Despite the title, it’s a list of approaches to take to raise mentally strong children. The title seems to be the way it is to provide parallelism with the original book, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.
A lot of the book boils down to doing the right amount of a behaviour, and modelling that balance for children. Especially the items related to fear, (don’t let fear dictate your choices), guilt, (don’t parent from guilt).
The 13 Things
The 13 things are:
They Don’t Condone the Victim Mentality
People who see themselves as victims can end up as actual victims. The victim mentality can be hard to break. As a parent, work to be a positive role model, not someone who complains or vents, and someone who stands up for yourself when appropriate. Focus on the good things each day, and help children focus on things they can control.
They Don’t Parent out of Guilt
Handle guilt appropriately. Don’t be guilted into things, and don’t guilt others, especially children into doing things either.
Feel guilt when you do things you should feel guilty for, and model appropriate behaviour like apologizing. Teach children that an apology, while needed, does not erase the hurt they cause.
They Don’t make Their Child the Centre of Their Universe
When parents make their children the centre of their universe the children learn to expect that they are the centre of the universe. This is narcissism. Instead, teach children that they are more or less the same as everyone else, and teach empathy.
When praising, praise the effort, not the result or natural traits that the child has. Don’t shield the child from criticism.
Model behaviour like looking after yourself, being grateful, and working to improve yourself, (since you aren’t perfect either).
Teach kids that they are probably not the sole cause of things. Even if it seems like something is because of them, there are likely other contributing factors, thus the universe doesn’t revolve around the child.
They Don’t Allow Fear to Dictate Their Choices.
This section is about helicopter parenting. By letting fear dictate our choices we are teaching our children that the world is dangerous and that they should be fearful, which will cause them to become fearful, anxious, people.
The world is not as dangerous as the world makes it seem. Try to evaluate real versus perceived danger. Instead of avoiding all danger, equip children to handle danger. For example, water can be dangerous, but it’s less dangerous if you know how to swim, so do swimming lessons, or teach kids how to talk to strangers, and where to draw the line.
For kids, (or parents), who are having trouble facing a fear, a fear ladder can help. Fear is important, it helps keep us alive, but irrational or overblown fears are counterproductive.
They Don’t Give Their Kids Power Over Them
This seems related to not making kids the centre of the universe, and has a link to not parenting from fear. Kids may use parents fears to gain power, by doing things like throwing tantrums. Children may also make explicit demands of parents, and they need to understand their place in the family hierarchy.
Childrens’ inappropriate power over parents may be a fairly permanent situation, (teens who refuse to listen, and parents get trapped dealing with the fallout), or temporary, (a parent is drawn into an argument with a kid, losing control of themselves and the situation). Permanent power shifts can happen gradually, as exceptions to household rules become the norm and are hard to rein back in.
Kids Place in the Family
This section of the book is a good reminder about the role of children in the family hierarchy, and is more rigid than I feel the current trends in parenting are. It reminds us that adult conversations and decisions should be between and by adults, and children should only get privileges when they are earned. Part of this chapter feels very “put kids in their place,” to a degree that feels more extreme than needed, but it is not wrong.
Some Ways Parents can Empower Themselves
- Set the terms of interactions. For example, “you can have a cookie when you have done your chores.”
- When using rewards, use them as rewards, not bribes. Rewards are given on parents’ terms, (see previous item), and after something has been successfully completed. This is in contrast to bribes, which are given before the request, putting the power in the hands of the child.
- Follow through.
- Refuse to get into power struggles. This happens often with me, when I’ll ask a child to do something and get drawn into an argument about it. According to the book what I should be doing is making the request or demand, and if I get pushback set a consequence for non-compliance, and if I’m still getting pushback in 5-10 seconds, implement the consequence.
They Don’t Expect Perfection
Expecting perfection of children puts them under immense pressure by teaching them that perfection is the only acceptable outcome, and teaching them to expect perfection of themselves, which sucks as an adult. Excellence is enough! The pressure to appear perfect can cause problems to be hidden under a “perfect” veneer and never be properly resolved, leading to greater problems later.
Often parents encourage children to fulfil dreams that they had for themselves and have given up, we used to joke about this at ballet school.
Signs of putting too much pressure on kids include:
- giving more criticism than praise
- comparing my child to others
- treating every situation as life-altering
- losing my temper
- micro-managing children
We should send healthy messages about achievement and failure:
- It is okay to be wrong or fail sometimes.
- It is okay to just have fun, without striving for perfection or even excellence!
- Strive for excellence, not perfection.
Parents can help their children by using the “shit sandwich” technique to give criticism, but be careful to also give pure praise, otherwise praise will start to feel like a disguise for criticism.
They Don’t Let Their Child Avoid Responsibility
The TL;DR of this chapter is “teach your kid to adult.” So how?
By starting giving age-appropriate responsibilities to children such as chores, with consequences for shirking the responsibilities, and modelling being responsible.
