Most parents want their kids to grow up, move out, and be able to support themselves financially and emotionally. Why then, is it so hard for parents to raise confident kids who are competent and capable? Try incorporating the following 4 phrases into your conversations with your kids. Give them the chance to try, make mistakes, suffer, and recover. As any parent who has ever let a swear word fly in front of a pre-schooler understands, what your kids hear you say, you will eventually hear them say. Beyond the immediate messages these phrases convey, you are also helping your child develop self-talk that will stay with them as they face challenges, conflicts, and setbacks throughout their lives.
“When I have a chance.”
We are living in a world where we are conditioned to provide immediate responses to others’ requests and demands. When our phones ding with a text, we feel the need to respond right away. When our kids ask for a snack, lots of us drop what we’re doing and get it for them. It is OK (and actually good) for your children to hear you say, “yes, when I have a chance.” In responding this way, your kids learn important skills like waiting and delaying gratification. They also learn that whatever you’re doing – whether it’s finishing up a load of laundry, sending an e-mail, having a conversation, or even reading a book – is important, too. And they learn that it is ok to set boundaries and put your own needs first from time to time, a skill I think we all want our kids to learn especially as they develop through their teenage years into adulthood. If they start leaning early on that it is perfectly acceptable to make a loved one wait a few minutes and that everyone survives, they’ll be able to say to their friend agonizing over a breakup, “yeah, I can talk…I’ll give you a call as soon as I have a chance” and finish up their homework first.
“Yeah, that happens sometimes.”
In addition to meeting our kids’ snack demands immediately, lots of us feel we need to do something right away to make our kids feel better when they are upset. Young kids might be upset about a friend not wanting to play the same game, older kids might feel sad about being left out of a birthday party, teenagers might feel the sting of betrayal…this is all painful stuff. And it’s all stuff that your child will survive. Our responses matter. When we jump in with good intentions trying to take the pain away, we might actually send the message that our kids truly can’t handle this tragedy without us. Validation is important – it doesn’t help to tell a heartbroken teen, “this is just highschool, it’s not really a big deal.” At the same time, it also doesn’t help to send the message, “this is the worst thing that could possibly happen to you.” An empathetic gesture, a show of kindness, and a simple, “that happens sometimes” strikes a balance. These words can help put things into perspective – this stinks, but it happens and you will move on.
“I’m sure you can figure it out.”
Learning to step back and let our kids figure out their own solutions to problems, whether it’s a tricky homework assignment, a conflict with a sibling, or needing to make an important decision, is a tough – but important – skill for parents to learn, especially if they want to raise capable adults. Telling kids, “I’m sure you can figure it out” sends the message that you believe your child is equipped to handle this problem. You’re also sending the message that this is your child’s problem not your problem. If your middle schooler forgets a book they need to complete their homework, saying, “I’m sure you can figure it out,” puts the responsibility on your child to come up with a solution. Your child might decide to call a friend, talk to the teacher, or go in early to try to finish it before school starts. However your child decides to handle it, the figuring out part is the important piece. This is how problem solving skills develop. When we respond to these moments by making suggestions or offering to solve the problem, our kids lose out on an opportunity to establish competency and take ownership.
“Go for it.”
When your child expresses a desire to try something new, supporting them with a “go for it” instead of warnings about what could go wrong sends a message even more powerful than “I’m sure you can figure it out.” These words convey confidence, a comfort in trying something new, taking risks, and a relaxed attitude. It sends the message that you can try it and see. If it doesn’t work/you don’t like it/you make a mistake/a problem develops, oh well, you can recover…if it goes well, great!
There are times, of course, when your child may not be able to solve a problem without your help or when the risks are too great to “go for it.” You can (and will) continue to offer support, suggestions, guidance, and limits, but consider being a bit more thoughtful about opportunities to let your child take the lead. You’ll probably find yourself surprised, impressed, and proud of just how capable your child can be and, more importantly, your child will feel proud of their capabilities, too.
— By Meghan Barlow, Ph.D., of Meghan Barlow and Associates, a behavioral health practice in Rocky River that focuses on the needs of children, adolescents, and their families. The practice offers a diverse, multi-disciplinary team whose expertise ranges from traditional counseling to social skills, ABA and speech therapy.