Note: This post is excerpted from my latest parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You.
I have a Ph.D. in Psychology, am the author of two previous parenting books, have a consulting practice that involves working with young people and their parents, and regularly speak to gatherings of parents, educators, and students around the world. For many years I’ve been a “parenting expert.” But here’s the hitch: I wrote my first two parenting books and became a so-called parenting expert before I had children.
In the instant when my first daughter, Catie, was born, I went from being an authority on parenting to just another baffled parent trying to muddle through raising my children. In 15 years I may write another parenting book titled, I’m Sorry, They Seemed Like Good Ideas at the Time.
That said, my professional experience has demonstrated that my ideas about raising children do stand up to the test of real-life parenting. Now that I am the father of two young girls, I have first-hand experience to support the value of my ideas about raising children. Plus, being a parent has helped me to better understand what actually works and what doesn’t in the real world of raising children.
How Do Children Become Who They Become?
The key question that intrigues me as both a parent and a so-called parenting expert is: How do children become who they become? Certainly, genetics play a formative role; intelligence, physical attributes, and temperament all have been found to have a strong hereditary component. Evidence is equally strong that the environment also contributes significantly. It is no longer a dispute between nature vs. nurture, but rather a collaboration of sorts involving nature via nurture; how children are raised and the environment in which they are immersed influence what genetic predispositions emerge as they develop.
So what aspects of the environment impact children’s development? Some have argued that parents have much less influence than they like to think; peers and popular culture affect children more. However, I believe that during these early years, you have a window of opportunity before they become integrated into the larger social world in which you have a greater impact on your children than those outside forces.
Consider this. You are the most present people in your children’s early life, and exert the most control over almost everything your children experience. Whether it is what they eat, when they sleep, their daily activities, or with whom they interact, you are in charge. During this period your children are absolutely ravenous for every morsel of information they can ingest and you provide your children with most of their developmental “nourishment” in the form of language, emotions, behavior, and interactions. And, importantly, you create the physical and social environment that plays an increasingly important role in your children’s later development, including your home, the neighborhood in which they live, the childcare or pre-school they attend, through play dates, the peers with whom they interact, and the types and frequency of exposure to popular culture. In other words, during those early years, you have the opportunity to control the message. Other messages, many not as nourishing for the development of young children, will come soon enough.
They Get the Message
Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned as a father is that: children become the messages they get the most. Given the inherent power that you have in shaping your children through your messages, the core question you should ask yourself is, “How can I be sure I’m sending the healthiest messages to my children?” The answer to that question has two parts. First, you need to be clear about what messages you want communicate to your children. And, second, you must develop your own skills in conveying those messages.
These messages that come early in your children’s lives are particularly significant because, before long, your children will be getting messages from many much less controllable or benign sources. Peers and popular culture will inexorably bring children all kinds of information and attitudes, good, bad and downright dangerous. All you can do is attempt to ingrain positive messages early in your children’s lives as a form of immunization against the onslaught of harmful messages they are certain to receive as they get older.
A World of Unhealthy Messages
In earlier generations, being a good parent was easier. Parents could trust that most of the institutions that comprised their society — schools, communities, youth sports, and popular culture — sent mostly good messages, messages that were aligned with those of the parents. The cumulative effect was that children were inundated by healthy messages from just about everyone and everything around them and unhealthy messages were by far the exception rather than the rule.
Times have changed. Now, many schools, though trying, are so focused on test scores and budget deficits that they either don’t have the time or energy to devote to healthy messages or they are sending the wrong messages. The student culture is frequently toxic; the pressure to grow up too soon, cyberbullying, the emphasis on physical appearance, affluence, popularity, and peer pressure create additional unhealthy messages for children. Communities that were once tight-knit are now often transient and disconnected. Youth sports, which were once about fun, fitness, and love of a sport are now often transformed into fulfilling the frustrated dreams of parents, earning college athletic scholarships, or preparation for professional or Olympic success, fame, and fortune, however unrealistic they might be. Finally, popular culture, which has always had a rebellious dimension, did in times past send primarily good messages to children. Television and radio, for example, had a Congressional mandate to act in the “public interest,” in other words, provide programming that was positive and healthy. Whatever the public interest may have once been, it no longer governs the media. The sole purpose of popular culture now is to make money with little consideration of its corrosive effect on children.
Because of these powerful negative influences on your children, as they say in the political world, you have to be “on message 24/7.” If you’re not, your children will not only not get your messages, but they will likely get the unhealthy messages to which they are going to be increasingly exposed to 24/7.
Do You Need a Crystal Ball?
As parents, we want our children to be prepared for the future. There was a time, not too long ago, when parents could make some sensible assumptions about the future and how their children might best be prepared to flourish in it. But, with the pace of change in our society ever-increasing, can we still trust those assumptions? Will what worked in the past continue to work in the future? What should our messages for our children contain that will adequately prepare them for a future no one can predict with any reasonable degree of certainty? The uncertainty can sometimes feel paralyzing given the enormity of the task we as parents face and the consequences of failure for our children.
But preparing our children for the future doesn’t have to be terrifying because, despite the profound and fast-paced changes that are now occurring, raising children doesn’t have to be that much different than in the past. Yes, parenting is more difficult now because of the lack of social support on which we could once rely and the resulting feeling that we have to “go it alone” more than ever before. And yes, the world continues to change in unpredictable ways: technologically, socially, and politically. But, the fundamentals of child rearing haven’t changed much because the fundamentals of people haven’t changed much; we are all driven by the same motives that people have for centuries, even millennia, to find meaning, happiness, and connectedness in our lives.
And what children need to thrive hasn’t changed much either. Children still need a loving and safe environment. They need support, encouragement, and important life skills. And they need guidance from their parents to help them navigate the world (which has, admittedly,gotten much more complex) in which they are growing up. In fact, because of the rapid changes and profound uncertainty they are experiencing every day, our children need these messages from us more than ever before. If we can give our children a solid foundation of the right messages, they will have the maturity and capabilities to handle all of the unforeseeable changes that lie ahead of them.
About Dr. Jim Taylor
Dr. Jim Taylor knows the psychology of ski racing! He competed internationally for Burke Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado. For the past 25 years, Jim has worked with many of America's leading junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many countries. He is a clinical associate professor in the Sport&Performance Psychology graduate program at the University of Denver. Jim is the author of Prime Ski Racing: Triumph of the Racer's Mind and his latest parenting book is Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You.