Competent, Confident Children

“The children we know who are confident and feel socially and intellectually competent are the children whose parents support them by: loving them unconditionally…setting limits and expectations for behavior…teaching respect for others, the difference between right and wrong and the importance of taking responsibility for actions…being a good role model…[and my favorite] having fun, maintaining a sense of humor, and knowing that there’s no such thing as the perfect parent.” —Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum in Practical Wisdom for Parents

A long time ago, when my children were little, I overheard another parent say, “I love my children no matter what. But I want other people to like my children, too.” Along with all the parenting books I read, all the educational treatises, research studies, workshops and conferences I learned from, that phrase was a guiding light for me as a parent.

It’s not new to say that parenting is difficult. Our hearts get wrapped up so tightly with our children that it hurts when they are upset, angry and sad. It also feels great when they are happy.

So what did I want my children to do so that others would enjoy their presence? I wanted them to sit at a dinner table with company, not constantly interrupt, not complain if their favorite food wasn’t there and generally be pleasant. I wanted them to answer respectfully when spoken to and to leave peacefully when it was time to go. I hoped they would smile and be interested in others, or be happy for another person when that person got a present and they didn’t. If they hurt another person, I wanted them to understand what that meant and try to make things better. And I wanted them to want to do things for themselves, and to try. You get the idea.

Thus the parenting challenge, because children rarely do any of those things naturally, at least mine didn’t. It got tiring as a parent to always be a good role model, to say no and mean it the first time, and to stick to your guns even if everyone in the grocery store is watching you and your screaming 3-year-old. It’s so much easier (and quicker, and quieter) to put the gummy bears in the shopping cart.

That’s the rub, and yet the answer: parenting is wonderful but sometimes tiring, sometimes not fun, and sometimes it hurts your heart. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to be working, and you think “I really don’t like my child right now.” But then there are other moments when you see the payoff of your efforts: a happy, relaxed, independent child who says, “okay, sure,” when asked to empty the dishwasher, or when she bumps into another child, turns and says,”oh, sorry, are you okay?” instead of “hey, look out!”

Out of the many books I’ve read there are a few that I return to when recommending books to parents:

  • The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogul
  • Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids by David Walsh
  • And I’m now reading, How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Thomas

One of my tried and true books on parenting is Practical Wisdom for Parents by Manhattan nursery school directors Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum. Even though they are writing for parents of young children, the message is consistent with all the best parenting guides: that it is a worthy goal to raise confident, competent children who can navigate their world with humor, kindness, curiosity and the ability to connect with others. Another aspect these books have in common are some down-to-earth, proven methods to help parents get there. The authors provide practical, compassionate and direct suggestions. Although they may frame the ideas a bit differently, they share some foundational tenets—to love unconditionally, set limits and expectations, teach respect, right from wrong, and the importance of taking responsibility for actions. Above all, model, model, model these traits and have fun while doing it.

The beauty of writing a blog like this is that most of you have never met my children, so you won’t know if I was successful or not. One thing I do know, is that I didn’t do it alone. While our extended family lived far away, my little St. Louis family was fortunate to have the teachers at MICDS. When I was fretting about my child’s personal experiences and growth, her teachers could reassure me about what all 7- or 12- or 17- year olds do. When I was worried about her mastering those math facts, the teachers had suggestions and help. They dried my children’s tears, celebrated goals mastered, helped work through thorny friendships, made sure there were consequences for misdeeds and opened up new worlds of ideas. It is and has been my privilege to be a part of the raising of so many children here, and to work alongside parents and teachers who know that it’s the hardest and the best work in the world.