They Don’t Shield Their Children from Pain
To a limit. Obviously try to avoid your child being in extreme physical pain, but some pain, like a bumped knee after doing something a little beyond their ability, is good. It teaches limits, and teaches that it’s possible to handle reasonable amounts of pain.
“Pain” includes discomfort, and isn’t just physical, it can even be boredom! We should acknowledge and talk about pain, and come up with strategies to deal with it, not to avoid it completely.
They Don’t Feel Responsible for Their Child’s Emotions
Kind of like pain, children should live emotions and learn to deal with them, and that they are able to deal with them. It may be appropriate to shield children from some extremes.
Handling emotions is a vital life skill. Someone who is not able to deal with their own emotions turns into a quick-to-anger adult who tries to control emotions by controlling other people to only trigger emotions they can handle.
Teach emotions by naming and observing them in everyday life, for example, “that was frustrating when we were stuck in traffic.” When children act out correct the behaviour, but not the emotion. Feeling angry is fine, slamming a door is not.
They Don’t Prevent Their Child From Making Mistakes
Mistakes are learning opportunities, unless they are dangerous, let them happen and learn from them. Parents may try to prevent children from making mistakes so they are “successful” faster, but this is short term gain for long term pain, as making mistakes teaches us how to recover from and learn from mistakes.
Preventing is another flavour of expecting perfection, it teaches children that mistakes are to be avoided at all cost, leaving the child paralyzed with fear when facing a choice, and more depressed in adulthood.
Parents should let mistakes happen, then discuss what happened and why, and strategies to avoid them in the future. When a child has an event like a test, performance, or game, we can discuss what went well and what didn’t, and, if we want, strategize what could be done differently. We can even do this for things that went well, like games that the team won. We need to be careful not to tip over into appearing to expect perfection.
They Don’t Confuse Discipline with Punishment
I found this an interesting distinction that I hadn’t thought about too much in the past. Punishment seeks to make a person feel bad for what they have done, but doesn’t include opportunities to learn why what they did was not acceptable and how to improve in the future. Discipline does include those learning opportunities.
Punishment is bad for mental health and self-worth. People who are punished end up with lower IQ and more mental illness than those who are not punished. Harsh discipline teaches kids to lie rather than face the consequences of their actions.
When discipline has to happen parents should use the most natural consequences possible, and be very clear about how something that was taken away can be earned back. Work with kids to teach them self-discipline and come up with strategies to avoid the problem in the future.
When trying to change behaviours, a reward system provides positive framing, as opposed to a demerit system that would provide negative framing. When designing rewards make it so that the wait for a payoff is appropriate for the child’s age and development.
They Don’t Take Shortcuts to Avoid Discomfort
This might be one of the hardest sections of the book. It is so easy to just plunk a kid in front of an iPad until bedtime, but most parenting shortcuts have long-term negative consequences – otherwise we would refer them as parenting techniques!
Often parents, (like me), take shortcuts when they are exhausted. The shortcut may be too much TV, not following through with discipline, making an older child do something to appease a temperamental younger child, just doing things around the house or for the child instead of teaching them to do it themselves, or just letting kids stay up late because we don’t feel like dealing with bedtime. Taking shortcuts as a parent models the behaviour of taking shortcuts to the child, so if we don’t want to be teaching our children to take shortcuts we should stop doing it ourselves.
To stop with the shortcuts: figure out where we are taking shortcuts, then come up with a plan to stop. Know that stopping may be difficult if the parents or the children are used to the shortcut happening. It is hard to avoid shortcuts if we are exhausted, so find ways to recharge.
Finally, when talking about shortcuts with kids, be honest about the short-term payoff, as this builds trust that you’re also telling truth about the long-term pain.
They Don’t Lose Sight of Their Values
It is easy to assume that children will learn our values, such as honesty, kindness, hard work, and integrity, simply by being around us. However, this is not the case, kids don’t learn by osmosis, we need to teach values. This brings up the uncomfortable question: what are my values? Do I want to win at all costs or do I want to take the moral high ground, even if it means I lose? Do I, (to take an example from the book), value sticking to commitments, or do I value taking an early exit if something isn’t what I expect or want it to be? The book suggests having a family mission statement like corporations do to guide us when faced with choices that have no clearly correct option, and discuss these dilemmas with children, especially adolescents, so they get practice on living up to their values.
Parenting and Self-Discipline
There are a few things in 13 Things that remind me of No Excuses. In the section on teaching responsibility I wrote “Being a responsible role model is just as important, so suck it up and be responsible.” The section on avoiding shortcuts largely boils down to making the more responsible choice, even if it sucks in the moment. This can take a lot of self-discipline, which we may be lacking if we are tired, so parents should find ways to recharge such as sleep, but also hobbies, exercise, and friends.
Is the TL;DR of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do to model and teach fully engaging with life in healthy ways? It seems like it just might be.