Raising kids simply
By Patrice Lewis
Issue #131 • September/October, 2011
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live simply? When asked what constitutes a simple life, nine out of ten people will answer something along the lines of “living in the country” or “no commute” or “having no mortgage.”
By this definition, however, those who live in the city, commute to a job, or have a mortgage are excluded from the simple life… right?
Wrong. Simple living is none of those things. A truly simple life can be accomplished virtually anywhere, by virtually anyone, under virtually any circumstances. No need to live in the country, though I’ll admit from experience it’s (mostly) a lot of fun.
So what precisely does it take to live simply? The answer is, well, simple. In fact it can be distilled down to three words. Got a pen? Here they are:
MAKE. GOOD. CHOICES.
MAKE. GOOD. CHOICES.
That’s it. A simple life is nothing more than the accumulation of sound, sensible, rational, thoughtful choices.
And make no mistake, good choices are the single most important factor for a simple life. If you choose to rob a bank, don’t be surprised if your life gets very complex. If you choose to live within your means, your life will be simpler than those who don’t.
The concept of making good choices goes across the board for all aspects of our lives, including who we marry and how we raise our kids. And frankly, raising our kids simply is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.
Some may ask — how can we raise kids simply in today’s complex culture? And what precisely does it mean to raise simple kids?
What simplicity is not
First let’s examine what simplicity for kids is not.
Simple living is not “green living” or otherwise saving the planet. I’ve read books on raising “simple” kids which focus solely and exclusively on being green. Bunk. Personally I don’t care if you impart these values to your children or not — but please note this constitutes a belief, not a behavior. Beliefs may or may not simplify one’s life; but behaviors (which after all are based on choices) will make or break a person.
Simplicity is not giving your kids unlimited freedom to (cough) “express themselves.” Naturally I’m not suggesting you stifle their childish impulsive emotions or creativity — far from it. But too many parents think “expressing themselves” means children should be allowed to behave like horrible brats, unrestrained by their parents or other adults. I’ve often found that parents who want their children to “express themselves” are just too lazy to discipline them.
As an example, I know a homeschooling family whose two boys were always encouraged to express themselves and were seldom disciplined. The mother took pride in her sons’ spirited behavior and actually would not allow her husband (the boys’ father) to discipline “her” boys. (You can see the problems already, just with this information.) As a result, the boys often “expressed” themselves by screaming four-letter curse words at estranged playmates in public, or taunting a handicapped child in an art class to the point where the teacher had to expel them. The boys are now teens and have become young thugs, verbally abusing their mother and despising their emasculated father. It’s a sad and rather extreme example of a lack of discipline. These young men are not likely to ever have a “simple” life unless they can correct their own course…which seems unlikely.
What simplicity is
So just what leads to a simple life for children? The following are some ideas:
Decrease household drama
In this day of easy divorce, it’s becoming a rare child who grows up in the same home as both his biological parents. Children who grow up in homes full of strife and/or with multiple marriage partners (“This is your new daddy!”) develop a shaky, unstable foundation that will affect them forever.
This is often the elephant in the room no one wants to see because too many adults are caught up in their own wishes and desires. No one wants to admit that multiple divorces, marital strife, and tense emotions damage children. In today’s “feel good” culture (That means “feel good” for the parents, not the children), adults are encouraged to do whatever they like without considering the needs of their kids.
Needless to say this doesn’t apply when a spouse has harmful addictions, is violent, or other manifestations of choosing badly to begin with. But by limiting the drama in a home, children can funnel their emotional energy into growing up, developing their talents, and becoming productive members of society — rather than funneling their emotional energies into hiding from drunken abusive parents or wondering who mama will bring home next to be their new daddy.
Sorry if this offends, but the statistics are indisputable: an intact home is possibly the single biggest factor to raising secure children who will have the ability to make those critically good choices that will contribute toward a simple life.
Raise your children with a strong moral foundation. Often a religious upbringing contributes to this, but all the churching in the world won’t help if the parents don’t model strong ethics themselves.
