"We aren't raising children, we're raising adults," says family therapist, psychotherapist, and author Susan Stiffelman. What we do as parents creates our kids' sense of normal, which ingrains habits and behaviors that carry into adulthood.

Of course, we want the best for our children--for them to have a lifetime of happiness, to be prepared for the real world, or to simply do better in school. Most often we want them to succeed, and so we search for advice to pass on.

But the best help here comes from what you show, not tell.

Stiffelman told Parenting there are specific things parents can role-model to most effectively foster well-adjusted, successful young adults, which I've blended here with personal experiences. Let your kids see you:

1. Struggle.

As a younger parent, I hid my struggles, so I wouldn't shatter my daughter's illusion of dad's heroic-ness. I soon learned the importance of letting her see the full cycle of handling adversity. As Stiffelman puts it, "Let your kids see you struggle, how you handle it, how you get through it, how you rest, or how you ask for help."

2. Cry.

I'm still admittedly a bit embarrassed to do this in front of my daughter, but I know it helps her "become at ease with sadness," as Stiffelman says. It demonstrates that she shouldn't feel burdened with the need to override sad feelings.

3. Smooch your partner.

My wife and I do this just to embarrass our daughter, but it's nice to know it has therapeutic benefit, too. It's especially important to show affection amid super-busy schedules. Even a little peck on the cheek in between pickups/drop-offs helps show that "coupling" is more than just convenient co-living/partnering arrangements.

4. Exercise.

My wife and I feel strongly about showing it's not normal to not keep moving. Sometimes I'll even adjust the time I work out so my daughter witnesses me heading off to exercise. As my wife says, it's not about telling her she needs to workout because of ______ (insert body-judging/shaming statement here); it's about healthy living and the need to just ... keep ... moving. Admittedly, digital distractions are our biggest foe here.

5. Attend to the universe, not just the "you-niverse."

This is about volunteering to uplift another--literally volunteering, but also voluntarily shifting focus outside yourself to engage in kind acts. 

Stiffelman says, "One of the most effective ways for children to feel that they're meaningful and that they matter is when they can improve or uplift someone else--not just mommy or daddy." And that's the essence of it--role-modeling the importance of the world beyond self.

6. Making choices to spend to your means.

My wife and I are blessed to have earned enough income to avoid frequent, brutal spending decisions. But we still try to involve our daughter in discussions on financial choices we have to make, beyond "No, because it's too expensive."

Stiffelman recommends talking sooner than later about how much things cost.

7. Learn.

Some of the most important behaviors to role-model are a bit counterintuitive (like showing struggle or crying), and can create tension. Showing you're a lifelong learner is one of these, because you have to invest time to do it.

But as Stiffelman points out, "Our kids are probably going to change careers many times, so they need to have the comfort/agility to learn new things." It can be as simple reading more. "Kids who see parents read tend to read more," adds the therapist.

8. Be kind to yourself.

Research shows students who base their self-esteem on external sources (approval from others, etc.) often develop more mental health issues, while those basing self-esteem on internal sources (self-talk, adherence to their values) have better grades and lower incidence of drug, alcohol, or eating disorders.

In other words, the external world poses enough challenges for your child's self-esteem, so why role-model anything other than kindness/forgiveness for yourself?

Easier said than done, I know, especially if you tend to compare yourself to unreachable standards, as I do.

9. Be inwardly reflective.

This can be evidenced through spirituality or by simply taking time for reflection and introspection. The point is to counter the focus on achievement and acquisition. That may seem to fight with the desire to help them succeed, but it helps children experience the deeper part of what it means to be human.

10. Be creative.

People become uninspired at work for many reasons, none more deeply-seated than when they've stopped creating and contributing their handiwork to the world. Help ingrain the habit early by showing how happy creating makes you. It's about expressing, not accomplishing.

So put on a (authentic) show for your young audience. It'll help raise the curtains to success.

Published on: Mar 13, 2019
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