Parenting: Thinking without a Box

When I was 24 years old, I went on a first date with my future wife. Three months later I was married, 364 days later my daughter was born, and 15 months later my son was born. Suddenly I was an adult, I had more responsibility than expected, and I had little people who depended on me. Like most people’s lives, my life has had peaks and valleys along the way. At the end of the day, we all have our own cross to bear. Equally, at some point, so do our children. However, my children have become individuals in whom I take great pride; my daughter is now a bright and energetic 13-year-old, and my son is an equally bright and energetic 12-year-old. However, their successful transition from babies to toddlers to elementary school children to pre-teens causes me to muse about parenting, and to ask this question: How should we parent our children? Let's answer this question with careful consideration, starting with another question.

As a concerned parent or future parent, have you ever considered taking a position about whether people are inherently good or evil? For thousands of years, philosophers have waged this debate about human nature, notably the famous Greek philosopher Socrates, and different philosophers espouse different positions. There are philosophers, scientists, and critical thinkers who allege a person’s future is determined, variously, by environment, parents, teachers, an inherently good or evil nature, genetics, or some random combination. Indeed, it was once believed that the shape of one’s ears, head, nose or the distance between facial features could determine the likelihood for criminal behavior. Nevertheless, and in spite of some philosophers’ arguments to the contrary, most parents believe—with extreme prejudice—that their child is a miracle and has the ability to achieve whatever he or she wants. Living in the United States of America certainly provides an environment of opportunity.

Raised in a dysfunctional home on so many levels, I was fortunate to have the fortitude and foresight to recognize both the successes and failures of my own parents from the perspective of both the child and young adult I was. From these life experiences, and motivated by my love for two wonderful children of my own, I gained the drive to research further how to be a good parent, reading literature to gain additional education about becoming the best parent I could be for my children.

Teaching a child that actions have consequences is important; it is a lesson in which a parent can use his or her own life experience. Equally important is this lesson: teaching a child how to recognize his or her personal paradigm and strive to stay contemporary. If a child is raised within very narrow parameters, set by the successes and failures of a parent’s life experience, then the child’s future might be similar to the parent’s present. Nothing new will have been learned to prevent the child from making the mistakes the parent did. So you may ask, what kind of educational tools should a parent determine are appropriate for a child outside of a parent’s personal experience? The benefit of further education, via reading and study, cannot be underestimated; of course, it doesn’t replace a parent’s personal experience, but allows a better understanding of other people’s perspectives and experience. Armed with information about life from both the parent and others, a child has a better chance of not making the mistakes a parent did. As a parent, you can also use all of this information to discuss with your child the possible consequences of the decisions he or she may make in life.

Allowing my children to have a sense of ownership in their decisions has been a great way to teach consequences. I will often provide an explanation of possible outcomes of a decision, and then ultimately allow them to decide how to act. Only when a choice they make has the possibility of affecting either their health or safety do I interfere in this process. Outside of health or safety issues, I allow them to make their own choices, even when I know a choice will be a mistake. My children are well aware that making mistakes is something I anticipate they may do. They also know I think making mistakes is a part of life—and their education. We learn from our failures. My children also know that while they own their choices and they own their consequences, they cannot control the outcome of a decision. That’s part of the beauty of life: its unpredictability. Therefore, my children also know the difference between taking a risk and taking a calculated risk: acting in a way that may cause them to suffer unpleasant consequences.

Encouraging mistakes is a viewpoint I use, with the intention of limiting unnecessary pressures and cultivating the ability to take calculated risks. Children and adults can be consumed with particular issues in life that have the manifestation of being important at a colossal level. This is rarely the case as we come to find later in life. By making mistakes, my children learn lifelong lessons and can make decisions in the future based on personal experience. Although I do encourage mistakes, I expect lessons to be learned from them equally. When my children make mistakes, I make a point to be there for them and explain that I expect them to make mistakes. I will try to share a similar story with them, either personal or read about, and then try to enlighten them with the potential for opportunity following a mistake. I share with my children the belief that most simple decisions in life do not amount to an all-or-nothing result. Because we make a mistake in a particular area doesn’t make our endeavor a failure.

