Tips for raising emotionally healthy kids

‘I love my kids!’ I hear it all the time.

But sometimes love, by itself, isn’t enough. Children are a central theme with many of my clients, and I’ve learned much about what—and what not—to do. We have to pass a test to get a drivers license; we need accredited education to be a health professional—yet, there is no definable skill set or testing process to prepare parents for the enormous responsibility of raising their kids! Based on my experience over the years, I’ve put together ten useful points for raising a moral, mentally healthy child. 

1. Don’t assume they know
Kids are not born with knowledge that we adults take for granted, e.g., that they should eat healthy foods, or that they must think before they act. Even so, they should be held responsible for their wrong actions. If you don’t discipline or correct them for lying, hitting or whatever, how else will they learn that these behaviors are wrong?

2. Keep perspective
Your child does not disobey just to irritate you. Childhood is a learning process, so don’t take it personally when they test your limits. Think of it as an opportunity to teach them right from wrong.

3. Permissive vs. restrictive
Permissive parents reason with their children but do not punish them. Restrictive parents punish their kids but will not reason with them. It’s a false alternative. Give your kids the reasons why they should act a certain way. Children are more likely to follow rules, even unpopular ones, if you let them ask questions and give them reasonable answers. Use punishment only if reason fails.

4. Constructive feedback
Incentives are often more powerful than punishments. But don’t reward a child for doing the bare minimum, such as going to school or being minimally civil. Save the rewards for extraordinary actions such as excelling in school, or acting on their own judgment rather than peer pressure. Positive feedback and constructive criticism are crucial to building morale and confidence.

5. You have the final say
A family is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. As the parent, you must have the final say, since you are responsible for the child’s welfare. However, remember to explain and discuss, not merely command. If a child makes a logical point proving you wrong, you should stand corrected and make the necessary change. This will teach your child that it’s healthy and affirming to ask questions, and that reason can create solutions.

6. All kids are different
Some children are oppositional, while others show remarkable self-discipline. The persistently difficult child needs consistency more than anything else. Resist the temptation to control everything he does. Instead, choose your punishments. Pick out the most important offending behaviors, and punish him swiftly and consistently for them. Holding your ground on one issue, such as bedtime or homework, can often lead to success in other areas, because whatever respect he develops for you can generalize to other behaviors. With difficult kids, respect is often more effective than warm fuzzy feelings.

7. Don’t fall for labels
Medical ‘disease’ labels, such as ‘attention deficit disorder’ or ‘conduct disorder’ distract from the fact that your child is capable of making choices and is responsible for his actions. Help him make better choices, rather than blaming his laziness or nastiness on some nonexistent ‘illness.’ Even if pills, such as Ritalin, appear to improve behaviors, it doesn’t change the fact that kids make choices. In the end, no pill can make them do their homework—or choose their values for them.

8. Encourage self-interest
Don’t condemn your child for being ‘selfish.’ If you tell him not to be selfish, you’re implying he should not act in his own self-interest. How far does that go? He should NOT study hard in school? He should NOT look before crossing the street? Should he NOT treat his friends respectfully? All of these actions are in his self-interest. Explain why it’s to his benefit to respect the rights of others, to do well in school, etc. This is more logical and motivating than, ‘Don’t be selfish! Put others before yourself.’ Respect for himself and the rights of others does not mean he has to sacrifice his own privacy, property, and happiness.

9. Don’t discourage thinking
Don’t punish a child for what she thinks or feels. You can express disapproval, but punishing thoughts and feelings discourages independent thinking and encourages emotional repression, which can lead to psychological problems.

10. Promote reality
Reasonable punishment does not damage self-esteem. It demonstrates the nature of reality. Adults have to work and make rational choices in order to enjoy life. A child is not born with a built-in grasp of these principles. He won’t learn them unless you teach him to think logically and to accept responsibility.

Challenge him intellectually. Encourage him to think critically. Withhold support when he behaves irrationally. Don’t count on teachers and day-care workers to communicate these virtues. You must do the bulk of the work if your kids are to grow into healthy and happy adults.