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What Children Need – Part 2

You fathers and you mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right
Don’t let the darkness take ‘em
Don’t make ’em feel forsaken
Just lead them safely to the light
– Billy Joe Shaver, “Live Forever”

In my work with preschools, schools, and universities, young people of all ages tell me there are five life experiences they most need from their parents.  In the order of their importance, these are:  

  1. Meaningful Time
  2. Boundaries and Discipline
  3. Healthy Activity
  4. Spirituality
  5. Adultness

1.  Meaningful Time

Children crave dedicated time with their parents.  They yearn for regular, protracted periods of interaction in which their parents’ focus is undiluted, and their energies are wholly committed to communing substantively and intimately.

Children want their parents to talk with them, counsel them, and explore life with them. They want their parents to help them understand complexities, discover wonders, discuss hopes, dispel fears, explore horizons.  They want to talk. They want to listen. They want to share life, love, and learning. Children particularly need and benefit from family reading time, family films, family walks, family trips, and, above all else, regular family meals.

Children especially do NOT benefit from inappropriately long hours in front of a television set, electronic games, earphone isolation, or excessive hours with solitary computer play.

For many parents, finding time to build family intimacy can seem impossibly difficult. The pressures of our careers become ever more consuming. Or we may be out of work, anxious about the future, and desperately seeking employment. We may be preoccupied with multiple other concerns that seem personal, adult, and therefore primary.

Solutions must be found. Parenting must be our baseline priority. Our children need to know that we honor this commitment, embrace it as our paramount calling, and regard it as our most joyful opportunity.

Our children often will not state that they want extensive, fully engaged time with us. Many boys will not say so, and most adolescents will not. They even may object to or complain about customary and intense engagement with us. Nevertheless, they want it.

If they do not receive it, they invariably will believe they are not loved. Even worse, they almost always will conclude they are not loved because they do not deserve to be.  They will assume they are unworthy, ignoble, undesirable, defective.  And they are likely to seek approval, love, and time with those who do seem to appreciate and care for them.  Such people, peers, plausible elders, or emblems of the popular culture, may well be predatory.  They almost certainly will be undesirable shepherds for our children’s psyche and spirit, entirely unsuitable models for our children’s mentality and action.

2.  Boundaries and Discipline

Children need to know the attitudes and behaviors their parents expect of them.  They yearn to understand clearly what our boundaries and limits are, and what, therefore, theirs must become.   Children require rules.

Rules are but rhetoric unless we mean them and enforce them. Children need us to identify our principles clearly. They need us to define fully and fairly what consequences we will impose if they disrespect our expectations. If they disregard our rules, they need us consistently and justly to implement the consequences we have promised.

Many mothers and fathers believe they are parenting progressively and lovingly if they impose no limits, or few boundaries. In my experience, children never see an absence of limits or a neglect of boundaries as either broadminded or affectionate. They invariably regard untoward parental liberty as indifference and neglect. As one seemingly rebellious but in fact tenderhearted and anguished adolescent girl once told me:  “My parents don’t love me.  They don’t care about me at all.  If they did, they never would let me get away with my behavior.”

This child’s suffering and eloquence were unusual. Her judgment’s extremism was not. In my work I have learned that all children whose parents impose neither boundaries nor discipline feel themselves to be unloved. And without exception, children who believe themselves to be unloved suppose they deserve to be. They believe they are unloved because they are unattractive, defective, worthless.

The ringer? Children need their caregivers to give them systems of boundary and discipline that are harmonious and constant. Spouses, grandparents, extended family members cannot appear to be divided and subversive of one another. Binding customs and practices, and the principles that shape them, only can make an internal compass for the child and a communal governance for the family if they are universal and unequivocal.

Children of all ages and both genders regularly will experiment with their parents’ boundaries and test their parents’ discipline. This is natural and necessary. Rules only feel real when they are tried; and children only can learn how to become appropriately autonomous by exploring inappropriate autonomies.

No matter how belligerent their explorations and no matter how bellicose their protests, our children secretly will relish and feel relieved by our unwavering resolve. Our resoluteness is proof-positive that we are in charge, we care about their welfare, and we are committed to protecting them.

The alternative? Children who successfully violate their parents’ rules and abrogate their pledges of discipline have to live in a universe in which no one seems to be in charge. No one, that is, except their own utterly undeveloped selves. Unregulated children always will test their boundaries with ever-increasing ingenuity and extremity. They will press more and more outrageously, more and more dangerously. For any extreme of lawlessness and its attendant perils will seem preferable to a child than accepting a universe in which there are NO controls – and, therefore, no sense, sanity, or safety.

3.  Healthy Activity

Like all human beings, children want and need to be vigorously alive, dynamic, functioning, vivacious, operative, working, playing. They want and need to be alert, assiduous, industrious, energetic, strenuous. They want to be robust, spirited, hearty, healthy.

