Values in Action: Learning to Contribute

October 11, 2017

Values in Action: Learning to ContributeA recent Washington Post article:  Want your kids to be resilient? Here’s what not to do reviewed Amy Morin's book  and includes some practical ideas for helping kids to grow up to be self-sufficient, capable and happy.  As intentional parents, we share this universal goal. We are also mindful that our kids benefit when we tweak parenting techniques meant for the non-adopted population. After reading the article, I considered how her thoughts might be distilled through a trauma-informed, adoption-attuned lens.

One of her points is that children must learn that they are not the center of the universe. This false expectation sets them up for disappointment and dependence. Instead, we can choose to teach them the pleasure of being a member of the family--a team of sorts--one in which everyone contributes and everyone benefits. Everyone has value and responsibilities.

A strong link exists between our values, beliefs and actions. Values shape beliefs. Beliefs generate actions. Actions yield results. We know our kids benefit from consistent reinforcement of their sense of capability and agency. This means resisting the inclination to do too much for them or to rescue them from struggles and failures. Our job as parents is to teach them how to cope; it is not to shelter them from problems. We must allow kids to learn through the logical consequences of their actions when the life-cost is small and easily survived.

The process of problem solving has inherent value. Each time a child faces a challenge, develops a strategy and solves a problem, they reinforce their own sense of competency. This in turn helps them trust in their ability to face future challenges. On the other hand, when parents intervene too soon, too often or, too broadly,  a child learns they lack capability, need to be rescued and, their world becomes a scarier place. Although the parental intention was to help the child, this tends to set up a dynamic of unhealthy co-dependence and simmering resentment.

But wait. We know that our kids have difficulty with rejection, abandonment and mistrust. Why not "rescue" them? An important distinction must guide us: what is best for our child in the long run? Resist the desire to avoid short-term discomfort and concentrate on the value of learning from these unpleasant experiences. What we choose not to do can be as important as what we choose to do. Let's consider this question in regards to just one family issue. Chores.

When children are tots, they love to "help." Admittedly, more often than not, their help is counter-productive. However, if we take the long-term perspective, we can see the value not only for tolerating their contribution, but also for encouraging it. Obviously our expectations must be age-appropriate and we should set the scene for success. For example, a toddler can take his plastic dish from the table to the sink. (If necessary, scrape any food from his plate to eliminate the possibility of spillage en route to the kitchen. Have them take their silverware in a separate trip.) Thank them for helping. Verbally express your family value about this. "in our family everybody helps." Then be sure that this assertion is true.

Values in Action: Learning to Contribute: little ones can help tooTake advantage of a child's desire to help when they still perceive of it as a privilege, this lays the groundwork for lifetime habits. One the other hand, if we do everything for them when they are little, when they are older and the intrinsic eagerness has faded, they will be much more resistant to the expectation to help.

Readers of this blog know that we recently faced a hurricane. Nominal damage occurred but we still had a lot of landscape debris to clear. My two-year-old grandson observed us hauling branches from the backyard to the curb. Without being asked to help, he grasped a broken branch and dragged it along. He wanted to contribute. (Already, he recognizes "helping" as a family value.) He experienced the pleasure of capability. This event becomes part of many  which will eventually engrave a sense of self-confidence and resilience.

He regularly observes his mom and dad being helpers. He sees this family value in action and hears it being reinforced. Through picking up storm debris, he had the pleasure of being a helper and enjoyed a shared family experience. It would have been easy to stop him from helping because he was struggling. What he'd chosen to do was hard. But the very fact that it was difficult, made his effort valuable. This is an important life lesson: things can be  hard, worth while and doable.

We teach our children most effectively through the small actions of daily life. It is not a once-and-done deal. We must articulate our family values clearly--our words count--but our actions bring them to life. (Or reveal them as empty platitudes.)

During this next week, focus your intentions on one of your family values. What choices will you make to embody that value? How will you help your children to notice this value in action. How will you invite them to participate?

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