What are you parenting for? What do you want your child to become, to be like, when they are 18? When they are 20? When they are 30? What goals do you have for your child? What type of adult do you want to produce?
If your child is young, you are likely thinking “Who cares! That is many years away!” And it may be far away now, but the skills your child needs for success as an adult are built step-by-step, starting with infancy and continuing until they are an adult. Over time, as your child ages, you have less control over what influences your child. When they can start to go places without you and read what they choose to read and watch what they choose to watch, your influence has begun to wane. You need to make hay when the sun shines and be thinking long-term when it comes to shaping your child into the adult you want them to be.
Most parents tell me they want their child to be healthy and happy when they are grown. Many add they want their child to go to college or have a good career. Some mention wanting their child to have healthy relationships. These are great goals- but if you only start thinking about them when your child is 17.5, you are in trouble.
What skills does a person need to be healthy? Well, your child will eventually need to know about eating healthy foods, how to cook a healthy meal, and exercise regularly. Obviously your aren’t going to teach an three year old how to cook major meals, but can your three year old help in the kitchen by tearing up lettuce leaves for a salad? Can your eight year old help you layer the lasagna? Can your 13 year old be taught how to scramble eggs? Over time, the skill of “eating healthy” and “cooking” are gradually taught in age appropriate ways so when your child is grown, they have that skill.
Most parents want their kids to be mentally healthy and happy. Mental health skills can and should be taught throughout the lifespan. In the early years, your child learns by watching you- so be sure you are modeling appropriate behavior. Talking to your child about how you are handling emotions is also crucial. You can say to your young child, “Mom is a little upset, so I’m going to take a few deep breaths.” That is a great way to help your child connect a feeling (“upset”) and a coping skill (“taking a deep breath.”) Kids imitate the skills they see their parents using (including the unhealthy ones! So be warned.)
Other mental health skills client need to learn from parents are things like “how to talk to someone when you are upset” and “how to solve a problem using words.” When your child has a conflict with someone (maybe a sibling or friend) help your child find the words to explain what happened and what he or she was thinking and feelings, then help your child communicate that. Find opportunities to teach those skills, starting young, and continue doing so throughout your child’s childhood.
Also find ways to encourage independence, starting at a young age. Your kid should learn how to spend a night or two away from home starting in elementary school. Camps or scouts can provide that opportunity. Your child should learn how to talk to “official” adults, such as clerks in stores and the school secretary when in elementary school, or maybe even preschool. Start this young and don’t let excuses such as “my child is shy” get in the way. If your child has genuine anxiety, then you will need to do more teaching and get your child appropriate help, but avoiding the task all together just increases fear of the task.
When you think big picture about long-term goals for your child, you start to see that everything is a learning opportunity for your child. Children are sponges for information and the course of a child’s life is easily swayed by the right supports at the right time. If you are unsure what supports your child needs or if you are struggling with how to help your child with certain tasks, the sooner you seek help, the easier it will be for your child to be successful. As they say with planting trees “The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The next best time is today.”