Article: Ten Gifts for Our Children

(Advice from Them)

*In no particular order*

1. Encourage me.
2. Listen to me when I am talking.
3. Love me like you’ve never loved anyone before.
4. Say “I’m sorry.”
5. Keep your promises.
6. If you get mad at me, remember to forgive me.
7. Treat me like you treat your customers.
8. Let me make decisions that I think would be good, and maybe they would be as good as the decisions that you made for me.
9. Nuf evah em pleh (Help me have fun).
10. Don’t spoil me and then later on yell at me for being spoiled.

1. Encourage me”…Children need to know that you support their efforts, no matter how good or bad they might be. When our expectations for our children exceed their abilities, we are setting up a pattern for them of never being satisfied with their work. I remember a student in my elementary classroom who was terribly upset because he had missed three problems on a long-division assignment, one of the first that we had done. He brought his paper to me to ask why I had put a big smiley face and “Good Work” on the top of his paper. When I assured him that, indeed, it was good work, he informed me that the only good work was perfect work! After a conversation with his parents, we began to work on the idea that, perhaps, we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. I’m not sure that we were fully able to instill that idea within him, but he became a little less critical of himself.

Imagine how stressful his life would be if he expected to never make a mistake! After all, we are only human, which means it is inevitable that we will face both large and small errors in the eighty or so years of our lives. This idea of perfection seems to come to some children naturally. From the time they are very young they are extremely frustrated when things don’t go exactly as they had hoped or planned. Others have learned it from those folks around them: siblings, parents, grandparents, and/or friends. They don’t like the feeling of being “wrong” so they continually strive for perfection, making themselves and those around them miserable in their pursuit.

It doesn’t really matter how it came to be, we, as parents, must help our children understand that mistakes are a part of life. We must show them understanding and patience with ALL of their efforts, whether successful or not. After all, don’t we learn something from each one? When asked about all his previous failures when he created the first light bulb, Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” To be able to find the good in each attempt and to accept that, for this time, this was their best work is a gift that we need to give our children.

This does not mean that we accept mediocre work when we know that our children are capable of much better. What it does mean is that when their efforts are not up to “par” we ask questions, we investigate to find the reason for this change. Children do not just wake up one morning and decide to start doing inferior work. There is a reason, a culprit that needs to be rooted out and dealt with.

Life is about learning to deal with the good and bad. It’s about teaching ourselves and our children to strive to do our best, understanding that each day the best may be different than yesterday. After all, aren’t there days when you just don’t feel up to par and your work reflects that? But you know that you’ll be back at full throttle tomorrow and that your work will also reflect that. This is part of life, but how do children know that if we don’t teach them? It just takes a little time to sit with your child and let them know that you are there, you are watching and listening, and that you support them in their efforts.

2. “Listen to me when I’m talking”…When was the last time you sat down and really listened to your child. Now, I’m not talking about one eye on the television, your phone, or the stove and one eye tuned to your child. I’m talking about really sitting down and hearing with both ears what your child is telling you. You look them in the eye and you watch how they move and hold themselves when they are talking to you. Has it been a while since you’ve done this?

It’s easy in today’s world, to get caught up in all the daily activities and forget to take a few minutes to really listen to your kids. I remember the days when my son was little and he never stopped talking. There would be times I would say to him, “Honey, I just need five minutes of quiet time. Mommy needs a time out.” And because he was talking so much, I would find myself only half listening, if that much. I would be “caught” at the end of his story (or whatever he was telling me) when he would ask me a question, and I realized I had no idea what he had just been saying, or my answer was really about something he had been talking about an hour ago! Oops!

Listening is not a skill most of us were ever taught. In all my years of working with children and then as a director working with the teachers of the children, I have been amazed at the number of people, young and old, who have no idea how to effectively listen. Do a little test…after a conversation with a friend or a spouse; ask them to repeat to you, in their own words, what you just said. Could you do it for them?

