Most parents take their role as "people-maker" pretty seriously, and well they should. Parenting is a huge responsibility and there is a great deal riding on your success in that role.
The well-being of your child, as well as the immediate happiness of others who come into contact with that person you're training, are both at stake. You want to get this one right. But how do you know whether you're doing it right or not? It's not like they come with an owner's manual.
What most people do is simply raise their kids the way they were raised themselves. After all, that's the program that's in your head. It comes naturally.
If you're lucky and your own parents were playing with a full deck, that can work out OK.
When in doubt, just consult your inner parent. I'm sure your dad or mom is right there with you, riding along in your brain. I saw my dad just this morning, when they took my new driver's license photo.
Well, that's all fine if your parents were the judicious, upstanding individuals we all would like to be raised by. But what if they weren't so wise or skilled or mature that you'd want to copy their technique? What if their method of discipline left a little something to be desired? That template is still in your head. But do you really want to use it on your kid? Are you so happy with the way you turned out that you want to replicate yourself? And are you so content with the way you were parented that you want to replicate that?
I sometimes compare a child with a corn plant. The genetic potential is already in there. All you have to do to see that corn in your succotash is give it water and sunlight and protect it from damage.
A child is similar but more elaborate. They grow up to be themselves automatically, but they need the basic supplies.
One difference is that corn doesn't behave. It just stays in one spot and reaches for the sky. A child, however, will be all over the place in short order. That's when parental guidance becomes a necessity.
What you're looking for is some sort of balance. You don't want to over-control or under-control. And you may not be able to rely on your own parents' model for this.
I once knew a couple who were raising their two sons with "total freedom."
When I knew them, the boys were still young and in diapers, although they weren't that young. I've often wondered how they turned out. I'd bet they're still brats. They certainly were then. Those parents didn't care how obnoxious their kids were to anybody else. It was all just total indulgence. Those boys were dictators, running the whole family.
If parents are too permissive, children have a hard time learning to control themselves, and they learn not to trust any authority. They think they should just do whatever they want to. That's one kind of self-esteem problem (too much).
Parents who are harsh and punitive engender kids with the opposite self-esteem problem (too little) who grow up to be either timid, self-conscious shrinking violets or rageful, devious destroyers.
Unless we make a conscious choice about it, as parents we will tend to pass on whatever we learned as children from our own parents. This can be good or bad (or indifferent and that's bad). It couldn't hurt to think about this a little, even if you had compassionate, competent parents. In a pinch, you could ask your spouse. Maybe he or she has some balance you can borrow.
The purpose of discipline is to teach self-discipline. This is something we all need in order to be successful. It's not punishment; it's teaching. So don't be angry when you discipline your child. Be firm, reliable and understand that you may have to repeat the lesson a few times. We learn by practicing.
Start early, in the first year, by designing routines and rituals that become familiar, predictable and full of love. This helps to create a sense of security in your child, communicating that the world is a safe place that will be responsive to your child's needs.
When your child does something dangerous or socially unacceptable, simply stop him/her, physically. Say no and give a brief, clear and simple explanation of why: "cars can hurt you " or "be kind to others." Children are smart and they are programmed to learn.
Much of bad behavior is motivated by anger. Your child will learn how to manage anger by watching you. If he/she sees you controlling yourself and then responding thoughtfully when he misbehaves, he will learn it from you.
Hugh R. Leavell has been a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach County for 18 years. He offers free seminars on couples communication and conflict management. Call him at (561) 471-0067 or visit his Web site www.oneminutetherapist.com.