In this regard, my daughter shared a story with me recently. She decided to treat a friend in an unsatisfactory fashion. My daughter’s other friends explained to her that she shouldn’t be a friend with the other girl. My daughter didn’t talk to her friend that day as a result of peer pressure and hurt the girl’s feelings. My daughter realized that she had made a mistake, and later that day, when she returned home from school, she tried to contact her friend by phone. My daughter’s calls were ignored by her disappointed friend. As my daughter told me this story, she was particularly saddened because she made a conscious effort to be a better person at the beginning of the school year, and this episode was proof to her that she had failed in her attempt to be a better person. I explained to her that the situation with her friend was only one mistake; it didn’t make her a bad friend or person; it only meant that she made a mistake. The conversation continued, and we discussed potential avenues she could take to rectify her mistake with her friend.

It is important to talk to our children about their mistakes, and in this process, it is important to listen, too. Teaching the skill of listening has been a vital and ongoing lesson for my children. I learned much of the effective listening concept from the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Covey’s fifth habit is: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Growing up, most of us receive formal education on proper speech as well as reading and writing skills. These three areas are the most prevalent forms of communication, with the exception of listening. I don’t remember attending a class on effective listening. Effective listening is a skill that requires constant evaluation, effort, and practice. How often do you find yourself in a conversation, and while listening for a short period, you quickly come to a conclusion about what the speaker is saying, even before that person has finished speaking? The conclusion we make is usually based on our personal experiences and not the experiences of the speaker. A more effective approach to listening is to listen from the speaker’s perspective, through the speaker’s eyes or road map of life. I have had the best results with teaching my children this philosophy by actually practicing it while they speak to me. When they observe the sincere effort I make to listen and understand them, they try to reach the same level of listening in return.

In order to have a better understanding of our children’s experiences and have a contemporary approach to what they are going through, we need honesty. Although sometimes painful, the approach I have used successfully is based on this idea: while telling the truth can sometimes be challenging, there are no negative consequence for mistakes when the truth is told. When a mistake is covered up with deceit, the consequence is harsh. On the occasions when my children make a mistake deserving of a negative consequence, but tell the truth, we will have a discussion about their mistake, and they don’t receive any punishment. On only a few occasions have they attempted to tell a story of deceit; on those occasions the punishment was harsh, as appropriate, but of course it did not entail physical punishment. Discipline should never be physical punishment, but a teaching/learning opportunity for parents and children, and I don’t believe in lessons taught by physical violence, although I was physically punished for my mistakes when I was a child and young adult.

When parents discipline their children appropriately, the children grow as people. My children are compassionate, spiritual, intelligent, loving, affectionate, and creative; they also understand the need for balance in life. I feel most prideful about my children’s personal success: their growth as individuals. Of course, rearing my children has been a collective effort; my wife is also an active, concerned parent, and she is an amazing person and mother. For this reason, I cannot take sole credit for that portion of our children’s success that has to do with proper parenting. Their mom organizes just about every aspect of their education. However, with concern to the aforementioned approach to parenting, we allow them to make the decision to complete school assignments or leave them incomplete. Sometimes I will test them on the weekend by suggesting they blow off a school assignment so we can enjoy each other’s company. They always decide to finish their homework first. Therefore, our approach to parenting seems to be working successfully. However, I suspect a true measurement of our success as parents will be revealed when our children become adults. I have every confidence in their earning "A" grades for us.

squaresWilliam Charles

william William Charles is a native of California and has had a career practicing law for more than 17 years. During his career he has enjoyed a number of different appointments and is currently drafting policies for the City of Inglewood. William is an avid reader of books written by skeptics as well as books on leadership and statistics. William is a patriot and holds the values of Family, God, and Country close to his heart.