We get so caught up with the phone ringing, or the television, or the other children, or our spouse that we think we’ve heard what our children have said to us, but I would venture to say that most of us really didn’t hear it. Even in the preschool classroom, one of the first lessons we began teaching the children (and the teachers) was how to listen. Imagine yourself sitting in the circle with all the other children and teachers. It’s story time. What do we do with our hands to be a good listener? Answer: they are quiet in our laps. What do we do with our eyes? Answer: they should be on the reader. What do we do with our ears? Answer: We turn them on. (Preschoolers LOVE to turn their ears on). And, lastly, what do we do with our mouths? Answer: We close them and leave them closed. (In preschool, we had mouth zippers; some kids even put locks on their zippers-only fictional but pretty effective).

I was very fortunate early in my teaching career to work with a speech/language pathologist who taught me how to teach children to listen. It’s a skill I’ve taught in every classroom since, over thirty years. We all have had someone in our lives, or I hope we have, who really made us feel like we had been heard, they really listened. Remember how that felt? Isn’t that a wonderful gift to give to anyone, especially our children?

3. “Love me like you’ve never loved anyone before”… Hmmm. We all love our children, so why would a child (this one a 10 year old girl) feel the need to remind parents of this? Certainly there are those parents who don’t know how to love their children. I’m not speaking to those people right now. I’m speaking to those parents who “forget” to show and tell their children just how much they are loved. Remember, almost ninety percent of what children learn from you comes from your actions; only ten percent of what they learn comes from your words.

So, given that, have you taken the time to show your children that you love them? Here are a few suggestions from the children (these are their words as they wrote them):

• Tell me bedtime stories (tuck me in)
• Carry me on your shoulders
• Read to me
• Put your seat belt on
• Take me to where you grew up
• Tell me stories about my ansesters
• When I come back from school ask me about my day
• Try to play football with me, dad. Mom is not great.
• Let me help cook sometimes
• Have fun with me everyday
• Give me hugs

What these children are saying is that they want YOU! In all of the suggestions listed in the book, always kiss me good night: Instructions on Raising the Perfect Parent by 147 kids who know, compiled by J. S. Salt, there are only a few that request buying something (“a bike so you can teach me to ride,” “a pet or a bug,” ”buy the kind of ice cream that I like, not the bad taste good price kind.”) Your children want YOU to show them how much you love them. Amazingly, it only takes a few minutes EVERY DAY to do this.

Certainly, your child needs to hear you say the words, “I love you!” But more than that, they need to see and feel that you love them. They need to see that every day of their lives they are so valuable that you stop everything else, just for them, and give totally and completely of yourself. In only a few minutes every day you can let your child know, without any doubt, that you “love them like you’ve never loved anyone before.”

4. “Say I’m sorry”…For some of us, this is a hard one. I remember as a young teacher, a dear friend visited me in my classroom. She had taught for a long time so I was eager for her comments at the end of the first day’s visit. She only had one: “Don’t ever let the children know that you made a mistake.” Now, I must admit that I was taken aback by this statement. I had never really thought about it before, I guess, so I had to ask her why this was so important. This woman had taught children and young people for many, many years. She was much more experienced than I so she must know what she was talking about. Her reasoning was this: if you let children know that you’ve made a mistake, they will lose respect for you as the teacher or the parent.

While I certainly respected her opinion, I questioned her belief. I believed then and even more so now, that children will respect you more if you admit your mistakes. If you can say to your child, “I’m sorry,” you are telling that child that you respect them. You’re telling them that you are not perfect, and they should not expect perfection from you or themselves. You are teaching them a life skill that will be extremely valuable: the ability to admit their own mistakes and to correct them to the best of their ability.

Many adults subscribe to the belief of my friend. It is important to them for their children to believe they are perfect and incapable of errors. There are lots of reasons for this belief and dissecting those is not the purpose of this article. (We’ll save that for a later date). What is important here is that children need to know that you love and respect them enough to admit, when necessary, that you have hurt them in some way. It is important for them to hear you say the words and then to ask for forgiveness (this one can be VERY difficult for some people).

If we want our children to learn respect, understanding, and unconditional love, then we must teach them, by our actions, how to do that. Likewise, when they come to us (because we’ve taught them how) and use those same words, we have to show them that they are loved unconditionally, just as they love us. What a great gift to give your children! Two little words…”I’m sorry.”

