Intentional Parenting

Recently I was involved in a discussion about teens who were doing destructive things. These teens were not taking drugs or getting drunk, but they were involved in destroying things—smashing windshields, setting fire to trees, and defacing public property.

Someone said, “But what is a parent to do? Parents can’t follow teens wherever they go.” That is, of course, true. The problem is that once the children have reached their teens, the measures that need to be taken are pretty drastic because the parents have not been successful in their early training of these children.

I think of childrearing as a process through which parents teach their children how to live their lives. It involves instruction in a large number of areas. It starts in the crib and if the parents stays “on message,” by five or six years old, the child will have gained a structure that will help him function for his whole life.

The internal structure of the child, akin to the framework of a building, includes basic trust, honesty, respect, caring, giving, curiosity, cooperation, feelings about others, feelings about his or her own body, etc.

From the earliest days of a child’s life we cuddle them to give them a sense of security, we feed them to let them know that their needs can be met, and we protect them from danger by making sure that their environment is safe.

Later, we teach them that we need to share, that other people have needs, that hitting others hurts them and that instead of hitting, we can “make nice.” We teach them that they need to stay safe and to listen to their parents. In short, we indoctrinate them. By age five or six, if we have done our job, the child will look disapprovingly when someone throws a piece of trash on the ground. They will understand that it is not desirable for someone to shout in a quiet place. They will have a sense of what it means to live in a civilized society where people respect each other.

If we teach them when they are still young, they will carry those attitudes with them for their entire life. It doesn’t mean that they will never throw trash on the ground and never shout in a quiet place, but it does mean that they will know that it is not the right thing to do. They will have heard maybe a thousand times that this is a world that we need to share with others and that we cannot just be thinking of ourselves.

To teach these lessons, parents need to be consistent. Children need to see their parents’ actions as reflections of their instruction. Parents cannot expect their child to be respectful if they are not respectful. They cannot expect their children to be kind and caring if they are not kind and caring. They cannot expect their children to be honest if they are not honest.

Sometimes I speak to people about what I call intentional parenting. What it means is simply to sit down and think of what attributes parents want their children to have and then to focus their behavior and instruction in that direction. If parents have a picture of what their child should be as a teenager—not what sports he or she should excel in or not which subjects he or she could be a genius in but what qualities he or she should have—then their efforts are more likely to be effective.

Being a parent isn’t easy, but if you survive until they are out on their own, you can expect to enjoy the results…. And if you are really lucky, you might have a chance to see your children meet the very same challenges.

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