Posted by: kathyseal | December 13, 2008

Forcing Our Kids to Do What’s Good for Them

After I spoke to a PTA group recently about Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids, a dad approached me. “You say to support kids’ autonomy and not pressure them, but when I was a kid my parents took me to the theater twice a year — even when I said ‘Hey, I wanna stay home and play football.’

“They’d say, ‘No, we’re going to A Chorus Line.’ Sometimes I didn’t want to go. But it was never an option, you just went.

“My parents did a good thing – I make my living now writing for the theater! So now I make my kids go with me to plays.”

Parents bring up this issue often: why not “make” kids do activities that are good for them? Why not “make” them take piano lessons? It’s good for them! Why not “make” them keep it up – shouldn’t we teach them persistence? And what about reading for pleasure – shouldn’t we insist on it?

Often the mom or dad says, “My parents made me keep taking music lessons and now I’m glad they did that!”

I think that some activities quite rightly are part of a family structure or culture. Here’s an example: when my children were growing up, we never ate breakfast together. (I’m grumpy in the morning!) And my kids didn’t seem to mind getting their own cereal or toast or orange juice. On the other hand, we always ate dinner together.

This eating or not eating together was just “the way we were.” It was part of our family culture. Dinner together every night was our unspoken tradition, as it was in the family I grew up in.

In that same way, many families embed activities in their daily life — going to church, temple or mosque, visiting the seashore or mountains or seeing grandparents every summer; going on family outings to museums or concerts or ballgames. Music, theater, sports, religious life, community service – all are often woven into the family culture.

Nurturing our kids’ autonomy doesn’t mean that we do only what they ask to do. At the same time as we pay a lot of attention to their interests, every family also has its own structure and culture. We have habits. For example, many young immigrants regularly send money back to their families in their home countries. They do it as a matter of course, because it’s part of their family culture. If you ask why they do it, they’ll say, “That’s what we do.”

Unless a child is objecting strenuously, or you can see or sense she’s unhappy, it’s not violating her autonomy to have a family cultural habit. And so, if your child isn’t reading for pleasure by himself, you might want to make reading part of the family culture.

Quite often if your child is unhappy with piano or tennis and wants to quit, and you let him do so, after a while he’ll miss the activity and ask if he can return to it.

One mom told me that she declared a family reading night once a week, where everyone sits in the living room reading together. Her kids laughed, but they went along with her. When my sons were young we always read when we traveled, and they still bring books whenever they go on a train or a plane.

So it’s a good idea to take your child regularly to activities that you enjoy or consider important. Just keep in mind that these family activities shouldn’t feel controlling to the child.

But that wasn’t the case with the dad who approached me after the PTA meeting. His parents loved music and the theater, and they usually went on these outings with another family. “We’d always buy the 8-track and listen to the music on the way home,” he remembers. “And I always ended up enjoying it.”

Forcing kids almost always backfires, but bringing them along to share your interests and enthusiasm, making healthy activities part of your family culture is a way to encourage them to internalize your values. And that’s a good thing for kids.

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