5. Keep your promises”…I wish I knew just exactly why this one is so important to me, but I really don’t. Maybe it was the example set by my parents. If they promised us they would do something, then they always did. I don’t remember a time in my life when they didn’t follow through on a promise. It taught me just how important that particular skill is.

As I grew older and certainly as an adult, I, of course, came across people who didn’t always follow this rule. Because I am a person who always trusts that people will give you their best, I was let down on many occasions by a friend, family member, lover, or partner who never intended to keep their promise. Promises were just words that could be taken back or changed to fit the circumstances. It took me a while to understand (I’m a little slow sometimes) that not everyone subscribed to the idea that promises were extremely valuable.

As a parent, I have done my level best to follow through on all the promises I have made. (I think there’s still one I need to fulfill). It has always been important to me, as it was to my parents, for my son to know that my word was my bond. I wanted him to understand that if you can’t be trusted to keep your word, there really is NO trust. How else will children learn this life skill if you, as their parent, don’t set the example? Again, children learn much more by what we do than what we say.

Understandably, sometimes things come up that make it impossible to keep our promises, but these must be the exception, not the rule. If you continually make promises that are not kept, then your child learns to say whatever is necessary at that moment in time. He learns that his word (and yours) is meaningless. She learns that trust is something for other people, but not for her.

Show your children just how much you love them by keeping your promises, even when it’s not convenient or easy. If there is any doubt that you will be able to keep it, DON’T make it. It is better to be honest and tell them directly that this is just not something you can do, than to make a promise you’re pretty sure you’re not going to be able to keep and then let them down. Tell them how important they are to you…keep your promises.

6. If you get mad at me, remember to forgive me”…Three little words, I forgive you. Some of the most powerful words we can ever use, but what an impact they can have on a life! We all make mistakes. Some are big, and some are small. Some hurt others, some hurt us, but they ALL need to be forgiven.

How does a child learn to get past life’s hurts if they are never taught the power of forgiveness? I think we all have people in our lives that are “stuck” in something that happened years and years ago and are unhappy because of it but they just don’t know how to make it go away. Too bad that some adult or, better yet, their parents didn’t teach them what it feels like to forgive.

As adults, we understand that forgiving others is really what we do for ourselves as much as for the other person. Carrying around the anger, the hurt, and the pain hurts us much more than it hurts anyone else. Carrying around the shame and anger over our own transgressions can hurt even more than when someone else hurts us. It can cause us to live our lives as less than we were created to be.

Telling a child that you forgive them for what they have done teaches them that it is possible to get past the hurt. That life will be better as soon as this “problem” gets fixed and that they have the ability to fix it. It tells them that you trust them to be able to do this and that you support their efforts. It enables both you and them to move forward and leave the hurt in the past.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here, I am not saying that I think you should teach a child to automatically say, “I’m sorry,” anytime there is a problem. The feeling should be genuine, it should be heartfelt, and there should be some kind of restitution involved. If the first words out of your mouth are “I’m sorry,” but you never follow up with actions, then you’re teaching your child to be less than honest and genuine. By saying the words and then doing something to “make-up” to your child, you are giving them the love and respect they deserve. At the same time, you’re showing them how much you love and respect yourself. This is another wonderful gift for your children: to know that their parent(s) love and care enough about themselves to ask for forgiveness.

7. “Treat me like you treat your customers”…I was visiting with a woman the other day who was complaining about the way her husband was treating her. We have had several of those conversations over the past few months. After listening to her tell me about all the mean and nasty things he had done and was continuing to do, I asked her what she would like for him to do. Her response was similar to this child’s suggestion: “I want him to treat me the same way he treats strangers on the street. He treats them with more respect than I get.”

It occurred to me just how often we take each other for granted. We assume that the people closest to us are always going to be there and that they’ll just accept whatever treatment we may send their way. How sad for everyone involved! As someone who has lost family members very suddenly, I know and respect the value that the people closest to me have in my life. I have felt the grief and regret of not saying and showing loved ones just how important they were to me before their untimely death and I have vowed not to let that happen again.

