As a parent, I think the scariest part of raising a child would have to be the teenage years. With external influences like peer relationships, exposure to drugs, alcohol and members of the opposite sex and you have the working ingredients for a Molotov cocktail.
Okay, so my two boys are currently 1 and nearly 4 years old. Surely all that stuff is a long way away. Well, I’ve been worried about it since before I had children. The question I want to know is how can you raise a child that is immune to negative peer influence? How do you help your child say “no” to drugs, or better yet – tell you if he has been approached about it? How do you make sure they can be sensible with alcohol (although I think I would be happier if they were teetotalers but let’s be realistic here)? I would also like to ban dating altogether until they’re 21 years old, but I’m sure that’s the best way to push all these activities underground. Frankly, if they are going to do it, I’d rather be in the loop rather than out of it.
Ah, the irony of it all – when I was a teenager, I was always fighting with my parents for more freedom to do the things I wanted. I could never understand all their restrictions. My mother would always say, “Wait until you are a mother.” I remembered thinking to myself, “I certainly won’t be like you!” And now I finally am a mother and her words have come back to haunt me. But I’m digressing…
What’s a parent to do?
All things aside, I think most parents would agree that if our children are going to get into trouble, we would much rather be the first person they turned to rather than the last – at least I’d prefer it that way. Of course the gold standard would be for them not to get into trouble in the first place, but if they do, let’s hope they know how to look to Mum and Dad for help.
In order for that to happen, I think it is important to cultivate a strong relationship with your child and that is something that has to happen as early in their lives as possible. Having a strong relationship with your child serves a purpose that is two-fold. Not only can you expect your child to turn to you when he is in trouble, but a child who has a deep respect for his parents is also more likely to hold the morals and values taught to him close to heart.
How much influence does a parent really have?
We hear the stories about the kids who came from abusive homes with a history so destructive that nothing good could come out of it, but some of these kids manage to rise above it all. Take the story of Milo from Brain Rules for Baby as an example:
Milo’s father drank like a drain, then he’d hit anything that moved. Milo generally was exempted from the abuse. His sisters weren’t, though. The dad regularly raped Milo’s older sisters, which Milo, at age 6, would occasionally witness. Whether or not he was drunk, he beat Milo’s mom. She became cold and uncaring, not given to bandaging the wounds of her children, emotional or physical. One day she got sick of this treatment and took off in the family car with a waiting boyfriend, never to return. Enraged, the dad broke the boy’s nose. From then on, Milo took his mom’s place as the family punching bag. His dad fell apart completely in the ensuing years, embarking on alcohol-and-drug fueled orgies and petty crimes. One day, when Milo was 16, his dad told him to come upstairs. As Milo did, his dad blew his own brains out. You’d think Milo’s future would have collapsed under the weight of this excruciating past. But that’s not what happened.
Milo had a head for numbers. He excelled at school, especially math. At age 14, Milo started running the household, taking money from his passed-out dad’s pocket to buy groceries. He also began tutoring his older sisters, who, not surprisingly, had fallen behind in their class work. Milo made it onto the honor role, became student-body president, qualified for and received college scholarships, and got a bachelor’s degree in business. Like a splinter in his finger, these early memories continue to irritate Milo. But they haven’t stopped him. As of this writing, Milo is a teetotaling, married father of two and the owner of his own car dealership. Quoting his favorite jazz musician, Miles Davis, Milo declared, “I wasn’t prepared to become a memory.”
Individuals like Milo are a mysterious marvel. Most children living in such environments are usually doomed to relive their parents’ lives. Clearly, individuals like Milo show us that there is a certain element or elements within a child that is unaffected by nurture. Science has managed to pinpoint it to three resiliency genes that protect these individuals from the stress and trauma experienced through life. It is those genes that alter the prophecy for Milo’s future so that he did not end up like his father. Unfortunately, not everyone is born with these resilient genes.
Then there are certain characteristics, such as a child’s temperament, which do not change with parental influence. According to the science, no amount of parenting will alter a child’s temperament. For instance, one in five babies are born naturally anxious. They are sensitive to their environments and are generally more explosive compared to the other four babies. No amount of nurture is going to change the fact that they will always be anxious.
There are certain things that are beyond our control and we, the parents, are not omnipotent after all – dang! But remember that 50% is nature and 50% is nurture, so that means we do have some influence, even if it isn’t quite as much as we would like. According to Brain Rules for Baby, there are specific things parents can do to increase their chances of raising a child like Doug:
Doug was as sharp as a whip—really good at math, but he could just as easily have joined the debate team. He held his own in just about every subject to which he applied himself. Doug would eventually become valedictorian, a fact he seemed to take as a given even as a freshman. Doug was also athletic (wide receiver on varsity), comfortably self-confident (with an easy smile), and graced with an almost pharmaceutical-grade optimism. To top it off, Doug was as disarmingly humble as he was socially confident. This made him extremely popular. By all appearances Doug seemed intelligent, gifted, motivated, well-socialized, happy.
Individuals like Doug were children who:
- have better emotional regulation, calming themselves more quickly.
- have the highest academic achievement.
- show greater empathetic responses.
- show greater loyalty to parents and have a higher compliance rate with parental wishes, the obedience coming from feelings of connection rather than from fear.
- have fewer incidences of pediatric depression and anxiety disorders.
- have the fewest infectious diseases.
- are less prone to acts of violence.
- have deeper, richer friendships, and lots more of them.
What can we do to increase our chances of raising an individual like Doug? I think we’ll have to examine that in the next post as I’m out of time today.
Read Part 2.