by the Rev. Peter K. Stimpson

QUESTION: My wife tells me that I’m too harsh with our kids. Now that school has started, she worries that I am too critical when our kids goof off or get a bad grade. But, when I was growing up, my Dad was constantly on my back. Life is hard. What’s wrong with preparing kids for what they’re going to find out there in the real world?

ANSWER: Helping your child to prepare for the demands of life is a tremendous gift that a parent can offer a child. But portraying life in a cynical way tarnishes your gift, and delivering that message in a harsh manner confuses the child, making them wonder whether their value and your love are conditional upon performance.

While you want your son or daughter to live up to their potential, you do not want them to sweat buckets when they come home with an F in spelling in fourth grade, fearing that you may revoke their membership card to the family. They need to know that you want them to do their best, but that your love is unconditional. Win or lose, you will be there for them.

It is important that you teach that distinction now, for if you do not, they may later internalize the formula of inner worth being predicated upon outer performance and forever have an overcritical monkey on their backs. As kids, the examples are easy enough to spot; all you need do is watch their reaction to disappointments, such as not getting a hit in a Little League game, getting a C instead of an A in math, not making the football team in high school, not making the honor roll, and so forth.

Your response to their reaction will be key. If you are critical, scolding them for “goofing off” or labeling them “a loser” who will “never amount to anything if you keep this up,” you are reinforcing the negative message with which they have already branded themselves. When they leave home, your role in this process will end, but they will be running for the rest of their lives to prove themselves through a better job, a higher salary, a lower golf handicap, a better neighborhood, or whatever bespeaks success to them.

By not only sharing their disappointment, but also reassuring them of your love and encouraging them to try harder the next time, you mirror for them their value, and make them realize that tomorrow is, after all, another day. As their value is within them, then a loss today does not a loser make. Their innate abilities will rise to the occasion the next time, the pain of the disparity today between one’s inner potential and outer mistake being countered by another at bat tomorrow that will most probably yield a different result.

So, prepare your child for life, but do so with understanding and love, and without harshness and cynicism.

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