All parents try to give our kids the skills they’ll need to make it through life. But rather than thinking in terms of checking off skills that you taught them along the way, what if we reframed this process as gifts you can give your child?
Especially in our current environment in the United States at least, it feels as if we should always be doing “more” for our kids. The right schools. The right friends. The perfect mix of extracurriculars (starting in preschool!) so they can get into the best college.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take an interest in your child’s educational environment; parents of “exceptional” children (I have two, and am related to several more) know how important it is to make sure your child’s education includes what they need, whether that’s accommodations for a learning difference, or a gifted education that will meet their unique needs. But thinking about this obligation in terms of a gift to your child, versus another “to-do” to check off, radically changes the whole process.
I recently had the opportunity to do this reframing, and was surprised at how much it altered my view of the whole parenting experience. We think of so much of parenting as “doing” for our kids. But really, we’re human BEINGS after all, not human DOINGS.
Here are seven gifts that you can give your child before they grow up, to help them be the best version of themselves that they can. By giving our children these gifts, we can do far more to equip them for adulthood than anything else.
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Seven Priceless Gifts You Can Give Your Child
This may seem obvious, but it’s not as simple as you’d think. Every child needs love to feel secure and wanted. A happy child is one that knows that their parents want them in their lives. You can give your children a sense of value by showing them how much you love them.
How? Remembering to say “I love you” is important, but it goes way beyond that. Encourage your kids. Don’t hand out empty praise or compliments, but give them specific positive feedback when warranted. (“You’re great!” is not as helpful to their long-term growth as “I’m proud of the way you handled that situation.”) Let them know you’re there for them when they need you. Stand up for them when it’s warranted, but let them fight their own battles when they can. Pack them little notes with their lunch to put a smile in their day. And always let them know that you love them unconditionally, even if you don’t always approve of their actions or choices.
Children have an amazing imagination. They see magic in the shapes of the clouds, and fairies and pixies in the garden. Encouraging your child ‘s creativity and imagination will serve them well throughout their lives, especially when it comes to problem-solving.
Give them time and space to play, without any electronic interference or competing demands. In our experience, if you start them off with lots of unstructured play time, their imaginations will soar and their creativity will grow by leaps and bounds. Yes, expose them to new experiences when the time comes. But don’t overschedule them to the point of leaving them stressed without a moment to breathe.
And above all else, foster a love of reading. Read to them, at least once a day. Talk with them about what you read together. Ask them questions (e.g., “What do you think is going to happen next?”). And as soon as they’re able, encourage them to read to YOU. I am constantly amazed at how much the opportunity to immerse themselves in other worlds, through books and stories, has fueled my girls’ own imaginations.
There are too many children out there that become a product of their negative childhood. Bad things happen to everyone – it’s a part of life – but it’s your goal to make sure that the stressors and challenges your child faces have as little to do with you as possible.
So if you have your own issues to work through, do it. Taking time to get your own problems sorted out together is not selfish, it’s critical to helping you be a better parent. But at the same time, bolster your child’s confidence by creating age-appropriate opportunities for them to learn, achieve, and be responsible.
Encourage them to help out around the house from an early age, to give them a taste of responsibility as well as some small early achievements. When they’re trying to master a new skill or learn something new at school, cheer them on (“Keep up the hard work, and you’ll get there eventually!”), and congratulate them when they reach their goals (“You thought you’d never ride your bike, but you’re doing it! – all your hard work and practice paid off!”). Overcoming obstacles and challenges over time will help them to become confident in their abilities to make it through future challenges.
Children need boundaries when growing up. They need to learn their own personal boundaries, of course. But they will also spend lots of time testing yours (and those of their teachers and other authority figures).
Your trick as a parent is to balance love and affection with setting appropriate guidelines, so they can learn to regulate their own behavior. Children crave structure, and need to know that actions have consequences. Setting clear rules about actions and consequences, and involving your child in thinking through the consequences of their actions, is the most effective form of parental discipline according to the experts. You can get more expert tips on disciplining children, by age or by circumstance, here and here.
It takes a few extra minutes to help your children talk through the outcomes of the choices they make, and how they might choose differently if they want different results. But doing so simplifies parenting on so many levels, because your kids know what to expect – and what consequences they face for less-desirable choices. This ability to think beyond the instant gratification of the moment is another life skill that will serve them well in so many ways.
Teaching your children to persevere through difficult experiences at home and at school is critical. Whether this be the next level in piano or a sports team, or simply managing social relationships, you can teach them the determination to be strong and not give up without a fight.
It’s inevitable that your child will encounter challenges in life, but you need to teach them the perseverance to keep going when the going gets tough. Kimmie learned this lesson last year in Girls’ Code Club. About halfway through their monthly meetings, Kimmie got behind in her project. This led to her wanting to quit.
I told her nothing doing; she had willingly committed to doing this year-long sequence, and she was going to see that commitment through. It took me sitting next to her in Code Club for a few classes as a confidence boost/reminder to stay focused (99% of the time I was doing my own work, including coding on my own website). But by the final Code Club meeting, she was as proud of herself for sticking it out as I was.
Determination isn’t the only gift that will help your child get through the tough times. Teaching them how to bounce back from setbacks, and manage stressors when they’re in the thick of them, is equally important. Teach your children how to cope with stress from a young age, and you’ll help them to stay standing when they want to curl up and hide.
Here again, a good place to start is taking care of yourself. By modeling good self-care in your own life crises (versus, say, drowning your sorrows in alcohol or other forms of self-medication), you’ll be teaching them good habits for when they face their own life stressors. And here’s another big hint: If you can focus your kids from the start on a “growth mindset” vs. a “fixed-intelligence mindset,” you’ll be miles ahead.
Yes, our girls have certain academic strengths that have put them ahead of their peers in certain areas. But we’ve NEVER told them how “smart” they are, and we try to discourage others from doing the same. Rather, we’ve focused on the fact that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Some things come easier to some of us than others, and everyone struggles with SOMETHING. It’s silly to think that someone can be the best at EVERYTHING. But everyone CAN improve, with hard work, effort, and a problem-solving approach geared toward how to get better results next time.
7. Freedom to fail
This is a tough one for a lot of parents, but it’s the most important of all. Failure is a part of life; no one gets everything right on the first try. If we’re going to do great things and achieve great successes, we HAVE to take risks, knowing that we could fail spectacularly. Yet in the 21st century, life often seems so high-stakes, and the images of success that social media propagate can make it seem as if imperfection and failure don’t exist.
I was reminded of how important this lesson is, of all things, while I was in a board meeting last weekend. I serve on the board that advises my undergraduate alma mater with its annual fundraising efforts, and the head of fundraising was reporting to us on some of the new initiatives they’d tried over the past five years. She actually put this slide on the screen as part of her presentation – and I was struck by how much innovation and unexpected breakthroughs depend on trial and error.
The reality is that we learn far more from the times we fall short of our goals, than from the times we accomplish something easily on the first try. It was so refreshing to see that even when the stakes were high, the paid development staff whom we were advising were not afraid to try new things and see what “stuck.” Especially in our social-media-driven world, it’s important to give our kids the space and the freedom to learn from their mistakes, rather than feeling pressured to get everything “right” on the first try. Encountering (and overcoming) small failures from a young age will help them build all six of the other gifts I’ve listed above.
What about you? How do you give your children these gifts? What would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments!
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