What children need most from their adults
That's me. Suffice it to say, it was a looonng time ago. What do you notice first in this picture? The big wheel? The lack of a helmet? The cobblestone road? The tassels? That great head of hair?
What I hope you notice first is that smile. That smile is full of joy, excitement, and exhilaration... perhaps a hint of wildness. That was my childhood. Off on adventures, sometimes on my own but most often with a pack of kids roughly my age. Falling down, coming home with all sorts of bumps, bruises, and cuts. We didn't have cell phones. Our water came from a hose. If we wanted something, we had to figure out how to make it or get it ourselves.
Yes, we have learned a lot and the world has changed in many ways since the 1970s, but before you dismiss this as idealizing the past, consider this quote:
We are so busy giving our children what we never had that we forget to give them what we did have.
Politics aside, that quote from James Dobson resonates. In an attempt to provide our children with a better life than we had, and that is a basic parenting instinct, we all too often insulate them from the very experiences they should have. The very experiences that are integral to the process of child development. The very experiences that will shape their sense of self and their mindset for the rest of their lives.
The first part of the ILS Promise is that each of our graduates will have a strong sense of self. They will be comfortable in their own skin, they will be aware of their strengths and their challenges, and they will know how to access the tools and resources that they need to be successful. This doesn't happen by accident and it cannot happen in isolation.
In order to know yourself, you first have to recognize yourself. As children, we behave more like mirrors than self-aware beings. We look into the eyes of our parents, our coaches, our teachers, and the other adults in our lives and we see ourselves through their eyes. Simply put, as children, we do not yet have the capacity for self-awareness that is needed to know ourselves so we create a persona and a sense of self based on how others see us.
In order for our children to even begin to know themselves, we need to help them to recognize themselves, and we do this by training, yes training, ourselves to see our children for who they are. And this next part is critical, not for who we want them to be.
Reflection questions: How well do you see your child for who they are? How can you mirror what you see in them so that the reflection they see in your eyes is true to who they are as individuals?
Find & Exercise Your Voice
The second part of the ILS Promise is that our graduates will be able to exercise their unique voice as advocates for themselves and for others. As with developing a strong sense of self, children need to see, feel, and understand that their voice matters. This doesn't mean that they get a vote on everything, but rather that we provide multiple opportunities for children to explore and share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
Here again, our job is to reflect back what we hear, not what we want or hope to hear. As adults, we must resist the urge to judge and correct. We, the adults, must practice the art of patience and create space for our child's opinions, thoughts, ideas, and feelings. We must resist the urge to "lead" our children to a particular idea, opinion, or feeling because that is what we want. Our children do not need to be interrogated, they need to feel seen and heard.
Reflection questions: How well do you hear and listen to your child's unique voice? How do you create space for them to feel seen and heard? How do you let them know that you hear them, and not your own voice reflected back to you?
If you're overfocused on your kid, you're quite likely underfocusing on your own passion. Despite what you may think your kid is not your passion. If you treat them as if they are, you're placing them in the very untenable and unhealthy role of trying to bring fulfillment to your life.
Julie Lythcott-Haims is a friend of ILS. She is also a best-selling author, a Palo Alto City Council member, and a mother. Before this school year, every ILS family received a copy of her NY Times Bestseller How to Raise An Adult. I chose this book to anchor our community of learners this year because our children need us. They need us to see, hear, understand, appreciate, and love them for who they are. They need us to get out of their way and to give them space. They need us to stop overparenting and overprogramming them. They need us to set our worries and our anxieties aside and to let them continue on their journey... for it is their journey, not ours.
If you haven't read the book yet, now is a great time to start. Her 15-minute Ted Talk, with over 7.5M views, is a good teaser. Julie's book offers many strategies for raising children to be self-sufficient, resilient, and successful. Here are three to start with:
1. Stop overparenting your child. Allow your child to do what they can for themselves, and make mistakes while doing it. From carrying their own backpacks, to folding their own laundry, to solving their own problems. Our children need the experience of doing for themselves, and that experience often involves tears, bruises, and discomfort. We cannot deny them the fullness of their experience if we want them to know themselves.
2. Stop overprogramming your child. Childhood is not a race. Nor is it an empty vacuum to be filled, no matter how positive our intentions. Honor the sanctity of childhood by giving your child the gift of time. That includes taking part in activities that they are interested in, having sufficient unstructured time during their day, and allowing them some time to be bored.
3. Playtime plays a crucial role in your child's development. While structured play has its place, the body of research behind the importance of free, unstructured play, particularly outdoor play, is deep and wide. This goes hand-in-hand with the previous item, stop overprogramming your child. If you want to play with your child, then get down to their level and play the way they are playing. Get dirty, make mistakes, and fall down.
Still not sure? Scroll back up to the picture at the top of this post. When is the last time you smiled like that? When is the last time your child smiled like that? Learning to see your child for who they are isn't always an easy task, but is perhaps the best gift we can give our children.