Encourage them to find their passion. It’s what makes life meaningful and purposeful, and having the wherewithal to follow that passion is what brings children to realise who they are.
They need your support and to know that you’re there but they also need to find it themselves and to uncover themselves through that process. With children, it’s so easy to overindulge and just buy your way out of problems but sometimes it’s better not to. You inch towards letting them go. It’s horrible – sometimes you have to watch them making a mistake that you could have jumped in and avoided, but there’s such a danger now of helicopter parenting or Velcro parenting or snowplough parenting, whatever you want to call it, where you’re always intervening between them and the world. Most times that will come home to roost. They’ll be so unused to dealing with the ups and downs of real life that they won’t be able to manage on their own.
Of course, on the other side, you can end up as one of these awful tennis mums who are screaming at your children all the time to practise. If you push them a bit further, often they’ll thank you for it but sometimes you’ll be trying to invent something that’s not really there. With some children it would be great to get up early and do that extra practice and things might work out better in their life because of it, but others will just resent you for it and see it as just another nag. Particularly around puberty, you have to say, “What about this? Why don’t you try that?” Being a complete butterfly doesn’t work but trying lots of things means they can look back and think, “I did do that, and tried that and got in the second team, or gave Physics my best,” and that’s healthy.
“You’re always imprinting yourself, particularly with your first child, but you have to let them get on with it.”
It’s those children that really focus and commit that succeed but you have to remember that their passion might be something quite different from what you liked. My daughter wanted to do Further Maths at A Level and because I had always struggled with Maths myself I talked her out of it. It turns out she’s a real Maths whizz and it would have been much better for her to have done it. I know some parents who were very academic and were in despair at how much time their son spent messing about on his computer, and he’s turned into a hugely successful tech entrepreneur.
You’re always imprinting yourself, particularly with your first child, but you have to let them get on with it. Usually they just need confidence and your support and to know that you’re there for them. You can’t say, “Don’t worry, darling, I’ll deal with that” all the time – that’s the snowplough. Of course that’s simpler but, like waiting five minutes for them to tie up a shoelace when you want to get out of the door, you have to bite your tongue and put your hands behind your back and get them to do all those things themselves.
Suzanne Franks co-wrote Get Out of My Life (Profile Books), the bestselling parent’s guide to teenagers, with Tony Wolf.
The best advice a parent can give a child is for them to get into the habit of thinking about, and questioning where necessary, their beliefs and attitudes. From an early age, this will encourage a habit of self-reflection, active self-control and responsibility.
We know from research as well as experience, that our everyday attitudes, beliefs and mindset about ourselves, others, and the world around us is hugely influential in determining our success or otherwise, our ability to persevere or give up, our creativity, and our overall mental health. We also know that many of our attitudes and beliefs are shaped by the messages we internalise from others, and that these messages can unconsciously determine the way we react to life challenges.
- Self-reflection teaches children to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions
“Self-control and self-regulation in childhood were associated with various aspects of adult life, ‘including mental health, life satisfaction and well-being, income and labour market outcomes, measures of physical health, obesity, smoking, crime and mortality.”
“Good or healthy self-perceptions and self-awareness – and related concepts of ‘locus of control’ and self-efficacy – in childhood were associated with positive later life results relating to ‘mental distress, self-rated health, obesity and unemployment” – EIF Review of Social and Emotional Learning
What is truly unique (so far as we know) about human beings is that we are able to become aware of these influences and actively choose to question the messages we give to ourselves. So when we find we are saying “I can’t do this!” we then have the choice to override the message with a more positive one such as “I’ll give it a go.”
By developing the capacity for self-reflection and self-direction in shaping their attitudes and self-beliefs, children become free to be what they want to be. This doesn’t for example mean we can all be world class athletes, but it does mean parents can help children develop their inner freedom to create themselves according to their freely owned values; giving them the greatest gift a parent can give - the means to self realisation.
By developing the capacity for self-reflection and self-direction in shaping their attitudes and self-beliefs, children become free to be what they want to be
The fact is there is a choice about how we respond to and think about ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in. The choices we make can be the difference between success or otherwise. Of course we are also free to determine what we count as success or failure too - the meaning we ascribe to our life.
- Active engagement from parents is the key to supporting child development
So, how can parents impart this advice? The best way is by being actively engaged with their children, encouraging them to become more conscious of their own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in everyday situations, asking “Why?” they did certain things and “How?” they feel about everyday situations and challenges. As I have said in my new book The Can-Do Child: Enriching the Everyday the Easy Way, active engagement with children, talking about their experiences, helping them make sense of those and the wider world is an important part of nurturing their can-do character.
Role modeling is also important, so children can see their parents modeling that self-reflective behaviour in themselves. For example, they can talk about how they motivate themselves to try harder or do better, how they cheer themselves up when times are hard. The objective is not to lay down a template for the child – ‘this is how I deal with things, do likewise’, but to encourage a conversation, to help the child identify and direct their own inner voice in ways that work for them.