One of the most important jobs parents have is to prepare their children for the day when they leave their homes and enter the “real world.” A big part of that preparation involves teaching them the many skills they will need as they move into adulthood.
These skills include being able to make wise and thoughtful decisions in many areas. Being able to manage one’s time and resources, perform the many tasks required to run a household, and navigate the complex world of relationships are examples of the life skills which parents teach their children.
As with any teaching, it helps to remember that it is a process that occurs over time. It is a process that requires parents to:
- Model appropriate behaviors for children. What you do and how you behave as adults tends to be the biggest influence on how your children learn to behave.
For example, if you want to teach your children the importance of helping others, are you being charitable as an adult? Your children learn best by watching you model appropriate behaviors.
- Discuss with children the how’s and why’s of different tasks and skills. Children are more likely to perform certain tasks and behaviors when those tasks and behaviors are clearly explained and described to them and they make sense to them. It helps to get clear yourself about what you are asking your children to do.
For example, if you would like your children to help out more around the house, you will need to discuss with them how to do that (which tasks need to be done, by when, and to what extent). In this scenario a parent may ask the child to empty all of the trashcans once a week and to empty the bag from the kitchen every night after dinner, to put the trash in the outside can, and to put a new bag in the kitchen container). Then discuss why doing that is important. Is it because:
- you want to teach your child to be a participant in the running of the household?
- you need help getting everything completed?
- you want him to learn about taking care of a home?
- Share your values and beliefs with your children. The more children understand the how’s and why’s of what you are doing or what you are asking them to do, the clearer it will be for them and the more motivated they will be to participate.
- Share with children your experiences and information related to skills being taught. Talk to your children! Talking helps build relationships. It is through relationships that people learn to trust each other and to grow. The more your children feel secure in their relationship with you, the more easily they will learn new tasks from you.
- Share with children your thoughts about getting an education, find opportunities to discuss reasons for working hard and why it is important. Current events and news stories provide great opportunities for that.
- Share with your children when you are learning something new and talk about how it makes you feel when you are struggling and finally succeed.
- Help your children to identify what they are feeling when they achieve a goal. It is those internal feelings you get from succeeding that become a motivating factor in wanting to continue to work hard.
- Work with your children until the teaching becomes a part of the child’s normal routine. Children need and deserve your help, especially when they are facing a challenge or a rough patch. And they will continue to need your help as they grow and develop.
Often parents may think that they only need to teach something once and the children should ‘get it’. But the reality is that you will be needed a lot over the course of the 18 or more years that your children are living with you to help, remind, teach and support them as they grow and mature. Remember that raising children is a process that takes years.
There may be times when you have thought your children ought to be able to do certain things and yet they refuse to do them. Or when they have really wanted to perform certain tasks but were not capable.
You wonder what is going on: you thought they were mature enough to manage the task and you are baffled by the roadblocks to having your children do what you would like them to do or what they themselves would like to do.
Part of the explanation for this puzzle lies in understanding the concept of maturity, which is determined by how capable a person is and how motivated he is. Things go most smoothly when your children are both capable and willing in regard to a task.
For example, if they have the finger dexterity to play the notes on the piano (capable), and they are eager to practice their weekly lessons (motivated), then they may enthusiastically embrace the piano.
However, situations inevitably arise when your children would really like to do something, but they do not have the skills or knowledge yet to succeed, so they may become frustrated.
For example, they may be very motivated to play a new song on the piano for a school recital, but do not yet have the expertise to be able to do so.
Or the opposite can be true: your children may have the skills to be able to do something but they are not motivated or willing to do it, so you may feel frustrated. They may know how to play all of the notes, but they procrastinate or refuse to practice.
- Find the balance between expecting too much of your children or not expecting enough.This is part of the art of parenting. It is helpful for parents to be aware of what their children’s maturity level is in regard to chores or tasks and in the different areas of maturity.
Expecting too much of your children (that is, before they are willing or able) can lead them to feel incapable, to become frustrated to the point of giving up and to experience a sense of failure; this in turn can negatively effect their self-esteem. Your disappointment in them can become their disappointment in themselves.
On the other hand, by not supporting and encouraging them to do things when they are willing and able, you may be expecting too little of your children. This can weaken their motivation, undermine their view of themselves as capable, and can deprive them of the opportunity to try new things that will actually help them to become more competent.
By considering your children individually, you can adjust your vision to suit each of their needs and abilities. Remembering that all children have their own unique temperaments and mature according to their own inner time clocks is a way to be respectful of your children and their growth process and to be more effective in teaching them what they need to learn.
In doing so, you can be more accepting, understanding and tolerant rather than critical, disappointed or frustrated about where they are not. Sometimes this can mean pulling back and at other times, it can mean going forward faster than you expected. With flexibility, parents can continue with their overall goals for their children by finding ways to support their readiness to tackle new areas of growth.
- Break down a larger skill into smaller steps.This can assist children in gaining mastery over a complex concept or task. For example, you may have as a chore that your children “clean” their rooms. Young children may not know what that means, they may not know how to do it, or they may feel overwhelmed with this task. What might be helpful is to be more specific:
“Cleaning your room means putting your books on your bookshelf, putting your dirty clothes in the hamper, and putting your toys in the toy box.”
- Consider what role you need you to fill as you are teaching your children:
- If a child is just learning a skill and has neither the ability or the internal motivation to complete the task, he will need the parent to be a teacher – showing the specific skills and steps involved.
Young children might need you to do the chore with them for the first few times. This gives you the opportunity to model and teach directly what you would like them to do. Sometimes, those magical words “Let’s do this together” can encourage children to tackle a chore that might have seemed to them to be beyond their ability or readiness.
- As your children gain the ability, you may need to be a cheerleader encouraging them to complete a task or at times, even the coach, providing reminders and guidance from the sidelines. When your children are not internally motivated, you need to provide the motivation from the outside in the form of praise or even consequences.
- Ultimately you hope that you can become the consultant, who is ‘hired’ on an “as-needed” basis to offer advice. Your children reach this stage for a given task when they have both the ability to complete that task and the desire to do so.
During these phases, tackling certain tasks could be more difficult for them. Parents can choose to back off by not introducing new challenges that would create more anxiety and stress, for both the children and their parents.
At these times of disequilibrium, you may want to solidify gains that have been made already rather than push your children to move ahead. For example, it might be more effective to keep their chore list the same rather than to give them additional chores to do. Likewise, this would not be the time to encourage them to learn more skills or sign up for additional after-school activities if they are reluctant to do so.
As children move out of this phase of disequilibrium, there would be less need for such limitations. There is a higher probability of success, cooperation, enthusiasm, and willingness to try new things when your children are feeling better about themselves and the world.
On the other hand, if you sense that your children are willing to do more, are enthusiastic about learning and practicing new skills, and if they are in a stage of “equilibrium,” you can introduce new challenges with the expectation that they most likely will succeed with your support.
The Roller Coaster of Maturation
Parents might hope that once children reach a certain level of maturity in a particular area that they will continue to grow in maturity in that area. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes, children will seem to “backslide:” things they were willing and able to do before suddenly seem very difficult for them.
For example, a 6½ year old may be very willing to make his own bed and get out the items needed to pack his lunch, cooperate, and be enthusiastic and generally easy-going. After turning seven, which is typically a time of self-criticism, lack of confidence and struggle internally and with the world, they may lose interest or refuse to do these tasks that they clearly are capable of doing.
Through the knowledge that maturation takes place over many years, you can be more patient with this roller coaster of progress, which can feel like “two steps forward and one step back.” Although this pattern can be frustrating for parents, it is typical of children’s development as they go through the cycles of growth.
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