By Jeanne Riether
Every mother has dreams for her kids – it seems to be hardwired into us. It’s good to dream and good to encourage our children to be the best they can be. Developing a good work ethic, a love of learning and healthy relationships with others are foundational skills first learned at home.
However, motivating the kinds of behavior and attitudes we want to see our children develop can be challenging, especially when we are frustrated, tired, late for work, and our kids just aren’t cooperating. And parenting a child who is dealing with complex emotional issues – a difficult medical condition, emotional loss or traumatic events – only increases the pressure. We often don’t know if we are expecting too much or too little. We may turn a blind eye to negative behavior simply because we don’t know what else to do.
What single, tried and proven parenting skill can we call on during the tough times when everything seems to be going wrong? When we’re exhausted from all the demands of parenting a child who is facing emotional challenges, what tool can we utilize to help us make sense of it all? Surprisingly, the secret weapon that can re-energize us is kindness.
The quality of kindness is a type of oil that helps lubricate the machinery of everyday life. It has a healing effect that can restore our emotional balance. A simple act of kindness can melt anger – both our own and that of others. When we are kind to those around us, it has the magical quality of restoring our own spiritual equilibrium in the process.
Being kind is empowering. Treating others with kindness – elements of which include tolerance, patience and understanding – sends a powerful message. It teaches children they are worthy of respect, and when we respect our children, they learn to model such behavior and are more likely to respect us in return. And what parent doesn’t crave more respect from kids?
Respecting a child does not mean becoming a permissive and indulgent parent who puts up with intolerable behavior with a grin. Kindness is the parenting skill of brave heroes, not passive cowards. Children facing emotional challenges need clear and involved parental guidance more than ever. When they face difficult illnesses or traumatic life events, they often end up in an emotional stew that causes them to act out in frustration, anger or fear. Aggression towards others or themselves, tantrums, and destructive behavior, are all common behavioral problems. Caregivers may find their patience tried to the limit, wanting to help their child but not knowing how.
Unfortunately, many mothers and fathers oscillate between abdicating parental control out of pity for the child, (“He’s been through so much I don’t want to make it even harder on him…”) and fury once their patience has reached the limit ( “That’s it! I’ve had enough of you!”) Gentle and firm consistency is important. When confronted with unacceptable behavior, respect knows when to put her foot down and say, “Sorry, I love you too much to allow you to hurt yourself or others”.
Setting behavioral limits is, in itself, an act of kindness because it restores order to the child’s world. It sets him on the path of normalcy, and stops treating him like someone incapable of doing the right thing. Letting a child know that there are acceptable ways of expressing anger, fear and frustration is like placing a tool in his hands; it gives him a way to cope with his overwhelming feelings in healthy ways.
Modeling your own behavior when you are frustrated or angry is a great way to show him how to handle his own intense emotions. Don’t keep it in until you’re ready to explode. It’s fine to firmly tell a child, “I feel very angry when you do that” because it teaches that his actions affect others and that anger can be controlled in healthy ways. It pinpoints his behavior as being unacceptable and unwelcome (“What you are doing makes me angry”) rather than the child himself being unacceptable and rejected (“You make me so angry!”).
Kindness and respect is a tangible quality that can be sensed in the way we speak and interact with others, and the way we expect others to speak and interact with us. Respect keeps the gears from grinding in our relationships; it’s easier to guide a child through troubled emotional waters when we’ve established a trusting, respectful relationship with him. Kindness provides stability when his world is turned upside down. It lets him know he is valued, and teaches him to how to value others. Building warm supportive relationships is a key factor in helping children develop emotional resilience.
Kindness is the sweet coating that we put on the bitter pill of life that our children are often forced to swallow. It can motivate them to keep trying, even in the face of monumental challenges. Perhaps it is best summed up in the words of the wonderful educator, Leo Buscaglia, who once said: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
Yet, despite our best efforts and good intentions, all too often a harsh word flies from our lips. Discouraged, we despair that we will never be the type of parent we know should be. When you are tempted to feel that way, it’s time to practice being kind to yourself. Remember, nobody is perfect. The myth of the perfect parent is just that: a myth.
Skills do not come naturally, they have to be learned. Like any other skill, we can become better at being kind the more we practice it. We can start making a conscious effort to choose words and actions that will uplift our children. We can make the decision to try again, and hone our skills as we go.
And when we make mistakes? Well, we can always apologize to our kids, and let them know how much we love them, even when we goof.
After all, it’s the kindest thing to do…