Essential Tips for Raising a Good Human
By Colleen Doyle Bryant
The anticipation of becoming a new parent is such a beautiful time. We wait to meet this precious life and picture the potential future they may have. You may be envisioning polite visits with grandma and a perfectly behaved toddler who sits quietly in their seat during a 3-hour plane ride. In reality, the ride may be bumpier than that. As much as we love our little ones and want to wrap them in a cocoon of our adoration, we’re also guiding them to become responsible, caring people. And many a parent has discovered, during that first 3-hour plane ride, that they should have laid the groundwork so the child they delight in at home is ready to behave in new environments where they impact other people.
I’ve been a mom for over 20 years now, and for about the last 10 of those years, I’ve been writing books that help kids grow into responsible and caring adults. I’ve read and written countless bits of parenting advice, yet when I think through my experience raising four children from toddlerhood to young adulthood, these are the two most essential tips I’ve found for raising kids who grow up to be good humans who are able to get along well in life.
Help children see how their actions create consequences
A child’s focus in life is naturally quite narrow. It can seem like everything is all about them—their needs, their wants, and their big emotions. So it’s a good idea to start early in helping them see how their actions create consequences for themselves and for other people. When you build your child’s awareness that they can go about meeting their own needs in ways that are helpful instead of ways that are hurtful, you help them develop social skills that will enable them to build friendships, to cooperate in the classroom, and ultimately to be successful in their adult lives. The other benefit of recognizing actions and consequences is that children learn they have control over the good and bad outcomes they create. This is called agency, and it’s very important for our mental well-being.
Some of the first opportunities you’ll have to help your child connect actions and consequences are in how they treat you, their parent. Toddlers explore how they can make things happen, like throwing their bowl of food on the floor or pulling your hair. If you respond with unaffected tolerance—or worse, adoration and encouragement—they learn that they can create messes for other people and even hurt people without consequence. Instead (with kindness), you can tell them and show them with facial expressions and body language that they’re impacting you. They can participate in cleaning up a mess and soothing someone they’ve hurt. On the flip side, when they’re cooperative and kind, praise them and lean in so they know they can get a positive reaction from positive behaviors.
Any behavior that you’re “tolerating” at home can become a real problem when your child is around people who aren’t as unconditionally accepting as their parents.
When you lay the groundwork for connecting actions and consequences, kids are more likely to ask themselves, “What if I do this, what could happen?” Thinking this through encourages them to anticipate whether an action will get them positive consequences or negative ones so they can choose the action that’s more helpful than hurtful. By the time they’re teens, the choices our kids make are more impactful, so understanding that actions create consequences becomes a much bigger deal. When you hand over those car keys, you’re going to want your child to be in the habit of thinking, “What if I do this, what could happen?”
2. Show them they are part of something bigger than themselves
Another way we can help children’s mental well-being and life-long success is to help them see that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Seeing that we have an impact on others helps us know that we matter in life. It helps us recognize how we’re connected to others, how they need us, and how they value our contribution. This helps children build self-respect and a stable inner sense of their place and worth in the world.
One technique I used with my children is the idea that we are all on “Team Family.” Each of us, children and parents, do our part to help the whole team do better in life. On Team Family, a child has three main jobs:
Take good care of your health. This includes tasks like eating healthy foods, brushing their teeth, and taking baths.
Do your best with your schoolwork. This includes things like getting ready for school on time, paying attention in class, and doing homework.
Help out around the house. Children can contribute to the family in age-appropriate ways, such as clearing the dinner dishes, tidying their toys, or helping with yard work.
The Team Family approach is particularly helpful when kids complain or don’t want to do the things they need to do. In our home, when my kids didn’t want to go to bed, for instance, I would remind them, “You have your job to do, and I have mine. We each do our part, and only you can get the sleep you need so you can grow healthy and have enough rest to enjoy the things we have planned for tomorrow. What will it feel like tomorrow if you’re super tired?” This approach shows them that they are doing important tasks that only they can do. It also links actions and consequences, so they see that even when they have to do a task they don’t want to do, they’re doing it for their own well-being. It’s not that you’re trying to make them miserable—you’re helping them choose actions that will lead to the life they want for themselves.
As children grow up, they typically go through awkward periods while they adapt to more challenging tasks and gain more independence. This can be scary, unsettling, and even lonely for them. The Team Family approach lays a foundation, so they know they always have a place within the family, even as they mature and their responsibilities change.
These two techniques, 1) connecting actions and consequences and 2) showing children they are part of something greater than themselves, are two important factors both in being good people and in enjoying mental well-being. Research shows that we don’t just stumble into happiness and well-being in life—we create it through our own choices. The ways that we treat ourselves and others build our sense of self-respect, purpose, and the knowledge that others value us for the ways we impact them. By starting children on this path when they’re young, you are giving your child life-long skills that can help them create a healthy, happy life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colleen Doyle Bryant is the author of five books and more than 50 learning resources about making good choices for the right reasons. Her Talking with Trees series for elementary students and Truth Be Told Quotes series for teens are used in curriculums around the world to teach good character traits. Her latest release for adults, Rooted in Decency: Finding inner peace in a world gone sideways, looks at how the decline in decency affects us personally and how we can move forward to a place of more kindness and cooperation.
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