Amidst the hectic whirl of modern family life, it’s easy to lose sight of what our job as parents actually is. For many of us, our instinctive response is to make our kids happy, but whilst this is, of course, a valid sentiment, surely our role is also about preparing our children to be well-functioning, contented adults - people who have the kindness, manners and resilience to thrive in the wider world.
It’s this long-term thinking that underpins many of the approaches in my new book, New Old-Fashioned Parenting, which looks at ways you can find a 'best of both worlds' mix between traditional and typical modern childrearing styles. Here are 7 life lessons you can take from my no-nonsense approach (and sorry kids, they don't involve you being 100% happy at all times!)
1. Life isn’t like Disneyland
Of course sometimes life is fun - but not every minute of every day. For the current generation of kids, everything is expected to be cooler and 'funkier' - there are child-friendly versions of everything, from yoghurts to toothpaste! There are also far more events we’re supposed to be buying them gifts for than ever, and endless activities designed to create experiences we could never have dreamt of when we were young. The contrast between today’s exciting childhoods and the realities and responsibilities of adult life has never been greater.
Now, nobody is suggesting for a minute that we should actively make our kids’ lives miserable! But there is an argument for stepping down our pursuit of providing a perfect, blissful childhood a little. By dropping this idea that you need to run around obsessing about every detail of every day, you'll feel much less guilty every time you don't achieve perfection - and your children will learn a valuable lesson too.
2. It’s not all about you
Small children are naturally ‘me-centric’ - and that’s fine when they are small children. What isn’t alright is when that small child grows into a bigger child, and then an adult, who still thinks it’s ‘all about them’ or who wants their own way every time. That adult is the one who will struggle to make and keep friends, jobs and relationships. However, our family lives now revolve around our children so much more than in previous generations, making this life lesson an uphill struggle to teach!
Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, it’s in our children’s best interests to keep our family lives a shade more balanced. That might mean the parents choosing the dinner, or the Saturday night TV viewing, or where you go on holiday more often – a mix of small decisions and large. It might not please your kids in the here and now, but it will make them happier in the long term if they’re used to the world not focusing on what they want quite so much.
3. There’s a time and a place
This was a phrase many of us heard as children and it’s just as valid as it ever was. It’s about being mindful of the need to adjust behaviour according to where we are and who else is around.
Children do not always instinctively discern that it might be okay – good, in fact! - to run around crazily and noisily in the park to let off some steam, but not okay to do the same thing in the middle of a busy supermarket or café, or that you might not mind them using their iPod after school for an hour normally, but when the grandparents visit, it’s time to put it away and talk to them instead. Building that awareness of there being a time and a place and a need to adjust our behaviour accordingly is an essential life lesson - and the sooner they understand this, the better!
4. Treat others as you would like to be treated (but consider differences too)
Another classic line from the old days was to ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’ (in fact, you probably remember your mum saying this to you... ), and this mantra does still ring true as a maxim for children and adults alike.
Nowadays, what can be moderated is the idea that actually we aren’t all the same, so, where possible, you should teach your kids to consider others’ different needs too - so although everyone deserves the same treatment, you can show them how to adapt their behaviour to suit individual friends or family members. Which brings us neatly to life lesson 5...
5. You don’t have to respect everyone but you should treat them with respect
This, of course, doesn't mean that you can disrespect everyone, but the traditional expectation of kids blindly respecting their elders does now seem outdated. In fact, in extreme situations it could even be dangerous, should a child be asked to do something they are not comfortable with but feel that they can’t say no.
Crucially though, this does not mean they can behave disrespectfully - there’s an important difference between making them respect everyone unquestioningly, and encouraging them to behave respectfully and politely, even if the person concerned is behaving badly or has views they disagree with. It's a difficult balance to explain, but once they've got it, you'll see that it was worth the effort!
6. Don’t expect others to entertain you all the time
With the modern phenomenon of the ‘over-scheduled’ child, there’s a lot more organised activity and a lot less unstructured ‘faffing about’ time - plus, when our kids are in danger of getting bored out and about, where once we might have created our own fun or daydreamed, now so often they have a screen in hand instead.
Yet unstructured time leaves us with space to daydream and to process and reflect on what’s happening in our lives. It can be relaxing and an escape from the exhausting rushing around and over-scheduling of modern life - and boredom is a brilliant trigger for creativity too. Don't be afraid to leave your kids to their own devices now and then - you'll be amazed what they come up with!
7. You shouldn’t need a reward/ incentive/ huge amounts of praise for everything
Okay, so you might get a bonus for good work, but nobody’s going to pay you to do the washing up at home when you’re 35. A small-scale reward scheme can work wonders to tackle children’s problem behaviour or entrench new habits, but we need to be careful to avoid bringing up children who expect payment and rewards for absolutely everything.
Take chores as an example: shouldn’t they just muck in come a certain age rather than being paid to empty the dishwasher? I think so. A simple thanks for their efforts should be enough for small tasks - this will teach them the value of hard work, whether they get money for completing it or not!
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of New Old-fashioned Parenting, published by Summersdale. You can follow Liat on Twitter @liathughesjoshi