As a mom of 10 kids whose ages span 25 years, I have watched parenting trends come and go. But despite ever-changing styles, I’ve come to the same conclusion time and again: The small, daily habits we teach our children are what get results; the best effort on ordinary days that swings the door wide open to extraordinary moments.
I am halfway through this parenting journey, having just launched my fifth child to attend college at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. As my parenting style has evolved, a handful of common-sense parenting principles remain constant, and at the top of my list:
1) Self-control trumps self-esteem, 2) Everyone needs good old-fashioned manners, and 3) Initiative grows an independent adult.
Roy Baumeister, author of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, says self-control — not self-esteem — is the key to success, and he backs his theory with some pretty impressive evidence.
“Children with good self-control do better in school, are more popular with their peers, grow up to earn higher salaries, and are less likely to be arrested,” says Baumeister. He is quick to point out that self-disciplined kids grow into adults with high self-control, which results in better relationships and fewer psychological problems.
“With self-control, everybody wins,” he notes. “It is good for the person who has it, for the people around him, and for society as a whole.” In his estimation, the self-esteem movement has been a profound disappointment. “Sure, self-esteem feels good and fosters confidence, initiative, and perseverance,” says Baumeister. “But that’s about it.”
So how do parents swing the pendulum to the other direction? One sure way to foster self-control is to never reward tantrums, but instead, give praise when kids show restraint.
“Set reasonable goals and rules, and reward the child for reaching these goals and following these rules — even if just with verbal praise.”
For instance, if you are about to give your child a treat and he shows a lack of self-control, have him wait for the reward until after he regains control. Following the episode, emphasize that everyone gets upset when things don’t go as planned, but making a scene is unacceptable.
“Parents should remind kids often that we all have to learn to manage anger,” says Baumeister.
Jeremy Palazolo, program director of Chickasaw Council Boy Scouts of America, adds that there’s a fine line between self-esteem and true self-confidence.
“There is certainly nothing wrong with the boost that a letter on your jacket or being popular brings, but those things don’t always bring high self-esteem,” he notes. Organizations like the Boy Scouts, where independence is fostered, reinforce that being popular doesn't help a child tackle big challenges.
“Self-confidence will get them through when self-esteem is lacking,” Palazolo notes. “There is a world of difference.”
Learn Common Courtesy
What parent doesn’t beam when their child is commended for good manners? Yet learning manners begins at home. “We can’t control the events in the world around us,” says Sheryl Eberly, author of 365 Manners Kids Should Know, “but we can control our world by how we treat family members within our own walls.”
In our highly competitive culture, where achievement in academics and athletics is often spotlighted, parents can teach their children that everyone has the capacity for kindness. At our house, I often remind my kids that even though the outside world can be cruel, our home is a shelter from the storm. Consequently, meanness is not acceptable. Sentence writing, pulling weeds, or doing chores are all suitable penalties when one of mine acts out. Don’t forget to leverage screen time, too, by taking away cell phone, iPad, or video game time to make your point when poor manners are displayed.
Because our home currently includes five kids, two parents and grandma, manners are tested daily, and the basics are often stressed: Stop what you’re doing and look at grandma when she talks to you. No phones allowed at the dinner table. Never take the last or biggest piece of anything.
Finally, parents must model manners, too. “It’s often the case that children do what you do, rather than do what you say,” says Eberly, “and parents are the first and most important example, especially as the years go by.”
Make teaching manners age appropriate and start with your youngest children learning the basics, says Eberly. “Just as you might teach one chore (making the bed, putting away toys, etc.) a year as your child grows, you can also choose one or two manners each year.” Parents should resist the urge to feel like everything has to be mastered by the start of kindergarden.
Start with attainable goals, such as saying please and thank you, and go from there.
Growing up is not only about learning to refrain from doing things you want to do, but having the discipline to do things you don’t want to do. Introduce your kids to this word: initiative.
Author and motivational speaker Kirk Weisler says there are many ways to instill initiative. “But the biggest way is for parents to model it so kids will know what it looks like.” Weisler’s humorous book, The Dog Poop Initiative, was based on an actual event where parents and kids tip-toed around dog mess on a soccer field instead of scooping the poop. “Finally, someone took initiative and in 30 seconds solved the problem that everyone had been stepping over for two hours.”
After modeling initiative, some cheering also never hurts. At the Weisler house, each day is greeted with a family devotional, which can resemble a mini pep rally. “We start with some inspirational reading, the family motto, and a little cheer: ‘We are the Weislers, NOT The Whiners! And Weislers are? The leaders! And leaders do what? Take initiative!’ This fun tradition has helped make the principle of initiative a central part of our family discussions and our family culture,” he says.
I first adopted this word into our family vocabulary as I watched a friend who has more kids than I do manage her daily routine. Over and over I heard her say it: Take initiative. Show initiative. Use initiative.
I fell in love with the word and the results it got.
My first-born was about 10 at that time, and grew up hearing about initiative every day. By the time he left to join the Navy, he never wanted to hear that word again. Yet he called home on his one phone privilege during basic training with some surprising news.
“Mom, all they ever say around here is ‘take initiative.’” I smiled.
Ten years later, at age 29, my son lives and works in Minneapolis. After his recent annual review, he was intentional about calling to tell me how his boss said he had many outstanding qualities, but what he really had down pat was — you guessed it — initiative. It is the gift that keeps on giving.
Manners, initiative, and self-control will make your kids stand out in a crowd. Encourage them when you can; insist on them when you must. Parenting trends come and go, but these three tried and true qualities are never out of style.