These ethical choices should include keeping one’s word, working hard, being honest, being kind, and other important and intangible behaviors. Children who have a strong moral foundation upon which to stand grow up more likely to make good choices as teens and adults. It is astounding how much kids internalize the values of their parents, and how strongly this will influence their adult lives.
I recall two seemingly minor examples from my childhood. In one instance, my mother was on the phone with a store who had undercharged her for a particular item. That’s right, undercharged. The store was generously trying to waive the difference, but my mother wasn’t having it. “You folks have to make a living too,” she told the representative, and insisted on repaying the price difference even though it was only a few dollars. It was an example of ethical behavior I’ve never forgotten.
The second instance came when my mother was rebuking one of my teenage brothers after a boyish scrape. She told him, “Your behavior is a reflection upon your father, and I will not have your father disrespected in this manner.”
This simple sentence carried astounding weight. It showed us an example of marital respect and unity, how our actions reflect upon our family, and how the choices we make have an impact. Again, it was an example I’ve never forgotten…and which I’ve carried into my own marriage.
I expect decent parents to raise their children wisely, and this means training children on how they are expected to behave. Obviously, this is best done starting at a young age and should include all aspects of the kind of behavior you expect. Manners, politeness, respect for elders, not interrupting, not whining…all this takes training.
And training takes consistency. Too many parents do a half-assed job teaching their children proper behavior. But just as you can’t “train” a puppy to heel or stay with one or two sessions, neither can you expect your children to learn a life-long habit of respectful behavior or self-control by enforcing it once or twice when they’re toddlers. Believe me, training children takes years.
As an example, I know a woman who hails from the south where children are expected to address their elders as “sir” and “ma’am.” She and her husband have three daughters: two teens and a toddler. I find it refreshing how the mother will gently correct the toddler whenever she forgets these respectful terms. The two older teens have this down pat and therefore model the behavior for their youngest sister. The toddler’s parents are consistent in their firm expectations for how they want their children to behave, and the teenage girls are living proof that it works.
Training should include respect for parents. Our children were never permitted to speak or act disrespectfully towards us when they were young. Now that they’re teenagers, they still act respectfully and we have no teenage rebellion. Not even a hint.
A side benefit of consistent training is that children learn self-control. If young kids are not permitted to butt into an adult conversation and demand instant gratification for a wish, they learn the world does not revolve around their whims. Needless to say, this self-control serves them well when adolescent hormones are bulging at the seams.
The whole idea about raising children is to set firm boundaries and parameters and not to let the children step outside those boundaries. Contrary to a more progressive view on such issues, boundaries do not represent a prison for children. They represent freedom.
Naturally these boundaries will shift and change with a child’s age, maturity, and trustworthiness — but there are always boundaries. Boundaries are critical for teaching self-control, and self-control is critical to making the proper choices in life. Boundaries are merely the reflection of expected behavior that allows people to get along in a crowded, complex world.
And kids, being kids, will test those boundaries. When they step outside that invisible line, you correct them and bring them back in. Then children will grow up happy and secure in the knowledge of how they’re expected to behave.
Here’s an example: My mother used to teach Sunday school for Kindergarteners. One morning she gave the children a tour of the church. One child was consistently loud, obnoxious, and rowdy. Finally my mother — an experienced woman who raised three boys of her own — took the child by the shoulders and said sternly, “Stop that. You are supposed to be quiet and respectful in church. Do you understand me?” She spoke in a strong and forceful tone that implied such dire consequences that I winced (because she used that same tone on me when I misbehaved).
And you know what? It worked. Not only did the boy stop his misbehavior, but he cuddled up to my mother for the rest of the class. Once the boundaries for his behavior and actions were laid out in no uncertain terms, he knew what was right and what was wrong. That knowledge brought him security.
