from ever occurring, and proper communication will take care of most of those that do occur. Yes, consequences will sometimes be necessary, but where discipline is concerned, consequences are Plan B. When parents use them as Plan A, behavioral issues rarely get resolved. To effectively communicate with a child, parents must master the simple art of what I call “Alpha Speech”— speech that is clear, concise and commanding. Unfortunately, most parents unwittingly use a very sloppy sort of speech when communicating with their children. For example, instead of simply saying, “It’s time for you to pick up these toys,” a parent will launch into an explanation of why the toys need to be picked up, not realizing that explanations convey the impression that one is asking the child to please consider picking up the toys, sometime… okay?
3. Principle Three turns today’s central parenting myth on its head: It’s about respect for others, not esteem of self. The fact is, the more one esteems oneself, the less one thinks about the needs of the other guy. The further simple fact is that the more one thinks about the other guy, the more fulfilling one’s life will be. Besides— prepare for a shock— the latest research has found that the higher one’s self-esteem, the lower one’s self-control, especially in situations where one is not getting his or her way. Does your 7 year old still throw tantrums when you don’t fix him a special meal? The problem may be that your efforts to promote his self-esteem have worked!
4. Principle Four is about one’s manners, not about one’s skills. Today’s parents would be hard-pressed to deny that they are more concerned with their children’s skills than they are their children’s manners. When is the last time you heard a parent crow about his or her child’s mastery of social courtesies? Where is the bumper sticker that reads “My child is NOT in the gifted program, but his manners are impeccable?” When I point out to parents that success in life— not necessarily financial success, mind you, but a prevailing sense of personal fulfillment— is a matter not of how smart you are, but your regard for others and their regard for you. You want to feel good about yourself? Polish your manners!
5. Principle Five, closely related to its immediate predecessor, affirms the importance of developing a sense of obligation in children: It’s about responsibility, not high achievement. One of the things that I point out to nearly all of my audiences is that in today’s parent-child relationship, the only person who acts as if he/she has obligation is the parent. In a time not so very long ago, children had obligations to their parents, and obligations to their families. Once upon a time, children were responsible, contributing members of their families, and their obligations/contributions began when they were young, in the form of chores. Chores taught children household skills, but more importantly, it taught them that a family is a group of people who depend upon one another and pull together, and that the stronger everyone pulls, the stronger the family. These five principles are timeless in their value, so the good news is that they work as well today (even though times have changed) as they did in days gone by. By putting them into practice, you will strengthen your children, your family and your community. In short, you will strengthen America. Now, that’s real patriotism!