SEVEN TIPS FOR RAISING GREAT PEOPLE
My high school sweetheart and I have three delightful, accomplished, well adjusted children. But how? We’re constantly asked what we’re doing to raise such great people. I’ve shied away from answering because I’m afraid that if I believe, even for a second, that we’ve got it figured out, my kids will suddenly turn into monsters to prove that we have no idea what we’re doing.
But there are seven (7) tips that are worth sharing and I’m finally willing to take the risk.
1Prioritize the sibling relationship
My husband and I agreed when our second child was born that we would do just about anything to ensure that the siblings loved, liked, and cherished each other. We wanted to know that they would be close friends and take care of each other in case the two of us were no longer here. And we didn’t want to spend 20 years hearing our kids fight!
When our second child turned 6 months old we taught our 2 ½ year old how to climb into the crib and told her that she could go in there to play with her brother when she woke up each morning. All of you out there saying “tsk tsk!” and looking up the number to the Department of Children and Family Services to report us, give me a second to explain. We were right around the corner every minute that she was in the crib and we even set up a camcorder to record the two at play. Our daughter didn’t know we were watching, though, so her takeaway was that we trusted her and that the baby was as much hers as he was ours. Their laughter and ease with each other in that crib was like nothing I’ve ever seen and it’s lasted through their young adulthood.
We also incorporated sibling booboo kissing to seal the deal. When either one of them got hurt, we helped their sibling kiss the booboo instead of doing it ourselves, solidifying their belief that they needed each other.
Another shared belief between my husband and me is that struggle builds character. Raising our children in a middle class environment limited the opportunities for our children to experience real struggle. So we manufactured it.
For example, when our kids were old enough to reach at least one refrigerator shelf, they were given the responsibility of making their own school lunches, including making sure to tell us if they lacked the necessary groceries. There were numerous times, early on, when they had sandwiches with two bread heels, or when they didn’t have a sandwich at all. But they made do and made sure the shopping list was ready in hand next time for my husband to execute. There were also times when they ran out without their lunch. We brought it to them if we could, but there were many times when we couldn’t bring it to them (or so they thought). So they had to make do.
We forced them to figure out how to use the city bus and sent them out to get lost on their bikes. They were also responsible for waking themselves up in the morning for school starting at age 9, and if the alarm didn’t go off they had to run to the bus stop ill-prepared for school.
Kids are able to perform significant parts of their upkeep quite early in life and, if their parents don’t get in the way or come to the rescue too soon and too often, they get good at the things that build their self-worth.
3Help your kids, don’t do for them
Many kids take their parents for granted and don’t have an opportunity to appreciate their parents. By manufacturing struggle and holding our kids accountable for things like their lunches and waking themselves up in the morning, we afforded ourselves the opportunity to offer help.
At times I would have a few minutes of free time in the morning and ask the kids if they’d like me to help make their lunch. They loved when I did that and I loved it too. There were times when my husband would hear the kids grumbling that there was nothing to make for lunch and he would offer to make an early morning run to the store for them. The relief and gratitude was abundant. On the rare occasion that they would forget to set their alarm, I would sneak in their rooms and whisper, “You didn’t hear this from me but I think you’re oversleeping” earning me a big thank you once they got their bearings.
It feels good when people go out of their way to help you and it teaches you to do the same. Many parents do these things without notice which not only prevents their children from learning to be independent but also denies them the joyful feeling of having someone save the day.
4 Give Your Kids Summer Homework
Starting the summer after kindergarten, my kids had daily summer homework. Although they claimed to hate it, it was curious how they’d make a beeline to the kitchen table to find and do their homework the second they woke up.
There were typically four components to the homework: a workbook sheet, a reading assignment, musical instrument practice and “something surprising.” The “something surprising” was always different. For example, preparing dinner for the family, building a fort out of sheets, creating a scavenger hunt, or taking the bus to buy chocolate chips for cookies that night.
Creating their homework kept me intimately connected to their development. It forced me to challenge them academically and developmentally and it helped me feel present with them even though I’m a working mother. And surprisingly, as counterintuitive as this seems, the homework made them happier kids. In fact, when they’d have friends sleep over, the friends would ask if I’d leave them homework too.
5Leave Room for Mistakes But Not for Lies
Nothing scares my husband and I more than the thought that our children would be in danger and not reach out to us for help. So we placed the highest family moral value on telling the truth, even higher than doing right. When our kids each told their first young lies, we made a big deal about it — a much bigger deal than we made when they didn’t clean up their toys or did something we asked them not to do. We explained the unintended consequences of their lie (like having parents who didn’t believe what they said). We painted pictures in their mind of what it would be like for them to have trusting parents and a trusting community versus having distrustful parents and a distrustful community. And we put our money where our mouth was. When our kids did something unsavory but told us about it, we handled it with minimal escalation. But when they did something and lied about it we escalated the outcome and highlighted how different the outcome would have been if the lie had not accompanied their poor choice.
6I Love You Mom!
You may have noticed that when a young black person gets in front of a media camera the first thing that comes out of his mouth is “I Love You Mom!” There’s typically a strong cultural value in black families that the momma is the lifeline and she’s to be cherished, protected and honored.
From the moment that our children came into this world, my husband impressed upon them that they have a good momma and that no one in the world will have their back like their momma. This has always made me uncomfortable (it’s odd to be talked about in the third person and I worried that my children would think that their daddy and the rest of the world didn’t have their backs). But I was proven wrong. My husband helped instill in our children a protectiveness of their relationship with their parents that prevented the teenage self-absorption that we often hear about. All three of them have been affectionate with us their whole lives and seem to not have the resentment or distance that is so prevalent in teenagers and young adults.
7Guilt is Good
I’ll probably get some pushback on this one but I’m going to stick my neck out any way and say that guilt is good. Rather than punishing my children when they did something wrong, I was more apt to bear my soul and let them know how I felt. On rare occasions, I even found myself crying in front of my children out of fear for them or disappointment.
One night I heard my daughter on the phone past her bedtime. I went into her room and she pretended to be asleep. I sat on her bed and said (talking to a “sleeping” 14 year old) that I wasn’t sure what hurt more; the fact that I now wasn’t sure we could trust her to have her phone in her room or the fact that she was lying there pretending she was asleep, making me feel like she didn’t trust me. She bursted into tears and said that she thought the phone should be taken from her for a while because she’d become too attached to it.
I should admit here that we employed spanking as discipline on occasion. My husband is a firm believer in it and I’m a non-believer who’s embarrassed to admit that it seemed effective. I asked my 20 year old son how our discipline techniques affected him. He said, “Spanking is classical conditioning and helped me separate the difference between right and wrong until I was about 6 or 7. But verbal disappointment, lessons, and making mistakes shaped me. When you made me realize the mistakes I was making and I had to decide if I’d rather get it together or be unsuccessful, I chose success every time.”
In order to summarize the seven tips above, I texted my 21 year old daughter for inspiration and asked her, “what do you think made you a great person?” Her reply was, “Jewish guilt and black culture.” Yep, that about sums it up.