Right now — during the time of year when we tend to shower our children with stuff — is the perfect time to take a moment to think about what our children really need.
But before I proceed, I want to go on the record saying I have no qualifications, degrees or certifications that give me the authority to write the following. I am not a child psychologist, therapist, teacher or physician.
What I do have, however, is 15 years of intense, complicated, challenging and very rewarding parenting experience.
So what, in my humble opinion, do children need?
1. Rules and boundaries.
When my husband and I started dating, I had two very spoiled dogs. And that’s an understatement. They were bad, and I’d let them get away with anything. My future husband laid down the law with them. It was hard at first, but he assured me they wanted rules and boundaries. Wild West, wide-open, rule-less living is counterintuitive for most beings.
We all want to know what we are expected to do, and what we should expect in return. It gives us a sense of security. I didn’t believe him at first, but then I realized my dogs adored him for being stern. I learned something very valuable.
Something I was able to transfer to my children. I was a softie at first, but then I remembered what my husband taught me and buckled down. And I’m pretty sure my children love and respect me for the rules and boundaries I impose upon them.
When you think about it, when someone makes a rule for you, it’s typically to protect you. “You cannot cross the road without me,” isn’t designed to randomly restrict or punish. It’s to keep someone you love more than life itself from harm. The fear and sadness come when parents don’t impose rules. Because that could mean they don’t care.
Yes, as crazy as it sounds, rules mean I love you.
2. Modeling (aka role models)
Both of my children are on the autism spectrum and attended a special needs pre-school through our local school system from age three to five.
Their classes had both special and typical children, and the typical children were referred to as “model” children. Makes perfect sense to me now. Children model behavior; they copy their peers. You need children with typical behaviors so special children can learn from them. Basically, you can’t have a class full of non-verbal children. Kids need to see other kids talk to understand the value of communication. Duh.
But this goes way beyond preschool. My husband and I are both runners. My older son is relatively sedentary, and could recline on a couch with an iPhone for hours. His body never told him to get moving. But yet he’s a runner, too.
He started running cross country his seventh-grade year. Ran cross-country and outdoor track his eighth-grade year. Starting his freshman year in high school, he’s run cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track and loved every minute of it. His sophomore year, he shaved several minutes off his 5K time and started working on his core to improve his speed. He ran a 10K and placed third in his age group. And he’s committed to getting better every year.
We never forced him to do this. We never even suggested it. He learned by watching us. He realized we placed value on running; running was a good thing. And he followed.
Modeling matters. Remember that. Your kids are watching.
3. Security and safety.
When my son was being bullied during his freshman year in high school, he knew that as bad as the day could get, as soon as he got home he was safe. Loved. Adored. Respected. And we would do everything, anything and more than that, to protect him. His home was a harbor in a storm. He had nothing to fear as soon as he walked in the door.
We all need a safe place. But children more than anyone. They don’t understand the world. Why can people be so mean? Why would someone make fun of you? How can other people make you feel so lousy about yourself? It doesn’t make any sense.
But it doesn’t happen at home. At home, you are safe. It’s that simple.
And if a child doesn’t have that, what do they have? If fear and uncertainty stretch beyond the playground and the mean world of teenagers, there’s no time to recover, to rebuild and regroup. Kids must feel safe somewhere, or the consequences can be tragic. Anger. Fear. Frustration. Hate.
If you don’t do anything else, give your kids a safe place. Let them know they are unconditionally loved by you, and you will move heaven and earth to protect them.