We adults tend to look at kids with a sort of envy: Wouldn't it be nice to be carefree, have summers off and enjoy your youth again? We forget that growing up also means going through many painful realisations. To refresh our memories, here are a few lessons we'll have to help our kids through.
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
You Are Not That Great
Kids are naturally self-centred and narcissistic, probably because their brains are still maturing. Plus, parents and other adults tend to praise kids so effusively that children can develop a distorted view of their talents and skills. Childhood is a time of inflated egos. Inevitably, even the soccer MVPs and straight-A kids come to learn that someone else can do it better. Just going from grade school to high school or high school to college should bring on this painful realisation that you're not the special snowflake you might have been told you were. We all suck (in a way), and there's no getting around that lesson.
How to help your kid: The best thing you can do is continuously praise their effort instead of their abilities from as early an age as you can, so that your kid's self-worth isn't tied inextricably to things he or she might not have control over — debatable measures of worth like performance on a standardised tests or setting a new record in the 100m race. Instead, win or loss, we should emphasise that the effort and the experience is the reward itself. The best thing you can say is "I love watching you play" (or learn or do anything). I know this is easier said than done, because when kids ace an exam or do well in any area, our natural instinct is to praise and reward them. By only praising effort — and not praising kids if they don't put in effort — we teach them that working hard is good and will help you get better at things. It helps them overcome challenges and develop the necessary grit to do well in life.
When kids learn and accept they aren't the centre of the universe, they also develop an important virtue: humility. A few ways you can raise a humble yet confident kid: do charity work together (Doing Good Together, generationOn and Volunteer Match can help you find family-friendly opportunities for volunteering), encourage your kid to admit mistakes, and model empathy yourself.
Life Isn't Fair
"It's not fair!" What parent hasn't heard that angry protest from their child? Maybe this comes out of sibling rivalry, or your kid is just unhappy about "unfair" family rules. (For example, "my friend Laura gets to stay up until 9. Why do I have to go to be at 8?!" Because mummy and daddy really want to watch that show on Netflix.) To prepare them for the real world, we have to tell our kids that life isn't fair and we all have to deal with it, for the rest of our lives. It's a harsh lesson: Even when you try hard and do everything right, you won't necessarily win. (Game of Thrones, anyone?)
How to help your kid: You might not realise it, but chances are "that's not fair" slips out of your mouth sometimes. Childhood development specialist Betsy Brown Braun says we should eliminate this phrase from our daily usage. Also, stop trying to treat all of your children the same way [emphasis mine]:
The interesting thing is that it is the parent who sows the seeds for the child's expectation for fairness. In families with more than one child, parents bend over backwards to make sure that the children get the same. The children come to understand that fair means equal. And that's just not the truth. Dad takes Amanda to buy new shoes, and he gets them for little Samantha too. "Might as well," he thinks. The mistake is cultivating the idea that whatever one gets or gets to do, the other will as well. Dad wants to avoid the inevitable "That's not fair!" from the one who doesn't get, so he preemptively buys shoes for both.
Fair does not mean equal. Fair means doing what each child needs at the time. (It also means playing by the rules. But that is for another time.) The response to Samantha should be, "When your feet get too big for your shoes, you will get new shoes." And then you must tolerate Samantha's protest.
Of course there are serious issues of unfairness in the world — racism, sexism and other discrimination — and we need to teach kids to speak out and work against the injustice they see. As discussed in our "How to talk to kids about race" post, we can help our kids understand or at least realise the big issues of unfairness by talking with them about current events, travelling with them so they experience other cultures, and celebrating those who have worked to make the world a fairer place. How you approach these topics depends on your kids' readiness, but even at young ages kids should be able to understand Louis CK's lesson in the video above: "The only time you should look in your neighbour's bowl is to see that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbour's bowl to see if you have... as much as them."
When it comes to things like not getting as much ice cream as another child, kids will need to learn to tolerate their disappointment and appreciate what they do have. It's never too early to learn gratitude. So don't worry about accommodating ideals of fairness when they're minor issues and let kids experience the reality, early on, that, yup, life isn't fair.
Your Parents Are Regular, Flawed People
I admit, I'm going to be sad the day my daughter stops calling me The Best Person in the World. She knows I make mistakes, but doesn't realise yet how ordinary, fragile, and fallible I really am — like most everyone else. Learning your parent is human is like learning there's no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy, but more shocking, as if you'd been conned for over a decade by the person you trusted most. In this sense, every parent is a fraud.
Still, this is an important and unavoidable milestone. Kids need to challenge the assumption that mum and dad know everything so they can become independent individuals and make their own choices. Perhaps knowing parents are only human reassures kids that the world won't fall apart if mum or dad aren't around. Either way, it's a bittersweet turning point.
How to help your kid: This might be more of a challenge for you than for your kid. Advice for both parents of teens and empty nesters is the same: Give kids more independence and start treating them more like equals, but try to prep them with the life skills they need long before they have stopped looking at you as an authority figure. The parent-child dynamic will definitely change, but letting your kid know that you're a real person could actually deepen your relationship with your young adult. Don't worry about pretending you can fix or do everything, but do keep reinforcing that despite how your relationship might be changing, your job will always be the same — to be there for your kid. (The cat's going to be out of the bag soon enough that you have no idea what you're doing anyway.)
Friendships (and Everything Else) Won't Last Forever
We've all had friendships fade away and relationships end beyond our control. Each one is a wound. In childhood, these breakups hurt us more, when we're just learning about how friendships work and the few people we're close to mean everything to us. Even kids in preschool are quick to recruit their BFFs, friends forever. And in the young adult years, dating is serious stuff, influencing how we see ourselves. But, as you know, people move on and life goes on, and every child experiences the pain of a friendship or relationship fading or ending abruptly.
How to help your kid: Often, kids will come face to face with the stark reality that nothing lasts forever because of a death in the family, or perhaps the death of a pet. In that case, how you talk to your kids about death will depend on their development level, letting the child lead. In the case of a breakup — whether a friendship or romantic — child and adolescent therapist Signe Whitson advises we help kids understand that a breakup isn't a failure, but rather a predictable (yet painful) part of growing up. Still, let them mourn. Our usual instinct is to protect our kids and save them from pain or sadness, but as Pixar's Inside Out emphasised so well, sadness is necessary too. These are also teachable moments when we can discuss with our kids what real friendship and love is all about.
And, of course, listen. For all of the above and many other issues, truly listening remains our best parenting strategy. This might all be simple advice, but not always easy to carry out as we go through these cruel childhood lessons again with our kids.