One of the most critical decisions in any parent’s life — and remember, this decision is a choice — is how to educate our children. Most people simply send their kids to public school and assume all will be well. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The relentless peer pressure kids experience is almost guaranteed to change your children into fashion-conscious, disrespectful, over-sexualized beings. They can’t help it. Since they’re away from your care and influence for the majority of their waking hours, what else can you expect? Peer pressure can be one of the most destructive forces at work in a child’s life. For the sake of your son or daughter, do whatever you can to minimize that influence — or at least substitute peers whose pressure will be good, not bad.
To this end, I would strongly urge you to consider homeschooling.
Homeschooling has long ago been demonstrated as academically superior, and homeschooled students do not (contrary to ignorant criticism) lack socialization skills unless you count the “skills” of bad language or lack of respect.
But of course if you’re going to homeschool your kids, it means one parent needs to be home. Believe me, I understand how that’s not always possible in today’s economy. But for Pete’s sake, try.
Perhaps you can alternate your work hours (this is the tact my husband and I took when our girls were small). Perhaps one or both of you can tele-commute. Perhaps you could really buckle down and live frugally so one of you can stay home. Whatever it takes, do your utmost to raise your own kids.
Children today are frighteningly media-savvy. But is this a good thing? Does it contribute toward a simple life? I don’t believe so.
Children become wired at such an early age — first to television, then to games, then to cell phones and texting, then to social media — that they never learn to look within themselves to harvest the richness of their imagination. If a child does nothing but stare at screens all day, how will he ever figure out how to build a city out of blocks, or construct a car out of Legos, or build a go-cart? How will she ever have a chance to climb a tree and let her imagination turn it into a castle from the Middle Ages?
While I believe it’s necessary for children to have some media exposure — they’re going to have to get along in this world, after all — it’s important to consider what will benefit them versus what will not. For example, a knowledge of computers will benefit children when they become adults. A knowledge of television sitcoms will not.
Children who grow up with their eyes constantly glued to a screen — any screen, from an iPad to a cell phone — do not develop the communication skills necessary to become gainfully employed as adults. If your kids speak and write like texting monkeys, it’s time to yank away the electronics.
Bury them with books
One of the single biggest gifts you can give your children is the love of reading. There is nothing more wonderful in the world than to fire their imaginations through the stories they read in books. But a love of reading will almost never happen unless the parents model this behavior.
This is where limiting their media exposure will be a big bonus. Only when the kids don’t have the passive, easy lure of mass electronics will they turn to books to feed their hungry souls. Only when kids see their parents turning to books instead of television or the internet will they learn to view books as the ultimate companion on rainy days and to escape from stress and problems. The richness that grows from within cannot be duplicated with movies or video games.
To this end, buy books by the cart-load. They can be purchased for pennies at library sales, thrift stores, and yard sales.
I believe a home without books is a sterile, bleak environment because it’s a home usually dominated by electronics. But books are warm and friendly. We have more than 5,000 books in our home and seldom deny ourselves the pleasure of buying more.
Don’t deprive your children of this resource. Encourage reading at all opportunities.
Demonstrate your own good choices
All the advice I’ve given — limiting media, devouring books, etc. — are pretty much worthless unless parents are willing to step up to the plate and model the values you’re trying to impart. What’s the use of telling your children to go read a book if you do so to get them out of your hair while you’re watching TV? What’s the use of refusing them a cell phone when you’re glued to yours?
Remember: The essence of a simple life is to make good choices.
Raising children is hard enough as it is. Raising children to be confident, strong, honest, moral, and ethical is virtually impossible unless the parents are the ones making good choices themselves, and thus guiding their children through today’s complex culture.
Naturally we can’t achieve perfection when raising our kids. Life tends to get in the way. We all make mistakes. But showing your kids the impact of good and bad choices will help them simplify their future in unimaginable ways.
In the end, what kind of children do you want facing a complex world? You choose to create another human being. Your children are your legacy. What kind of legacy are you leaving? The world is going to heck in a handbasket, and your kids are going to have to deal with it. Arm them the best you can by giving them a simple, solid upbringing.