It doesn’t have to be death that removes people from our lives. Spouses divorce each other and sometimes their children. Children separate from their parents and keep a distance between them in order to stop the hurt from being neglected or ignored. I’m not talking about abuse or the social service definition of neglect. I’m talking about getting so wrapped up in our own lives that we forget to show and tell our children, the people closest to us, how much we care for them. Children (and adults) love show and tell. It doesn’t take long, a little bit each day, a few minutes.

I was a single, working mother of a young son. I tried to be home with him just as soon after school as I could get there and I was fortunate to have a job that allowed me to do that. I remember coming home after a rough day at work and him greeting me at the door with a whole day's worth of stories to tell me. It was hard to shift from Working Girl to Mom, so we made an agreement: I would give him all the time he wanted and needed to tell me about his day if he would give me ten or fifteen minutes to change my clothes and shift into Mom. The physical act of changing out of my work clothes and into my “home” clothes in that little bit of time allowed me the opportunity to make the change and be the mother I needed and wanted to be. We both got what we wanted and needed. I could treat him like a customer.

8. “Let me make decisions that I think would be good, and maybe they would be as good as the decisions that you made for me”…This is another hard one. After all, aren’t we, as parents, supposed to “train up” our children, show them the rights and wrongs, and keep them from getting hurt? Yes, we are. And from before they are born we are talking to them, singing to them, reading to them, telling them about what their life will be like. Once they are born, so tiny and fragile, we do everything in our power to protect them and keep them safe. But, you know, the reality is, from that very first moment of life we are losing them to their own life path, their own world. We must allow them to make their own choices and to learn from the consequences of those choices, good and bad. I have been teaching parents for years that we, as parents, should never do for our children what they are capable of doing for themselves.

This is not easy. We love them to distraction. We want them to be happy and confident, full of hope and life, but they cannot do that if we don’t allow them to learn and children learn best, as do most of us, by doing. They have to verify, for themselves, that what we say is true. Anyone who has a teenager knows this lesson well!

I remember when my son was very little, not even three years old yet. We lived in a neighborhood with a lot of kids. All of our yards met together in the back so the children all congregated there. He was one of the youngest and he didn’t like that I went out with him when he wanted to go play. The other kids’ mothers weren’t out there, so we compromised, he could go out “alone” and I would watch from my desk in the office. I would sit at my desk while he played in the sandbox and on the swing set. I watched him one day as he played by himself out there. I watched him climb up the steps to the slide and I watched him stand there, looking at the top of the swing set (I was sending all kinds of “vibes” to just slide down), but, as little guys do, he started climbing up. I hoped that he would slide back down and decide not to do it again, but he was very good at climbing those poles and he made it to the top. My heart was pounding, my palms were sweating…what to do now? My first instinct was to rush out there, climb up the slide and get him down, but I was afraid the slide would not hold my weight. I didn’t want to frighten him and have him fall. What to do?

I walked out to the swing set and stood underneath him. He was so excited! “Look what I did!” He sat there for just a couple of minutes (it seemed like an hour) and then decided that he was ready to come down. I was all for that! Then the realization hit him…”how do I get down?” I could have helped him and ended this thing very quickly, but what if he did it again? What if I wasn’t there? Even then I was teaching others about life lessons. This was one for my own son, so I said to him, “You got yourself up there, you get yourself down. I’m right here. I won’t let you fall. You can do it!” Well, of course, that was not the answer he wanted. It took what seemed like an hour (in reality, only a few minutes) for him to figure it out (with some assistance from me). The neighbor from across the back yard thought I was a HORRIBLE mother for making him do it himself, but he eventually got himself down. And he never did it again! AND he still remembers the lesson. He remembers the fun of getting there and the fear of getting himself down, but more than that, he remembers that HE DID IT!

Was it a good choice (words we use a lot in our home) for him or for me? I tried to keep in mind that he was going to have lots of “swing set tops” in his life and that I wasn’t going to be there for a good many of them, especially as he got older. I’m sure there are those that think, like my neighbor, that I was a terrible mother. Maybe I was, but I want my son to be able to stand on his own two feet and take care of himself. I want him to deal with the consequences of his choices, good and bad, and learn from them all. I want him to understand that, while he makes his own life path and must live with the consequences of those choices, I am always standing underneath him, supporting him. He does that and, most of the time, he does a great job! I hope you can all give the gift of “making their own choices” to your children. Someday they’ll thank you!

