There is little as beautiful as watching children be children. Dancing with their whole soul, expressing honest astonishment, telling fantastic stories, making magical art, laughing themselves silly, and learning with open wonder. You will notice that the child who is free to express themself without restraint is typically brighter, more engaged and generally happier than the child who is forced to hide their joy. The kids who are raised to be “seen and not heard” are often passive, laugh less, and appear almost ashamed to be living.
How do you help the little ones in your life be open to the world like this? I have a few ideas, but I think that it’s more important to begin with what not to do. Actively crushing their tiny spirits while they are young is likely to produce the withdrawn, timid youth that flinch at a raised arm and refuse to forge their own path.
Let’s start simple – Don’t hit your child. Don’t smack them across the face in an angry impulse. Don’t hit them on the arm, or the back of the head because they did something you don’t like. Don’t turn them around and hit them on their backside to teach them a lesson. Do the research on spanking and decide for yourself if it is worth it, or if there is an alternative punishment method that will work without inflicting pain on a child. The vast majority of research is pointing toward non-violent parenting being the best option.
Don’t humiliate them, either. No name calling, belittling, insulting, scoffing, shaming, eye rolling, laughing at them or constantly criticizing. It sounds horrible just to write these things… you might think “Who would do that to their child?” But just look around you while in public and you’ll see it, constantly, in stores, restaurants, and playgrounds: parents talking to their small children as if they were bullying them in the school cafeteria.
These aggressive actions are easy to avoid, yet frighteningly prevalent among parents. Why is it ok to treat children like this? If these parents did the same actions to their spouse, they would go to jail. So before acting in anger, take two steps back, catch your breath, and think about what you’re about to do or say. Do your best not to lose control – it is frightening to young people, and they will start to fear you rather quickly… not what we’re looking for in a relationship built to harvest an open, creative, positive being.
Allow your children to form their own opinions. Encourage it, even. “Which dinosaur do you like better? This one or this one?” “What was your favorite part of the movie?” Agree when you want to, and disagree, politely, when you don’t. Show them that it’s ok to have different likes than you and their friends or loved ones. This encourages them to express their own voice and not just go along with the crowd.
Give your child some control over their lives. Let them choose their clothes when they can (even if it’s just between two shirts), pick their bedtime story and decide what ingredients will go on their sandwich. Attempting to control every detail of your kid’s day will not only drive you both insane, it will also cause them to eventually give up and just let others decide everything for them. This is a great recipe for creating a person who is at risk of living in an abusive relationship as an adult.
Try your best not to hover over your kids. Let them do their own thing in a safe area. Give them space and let them decide how to use it. They’re going to fall and scrape their knees; they’re going to make and lose friends, and your job is to pick them up and comfort them afterward, not to make sure that these hurts never happen in the first place.
Let your kids talk to strangers. “Stranger Danger” has largely been debunked. If you are on a stroll and your child wants to strike up a conversation with someone they don’t know, allow it. Encourage them to ask questions if they are curious about someone or what that person is doing.
Never quash their creativity. If they want to paint the cat purple, then let them. What will it hurt? Of course they know cats aren’t purple, but hey, this one will be, because it’s fun. Let them sing funny words to a song. What’s the point in stopping them? They already know “that’s not how it goes.” Let them make up crazy stories about completely impossible things; they could be the next JRR Tolkien, after all.
And going back to “don’t abuse your children,” try your best not to be overly critical of your kids’ efforts in the arts. Constant negativity and degradation will breed a hesitant and emotionally frightened child, which will follow them into adulthood. Applaud their accomplishments, in all areas, no matter how minor. Your approval is food for their soul.
Respect your kids. This seems silly to have to tell you, but treat them like a person. Guide them instead of forcing them. Give them a voice and let them use it. Don’t interrupt them, talk over them, or tell them to “shut up.” Refuse the idea of “children should be seen and not heard.” Model the respectful behavior that you want to see them use. It won’t happen overnight, but I promise that your demanding, rude toddler will one day be a kind, respectful person if you keep showing them how to do it.
Keep your rules simple. Rules should be made for these two reasons: To keep everyone safe and happy. Be sure to reiterate this every time you have to teach them a new rule, and then explain how this particular rule they are learning will help to acheieve those two goals. “We don’t run out into the street because cars can’t always see you and you could be very hurt. It isn’t safe.” It will also help them remember it, and it will give them a foundation for making up their own personal rules for safety and happiness.
Take time to just chill with your kids. Reading books, coloring, dancing and singing, exploring the outdoors, playing games (even simple word games), talking about anything, goofing off, snuggling on the couch, and telling corny jokes to one another are great ways to touch base and make them feel like a valued human being in the household. Even just a couple minutes a day of levity goes a long way.
Finally, do everything you can think of to empower your children. Remind them of how much they can accomplish, learn and try. Hug them when you can. Listen to their woes, and don’t discount them. Remember how huge those “little” disasters felt when you were young? Sit close to them, let them cry, and then talk it out. Offer to help if appropriate, and be their best ally.
Children raised with positivity are our thinkers, our leaders, and our creators. They are the ones who use their powers for good. You can create that kind of person with careful parenting. The alternative is inadvertently crushing a young soul with neglect or hostility. How would you prefer your child to remember you once they are grown?