Friday, February 25, 2011

GUEST BLOG POST: I Want My Children to Succeed by Ilene Val-Essen, Ph.D.

Moms unite around that shared dream.

Imagine the relief moms would feel if they could face their 18-year-old and say: I feel confident that you’re prepared to make decisions that will positively affect the course of your life.

That translates to:

My kid is okay. I did a good job!

Moms always dream big as we live in the trenches. And it’s in the trenches of everyday life that we help realize these big dreams.

Moms know:

• Children can’t learn effective decision-making skills overnight.

• Children need age-appropriate opportunities throughout their lives.

• Children need parents to create and support these opportunities in order to prepare them for independence.

Imagine living in an environment where you are told where you can go and places you must avoid; what you can eat; what friends you can see, and what time to go to bed. Children live much of the time in this kind of restricted world. How powerless they must feel: Everyone else is bigger, older and more imposing. No wonder they are fans of powerful super-heroes! If there’s something children can control—such as what to wear or what to eat for breakfast—they often guard that power jealously. If an adult tries to take that power away, well—that’s a recipe for conflict.

Clearly, parents must make decisions for their children, but we can still support them to steer their own lives as much as possible. We can offer them opportunities to make real decisions as often as is practical.

When toddlers want to exert their mastery by feeding themselves, we provide foods they can manage easily. When children or teens make suggestions for how to spend their time or money, we listen with an open mind and support their ideas when we can.

Yes, I’ll be glad to check out a gymnastics class for you.

For younger children, we can offer choices:

Do you want to wear your blue sweater or your green one?

As children get older, we can seek their input whenever possible:

These are summer camps I’ve researched. Let’s discuss them to see which one sounds most appealing? (vs. Here’s the camp you’re going to.)

When children feel respected, when they’re given choice in their lives, feelings of being powerless diminish; they see themselves as capable rather than as victims. They’re less likely to be angry and rebellious when they’re older. (If that doesn’t motivate us, nothing will!)

When my son was in middle school, he expressed that idea in a way that made me laugh—once I recovered from the shock:

I feel really out of it, Mom. All the kids bad-mouth their parents; they’re on their case all the time. But you’re always so reasonable. I don’t have a reason to rebel.

Think of a child who has felt controlled all of her life. When she approaches the teen years, with more time away from parental supervision, she may release her anger and “get back” at Mom and Dad. Of course, teens rebel and become manipulative for all sorts of reasons; but, their actions are less likely to be extreme when the teen has felt respected and empowered.
Parents often hesitate to trust their children: Finish your homework as soon as you come home. Then you can play. This suggestion may sound reasonable, but we know that children thrive on autonomy and trust. They often tune into their needs better than we do. Finishing work before playing might be best for some children; others might do better by unwinding after school and doing homework a little later.

Of course there are decisions we must make in our children’s interests, whether or not they agree. But more often than we think, it’s possible to give them a real voice in deciding. If a decision turns out badly, our children have an opportunity to learn by experiencing the consequences. And maturity is often the result.

With each decision, children become more capable, more able to make wise choices. Isn’t that what we want for them?

Ilene Val-Essen, Ph.D. is the author of Bring Out the Best in Your Child and Your Self. For the past 30 years, she has worked with families, children and teens as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Culver City, California. Dr. Val-Essen is also the creator of the Quality Parenting program, which has been translated into several languages. Please visit her website at to learn more about book and work.

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