9. Nuf evah em pleh (Help me have fun”)…When was the last time you had a tea party with your daughter, or played trucks with your son, of vice versa? Have you ever pretended to be a puppy or a kitty with your child as the vet? (There can be some interesting examinations here). Can you build a snowman or a snow fort? I love to have snowball fights with the little boys next door! My son, at nineteen, is much too old (in his eyes) to have snowball fights with little boys, but those 3, 5 and 7 year olds next door keep me young! Actually, my son has always said that the reason I work with children is because we’re pretty much at the same level.

I understand that it may be easier for me, as the neighbor, to take the time to play with the boys. With four little boys under the age of eight, that mother has her hands full! They take their walks to school (or ride their bikes while she pushes the stroller); they play in the yard, and when dad gets home in the afternoon the fun really begins! There is football, basketball, scooters, and hide-and-seek. There is snow shoveling and/or blowing, fort building, and snow ball fights. There is laughter and celebration and fun!

Notice that this child, Paul-age 9, doesn’t say, “Let me have fun.” He says, “Help me have fun.” He wants you, the parent, to join in! He wants to know that you value him enough to get on the floor and build the coolest city ever out of Legos. He wants to know that he can help you bake a batch of brownies, make a mess, and still have fun – WITH YOU! Here’s a short list of suggestions:

• Tell me stories about when you were a child
• Come with me to the park
• Take me somewhere special once in a while, by myself, without my sister
• Sing
• Laugh
• Teech me how to ride my bike
• Take me to where you grew up

See, nothing hard here. Just set aside a little time and have fun!

10. Don’t spoil me and then later on yell at me for being spoiled”…My parents think that my brothers and I have spoiled our children, and perhaps we have. Isn’t it normal for us to want for our children what we didn’t or couldn’t have? How do you know when you’ve crossed the line into spoiling? It’s easy to see it in other parents, isn’t it? So why is it so difficult for us to find that “line” for ourselves?

I think you have to ask yourself, “is this really necessary for my child?” I can honestly tell you that my son has had many things in his life that were not necessary. Does that make him spoiled? If you look at other children around the world, then, yes, our children-my child-is spoiled. When children are content to have a hut to sleep in and water to drink, yes, my son is spoiled. If you look at other children in our culture, would I still consider my son spoiled? He hasn’t had all the “toys” that his cousins and friends have had, but he’s had a lot of them. He didn’t have a new car as his first vehicle, but he had a car. In Midwestern United States most kids have some kind of personal transportation.

My definition of spoiled is when you have reached excess. The other question is should the children/young people be required to work for some of these toys? I believe the answer is yes. There comes a time when they should understand that things are not going to be handed to them anymore. With the exception of a couple of holidays (their birthday included), getting the things that they would like to have, luxury items, should be something they do for themselves. This can be negotiated whereby you share the financial burden, but the children should “not have done for them what they can do for themselves.”

Why is this important? If a child is never allowed to find out for himself just what he is capable of, how will he ever feel good about himself? It’s the doing for themselves that teaches them their strengths and weaknesses, that shows them the value of their possessions, and that teaches them what’s really necessary and what is not. If it’s always just handed to them, then how do we get them to move into adulthood and become responsible human beings? This life skill is one of the most difficult ones for us, as parents, to learn. For many of us, we waited a long time for our children. We want them to be happy. We want them to have what their friends have. But happiness doesn’t come from “stuff.” Happiness comes from inside. They have to understand that it’s not the toys that will make them happy. It’s the life they lead, the love they give, and the character they build for themselves. We can help them with it all. It’s our job as parents to love them, support them, make certain they are safe but when we cross the line and any of these things become excessive, then we are spoiling our children and that only hurts them and makes those life lessons more difficult. Love is not equal to spoiling. Love is just love, the greatest gift you can give to your child.

I want to take a moment to thank the 147 kids who know, J. S. Salt for compiling these instructions, my students over the many years, my family, and my son for teaching me these life lessons. I’m still learning. I hope I will always be learning from all of you! Thank you!

*Quotes from: “always kiss me goodnight: Instructions on Raising the Perfect Parent, compiled by J.S. Salt.