Children do not need to sit still before an entertainment box. They do not need to lie recumbent. They do not need to twirl knobs and twit buttons.

Nor do children need a multitude of possessions. They need – and they intensely prefer – to create competencies, develop skills, build repertoires of confident capability. They want to delight in their limbs, exult in their lungs, and revel in their musculature. They want their cheeks flushed, and their eyes blazing. They want to feel healthy and happy.

Fit active children stand erect. They stride proudly. They feel themselves to be an essential part of a universe that ebulliently lives. They don’t require incessant external amusements. They don’t require capital investment. They invent their own entertainments, and make their own community.

Parents can facilitate this crucial development by encouraging it. If necessary, they can impose it. The best way we can encourage devotion to healthy activity is to model it, and to include our daughters and sons in our own wholesome pursuits.

Family hobbies, sports, recreations are invaluable for children. Family time that fosters healthy behaviors also teaches beneficial lifelong habits and vital life skills. Family sports, hikes, bicycle rides, camping trips, boating expeditions, ice-skating, snowshoeing, outdoor cooking parties, stargazing gatherings: recreational opportunities have no limits, and confer wonderful benefits for children and adults.

Passivity and sloth, alas, also have no limits. Idleness and immobility, though, do teach habits, do form ways of thinking, and can impose lifelong impacts on health.

4.  Spirituality

Many children who talk with me and write for me speak repeatedly about a hollowness they experience in their affect and in their identity. They describe their hollowness as a vacancy that makes them feel empty, lonely, or lost and severely, if abstractly, frightened.

They define their hollowness as a lack, or a failure. They cannot discern their connection with nature. They cannot perceive their unity with the universe of living beings. They may have a sensitivity or an attachment to religious values and teachings. Yet, they cannot determine in what manner they may know, commune with, and react to the divine. If there is a divine.

In this sense of inchoate but intense anomie, our children may be reacting to broad social tendencies. They may be responding to the excessive authority of science and technology in our era, the disproportionate preeminence of rationality in our culture, the championing of cerebration at the expense of the instinctive and intuitive in our civic lives. They may be dealing with the fact that, in all public and many public schools, it has become impossible to teach character, consciousness, or creeds. They also may be observing that many modern communities are aggregated by commerce or convenience; whereas, in almost all earlier epochs, people gathered into kinship and societies because they shared faith traditions, belief doctrines, or other collective ontological determinants.

Many parents now neglect teaching their children about spiritual dimensions, feeling, and faith. This may be an outgrowth of the fact that, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, more and more adults have lost faith in received beliefs, and have endorsed the rapid ascendance and controlling dominance of reason, science, technology, and engineering in our civilization. Many adults find it challenging or outright impossible to pass onto their children wisdom and truth about sentiment, emotion, and spirit life, for they themselves suffer from the absence of this elemental human consciousness.

Children long for spiritual life. Spirituality is inborn in our daughters and sons. It alarms them to have this primal aspect of their awareness go unrecognized in their families, their homes, their schools, and their communities. Spirituality is the essence of childhood, and it dismays and frightens our children to lose it.

Solutions for this endemically modern quandary are not easy to find. Concerned parents may want to consult and collaborate with trusted friends, religious counselors, and other spiritual teachers. At minimum, parents should welcome and involve themselves prominently in their children’s experience of the arts, life science, philosophy, and metaphysics. For children rarely will mutely accept a void in their learning. If they do not receive teaching in spirituality from their parents, they may seek guidance and training from peers, improper mentors, or the popular culture – a culture unabashedly committed to temporal concerns, materialism, consumerism, premature sexuality, and, far too often, virulent violence.

5.  Adultness

Children perforce are childish. Children’s peers are childish. Much about the contemporary culture is morally and emotionally immature.

Children love the childlike. They should love it. However, young people always tell me how deeply they need and cherish the presence of decisive, dependable adults in their lives; how they hunger for, rely upon, and are grateful to mature, confident, reliable grownups who responsibly shape, preserve, and protect their family, their minds, their actions, their existence.

This may seem an automatic provision. It is not. Many young people sense that the adults in their lives are not fully adult. Children find nothing else in their experience more terrifying.  No other circumstance or condition more unsettles and disenfranchises them. Children are wondrously resilient. But they need guardians:  fully developed grownups, who are fully devoted to parenting.

Once more let us recognize a truth absolute and eternal. Children will learn. Learning is all that children do. If our daughters and sons cannot learn from authentic adults, they will learn from immature, unwise, uncaring tutors: peers, false prophets, dishonorable gurus, malign forces.



We discuss effective parenting strategies and techniques in a series of essays on this site entitled:  “Parenting for Happiness and Success.”