Five-ish Things That Kids Learn in Families


“What we remember from childhood we remember forever…”   Cynthia Ozick, American writer 1928.

Young children, and teens, sometimes have values, priorities, behaviors and feelings that they have to unlearn, or re-channel if they have been exposed to traumatic life events, or unhealthy behaviors by their parents. It can be a long, slow process but don't give up.  Healthy life skills, coping mechanisms and trust building come from watching you, as well as, being given opportunities to experiment, grow and change. 

The parameters of ‘normal’.

Family life is a microscopic version of the world. It’s where children and teens learn to interact with others. Learn how they fit into social and work (chores or working for others) relationships.  It’s where they learn boundaries and where they learn to evaluate what is acceptable, unacceptable or just plain bizarre behavior.

Often, if tragedy or abuse occurs in a child’s life, they tend to expect bad things unless we help them put things in perspective. It should be every parenting adult’s goal to help kiddos see that life is a series of possibilities–not just a steady stream of problems.

How to handle feelings and conflict.

It can be especially hard for youth who have been threatened or punished for “talking back” to engage in any conversations that they know would have triggered a violent reaction in their mom or dad.  However, their day-to-day success, as well as all ongoing and future relationships rely on their learning how to give and receive feedback honestly, respectfully, and at appropriate times.

If kids yell obscenities, hit, walk away when you are talking with them, or demonstrate other extreme behaviors create a cooling off period, and then explain rules of engagement.  Let them practice when they are calm saying “I” statements that don’t threaten or demean. Role play examples they can relate to such as, “I feel scared when you yell, like you just did.  I know that the odds of a plane crashing are very slim, however, it makes my stomach hurt when you make fun of me for not wanting to fly because that’s how my parents died.  It’s my turn to decide what movie we are going to go see since you choose last week. Was there a reason you want to choose this week too?”

Feelings are honest.  It’s okay for children and teens to be angry, mad, sad, glad, silly or whatever.  What’s important is how feelings are expressed by words, voice tone, body language and timing. They learn respect as much from watching and listening to how you talk to others, and about others as they do from lectures or coaching. If a birth parent is, or was, abusive they may need professional counseling.

Being responsible isn’t easy.

Kids learn from experience–so even when it’s painful let them try new things or re-try old things in new ways giving them more and more control and responsibility. Let them make mistakes. Let them learn about natural consequences, and most important set them up to succeed.

Not all their efforts will be painless, or pretty, but from each attempt they will learn. Show them trust and respect by honestly praising successes (even partial) and together talk through events and feelings when things don’t turn out so well. Be open to their suggestions and be flexible.  When you can’t ‘flex’ explain “why”. Is it too expensive, are you overbooked, or is it simply too dangerous, illogical, or against your values?

Learning to be a good winner or a good loser.

Don’t believe the drivel that anyone can do anything they set their mind to.  I am 5’2″ and will never be 5’7″.  At seventy, I’m too old to become an Olympic champion in anything.  They too have some skills and gifts and some restrictions. If they have been cut from the high school varsity basketball team help them access the situation.  Would extra practice or coaching help?  Would joining a ‘rec’ team improve their future chances in high school, college and beyond?  Are they simply, at 5 foot, too short to compete unless they get a growth spurt?

Additionally, everyone cannot be best at everything.  If they try something and fail then they will have learned a little more about themselves and be better prepared when passed over for a job promotion or maybe learning that there are physical reasons that they cannot eat sugar without serious health consequences.

Sometimes winning comes easily.  They will be better served if they learn early on how to share the glory in a team sport or turn the spotlight to encouraging others.  “I am the greatest” (you fill in the blank) comments can quickly turn off others.

Values and ethics.

We live in a world where everything we do is quickly picked up, passed on and/or critiqued by others on social media.  It’s not easy to be bullied at school or work, but it’s mega multiplied when the bullying jumps to cyber and your child is exposed to ridicule from those he/she interacts with every day.

Since we can’t control everything that happens to our children as youngsters or young adults, we have to help them develop the self confidence and self worth to ride out the storms. Teens don’t always believe that character counts more than immediate popularity. However, surrounding them with family, mentors, good friends who share your family’s values and faith will help them mentally shrug and walk away or calmly say, “that’s not cool”.

Let them know that they aren’t victims and that asking for help from God or others takes courage and strength but we all need others…and we all can help others.

Met earlier this month in Seattle with a number of other grandfamily members (and Donna Butts from Generations United) at the Casey Leadership Retreat. Amazing people. Amazing organizations.