Effective parenting involves more than just the warm fuzzies

Talking to people about problems related to their childhood has taught me a lot about what kids need from their parents—in particular, what they got, or didn’t get (emotionally speaking), while growing up.

It’s quite a challenge to guide an initially helpless human being into self-responsible adulthood. But sometimes one of the biggest impediments to this task is a parent’s (conscious or subconscious) need to resolve his or her own childhood conflicts.

For example, a parent might say, “My father was nasty and mean. I will never be that way to my child.” Well, that’s perfectly reasonable, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the PRIMARY responsibility to help the child grow up to be a rational adult. If there’s ever a conflict between what might be perceived as “not being mean,” and the duty to help the child mature into a mentally healthy person, then the latter must always trump the former. This is the difference between rational parenting and emotionally based parenting.

Rationally based parenting entails a long-term commitment to help the young person develop into someone who can think for him- or herself. By ‘think,’ I really mean ‘think,’ and not the trendy, but mistaken ideas that encourage nothing more than ‘being in touch with your feelings.’ There’s more to functional adulthood than that. Adulthood includes responsibilities like knowing how to balance a checkbook, or making a decision about buying a house, or what career to choose—as well as knowing how you feel about something. Obviously, kids don’t need to balance a checkbook or buy a house. But they do need to learn how to think within the framework of reality.

Self-esteem has been defined as confidence in your own mind and in your mind’s ability to take action to achieve competence and happiness in life. It’s not enough to feel, ‘My mind is good. I’m a smart person.’ Good feelings about yourself don’t create confidence; they’re a byproduct of confidence. This is where a lot of ‘self-esteem’ initiatives go wrong. They focus on the warm, fuzzy feelings that are supposed to come from having confidence in your mind, while failing to build that confidence in the first place. What feels better: Looking in the mirror and saying, ‘I’m good, I’m good, I’m good,’ or actually accomplishing something? The same is true for a child. It’s OK to tell them, ‘You’re smart, you can do it.’ But then you have to show them how to think it through.

The ideas of Maria Montessori exemplify the process of ‘following through’ when dealing with children. Though she was trained as a physician, she was primarily an educator, and her views have taught me a lot about what young people require, both in and out of a classroom. Montessori viewed children as natural learners; that they are born wanting to think and discover. All they need is guidance. Some ‘guidance’ can be destructive, as with adults who constantly put their children down for no reason. Others are more well-meaning, perhaps, but are dogmatic and authoritarian; expecting children to follow rules blindly with no thought whatsoever. Still others let children run wild, behaviorally and intellectually, and are then shocked when they grow up confused, chaotic or worse.

By rejecting these ‘conventional’ approaches, Maria Montessori was way ahead of her time. She viewed children as competent beings, capable of making decisions for themselves, within the range of their developmental abilities, of course. In education, she taught that imparting specific bits of knowledge was less important than training children how to use their minds with the knowledge they attained. In other words, nobody can know everything, and it’s perfectly fine not to know everything. But everyone can, and must, learn how to think independently. From there flows effective education and true self-esteem.

There is research to back this up. In 2006, the journal ‘Science’ published findings showing that children educated with Montessori methods showed significantly higher behavioral and academic skills than children educated in more conventional settings. Parents might or might not choose (or have the opportunity) to send their child to a Montessori school, but these enlightened ideas can still be used to help kids navigate their way, intellectually and emotionally, through the early years of life.

Of course, rules and structure are a necessary part of childhood. I would never suggest that just because children are motivated to think and reason, that there shouldn’t be boundaries. But I am suggesting that the parents’ most important responsibility is to instill the capacity to think independently—not just following the rules, but understanding why those rules are logical and why they’re important.

There’s a world of difference between telling a child, ‘Do as I say—and shut up,’ rather than, ‘Do as I say, and ask me about anything you don’t understand.’ The first discourages independent thinking, while the other cultivates it. The greatest gift a parent can give is to encourage their child to develop into a thinking, reasoning adult. The happy side effects of confidence and self-esteem will serve them for a lifetime.