Friday, November 12, 2010

Raising Self-Reliant Children

The picture will take you to the Amazon page for the book.

"In times of change, learners inherit the earth." -- Eric Hoffer

The challenge that faces us in parenting, according to this book, is that times have changed faster than parenting practices can keep up.   What worked for parents during the days when the culture and environment supported their efforts to raise responsible and capable adults no longer can be counted on.    Self-reliance might seem like just a characteristic, one of many nice character qualities, but in fact the ability to deal with real circumstances competently, and the attitude of responsibility in facing the various challenges and obstacles in life, is a key to most other character qualities.

It is also one that seems to be missing in action these days in our society.    There are plenty of grown children walking around, who don't know how to act well and don't really care that they don't know.   These children in adults' bodies still break their toys and hurt their friends and whine for what they want, only they do big damage instead of little damage, and there is no one to clean up the messes they make.

(There is another way to look at it -- some psychologists think that delayed maturity, termed psychological neoteny, has adaptive advantages in the fast-moving modern world.  But that will have to be for some other post).    

Times have changed and continue to change, but with some effort and thought, the things that worked in the old days can be transferred to today.  The book gives seven Building Blocks that were naturally cultivated in the past but aren't always so easily acquired nowadays, and shows by examples and ideas how to apply them to your parenting situation.

Seven Building Blocks
  1. Perception of Personal Capabilities -- the child believes he is a capable person who can solve problems if he tries.
  2. Perceptions of Personal Significance -- the child believes he can contribute to a relationship that is important to him through his creativity, ideas, and resourcefulness.
  3. Perceptions of Personal Control over the Environment -- the child believes he can find a way to alter circumstances or his responses to them in order to influence his environment
  4. Intrapersonal Skills -- the child shows ability for self-assessment, self-control, and self-discipline
  5. Interpersonal Skills -- the child shows the ability to communicate, cooperate, negotiate, share, empathize and listen.
  6. Systemic Skills -- the child shows some understanding of limits and consequences, privileges and responsibilities, cause and effect, and his role in dealing with them.
  7.  Judgmental Skills -- the child shows some ability to apply abstract notions -- such as "can afford, can't afford" -- in coming up with solutions to practical problems.
I must admit I didn't get much out of the way the Seven Building Blocks were stated.   Phrases like "Perception of Personal Capability" just sort of lie there in my mind taking up space.   I can't make them mean a whole lot in terms of looking at my child.    But I've read elsewhere about the internal vs external "locus of control" and  how that affects adaptability and resilience in various areas of life.   I think these Seven could be summed up by those concepts.    My husband is reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin who is certainly an eminent example of someone who captained his own ship.   I don't think this precludes allegiance to God, either --  in fact, most people who hand over control to externals are handing them over to circumstantial externals like luck which don't have much to do with free will or rationality.

Each chapter of the book describes the "Barriers" which prevent the skill from developing, and the "Builders" which contribute to the development of the skill.

Barriers seem to be

(1) neglect of children because of busy or broken lives, over-use of media and other consumer distractions, isolation of children in institutional settings away from normal human life
(2) over-directing children by preventing healthy risks, by over-scheduling, pushing achievement, and by protecting children from the normal consequences of their choices.   
(3) over-affluence -- making it too easy for children to get "stuff" and waste their time and basically live like little Roman emperors (even the poorest of us have advantages that most people throughout history never dreamed of). 

Builders seem to fall into the categories of

(1) Communicating well with children by conversation, action and time spent. 
(2) Finding ways to involve children in meaningful activities and responsibilities
(3) Making sure that children have to earn their extras (as opposed to the ordinary decent basics)
(4) Making sure they are supported but not shielded from the ordinary reverses and consequences in life.

Sometimes parents think that to avoid helicopter parenting it is necessary to go to the opposite extreme and throw kids into the deep end of the pool.    The book maintains that the best results come when the parents believe their children have lots of potential to be capable and responsible human beings, but also are willing to take the time and effort to help the children develop these capacities.   It's not good parenting to say (or think)  "See, I told you so," or "I guess you just don't measure up," when the child experiences a failure or consequence.   The wise parent tries to help the child make the failure or consequence into something that can be built upon in future efforts. 

Also, of course, the wise parent doesn't let catastrophic consequences or failures take their course.  You don't let a toddler run into a busy street, you don't throw the 11 year old into a toxic social situation and leave her alone to face it.   

Here are some online articles on building self-reliance since this post will get too long if I go into too many details.

Perceptions are Important

The word "Perception" is important to the book's message and is carefully defined in a chapter of its own.   It isn't enough for a child to BE capable, significant to his circle of family or friends, and in control of how he manages his environment.  He has to be aware that this is so.  

Perception is the conclusion we reach as the result of an experience after we have had time to reflect on that experience.  A skill is simply something we know how to do.  While perceptions result from the thought process alone, it takes practice to acquire a skill.
Parents can help guide children towards experiences that foster positive perceptions, and they can also guide their children towards reflecting on their experiences productively.   To do this it is important that the parents are AWARE of what is going on in their child's life (so the book recommends quantity as well as quality time in raising children).  

  • In thinking through an experience you ask for the child's perception of the experience.   What happened?  What was important?  It is important to acknowledge the child's perception before trying to refine it.   Suppose the child feels that he is a failure because his team lost most of its games.   You wouldn't want to "talk him out of it" until you had acknowledged the reality of that feeling.
  • Then you try to help the child analyze it -- what made the experience happen?  What might happen as a result?   Here is where you could explore what was in the child's control in the losing season and what was not in his control.   Could he have done anything differently? 
  • Finally, you help the child generalize -- what can be learned from this experience?  What can be applied to future experience?    The idea is that even mistakes and wrongs worked through constructively can lead to learning. 
Of course, there would have to be trust and sympathy between parent and child in order to make the conversation work, which is why it is important to proactively build family closeness.   It is also important not to have the discussion "in the heat of the moment" or else the feelings would run too high and there would be danger of using the discussion as a kind of weapon.  

I suppose it wouldn't be necessary to go through this process in an artificial, top-heavy way so long as the general strategy stayed in one's mind.    But it might be good to use the process more thoroughly if the issue was becoming a habit or causing problems in the child's life.  Here is an example from my family.   One of my children used to struggle with low self-esteem.  In retrospect I think I protected him too much from the possibility of failure because I myself was afraid of failure.  It didn't cause the problem, because we both had a naturally pessimistic temperament, but it didn't really help either.  Ideally, I should have looked for ways to encourage him to take small risks while also committing to discussing the healthy aspect of failure as a learning experience.  

This brings up another point emphasized in the book.   It is not necessary to parent perfectly.   We have years to work on these perceptions and skills, and even lapses can be learning experiences.   The child in my family who tended to catastrophize failure when he was young is older now, and his first response to a challenge is still to picture the worst-case scenario.   However, he has learned somehow to challenge himself anyway, face the crisis moment, and truck through it.  He doesn't enjoy it, but he's taught himself that he can get through to the other side of the pain and be successful, and he's willing to endure it.

Encouraging self-reliance is a big-picture effort and so when parents are consciously trying to foster an environment where maturity is valued, the child may be able to pick up some skills on his own.  In fact, self-reliance would be a shadow concept if it did not involve sometimes learning from reality without direct mediation of the parents. 

This book does a good job of being realistic and positive at the same time.   The authors both share serious mistakes they made and how they worked them out, and both the authors raised sizable families, so they have a certain amount of credibility both as normal human beings and as people who have served their time in the trenches.

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