Building Character in the Kids You Love

To those of you with young children, I empathize. Feeding, bathing, buckling, chasing, dressing, then doing it all again is a physically exhausting day-into-night- into- day. You look forward to the time when your toddlers are in school, when you get a rest, when the pace will slow down. It’ll be so much easier once they’re older…right?

Well, yes. And no. Your children will learn to feed and dress themselves, and you won’t be toting a baby, a carrier, and a diaper bag wherever you go. But parenting challenges never go away; they just change. And as children become social, as they go to school, participate in group activities, and interact with adults other than you, they will need the same kind of parenting energy as the early years – only this time, the energy changes from physical to mental and emotional. If you’ve put away the high chair, then get ready to focus on creating independent, confident, and strong children. And those children – those who can handle frustration, disappointment, and failure as well as success – come from parents who are not consumed with making and keeping their children happy. They come from homes that are not focused on buying more and buying better, and they come from families whose members are not isolated from each other by technology.

I believe all parents want their children to have strong character, to be upright, and to grow into responsible, caring adults. I’ve been a parent, a teacher, a school principal, and now a grandparent, and I’ve never known any mom or dad who doesn’t want that. But it’s hard, and the expectations of our society, especially those of middle to upper income communities, mean that many parents’ actions don’t match that goal. But there’s help for those of you who want to raise kids with character – if you’re willing to step back, put the credit card away, take the cell phone at 9 PM, and – here’s the big one – allow your sons and daughters to handle day-to-day situations on their own instead of rushing in to save them. Sometimes it even means letting your child fail.

In Dr. Madeline Levine’s terrific book, The Price of Privilege, the author specifically and clearly addresses the issues that can cause many teenagers – especially teenagers from affluent homes – to become depressed, anxious, and under-achieving: high expectations, emphasis on materialism, disconnection, and adults who strive to make their children’s lives stress-free. She covers ages 2 – 17, and explains “how the culture of affluence works against the development of the self.”

By making sure our kids have everything they want, expecting perfection from and for them, and making their conflicts our own, we are essentially keeping them from being, as Levine calls it, a “healthy self.” By clearing a path for our child and taking whatever steps necessary to keep him or her feeling happy, whether socially, in school, or on the sports team, we prevent that child from truly growing.

Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, echoes this. He believes, like Levine, that kids need grit, curiosity, and yes – failure – in order to become their best selves. When parents pull their children from uncomfortable situations, shower them with empty praise, or argue with a teacher over a grade, kids don’t develop into healthy selves. Instead, they become emotionally fragile, unable to handle inevitable frustrations and disappointments – and are almost always unable to say no in a pressured social situations.

So is this a hands-off parenting approach?  Hardly. In fact, it takes more parental time, energy, and consistency than just keeping kids “happy.” It takes courage, too, especially when other parents are taking the easy route. But in the end, we want our children to become strong, to have character, to recover from mistakes, and to be ready for the challenges life brings. It’s well worth the effort.