Parents often ask us how to be more engaged with their kids, how to best support them as they navigate this complicated world around them. Shari Nacson, LISW-S, Child Development Specialist, and Advisor to Safe and Sound Schools weighs in with some helpful tips.
1. Development happens on a continuum.
Anna Freud called this the concept of developmental lines. It’s easiest to picture with an everyday task that babies can’t do, but adults have mastered — like eating. We’re fed soft things, then hard things, then we become able to feed ourselves, someday we shop and prepare meals.
When we consider the challenges that face our children — of any age — we need to think about where they are developmentally. Are they learning about something, wanting it done for them, emerging with mastery, or dancing in-between? When we think developmentally, we are able to honor what kids have mastered and then lay scaffolding for where they soon will be. This concept applies to all life skills: literacy, math, maintaining friendships, personal hygiene, time management … everything that we hope our kids will someday do independently and successfully.
With school safety, one might think about your child’s existing awareness, what information they might soon receive from elsewhere (and if they need to hear things from you first), what information intersects helpfully or unhelpfully with your own family values, issues, and strategies. Just like we do on a systemic level, assess the context, then act on what you know, and audit/reflect on how it went.
2. Some things are best heard from your parents. No matter how old you are.
While many schools have mastered the art of sharing difficult news and supporting the school community through related processes, kids of all ages still do best if they have been prepared at home. Talk together about community tragedies, school policies, and global issues that they might hear about at school. Do this in a developmentally and age appropriate way — so your child is more prepared should they hear something in a group or media setting. When we talk with our kids about these things, they feel respected and can manage any big feelings in the privacy of home.
The world comes at kids fast and furious; our job is to slow it down so their hearts and minds can process information in the healthiest possible way.
3. Do good together.
Volunteering together is one of the best ways to intentionally be together. It’s constructive, fun, creative, tech-free, and makes the world a better place. While volunteering, you interact in ways that no other activity provides. You transmit your own values and build special memories that are likely to inspire each of you. One of the keys to empowerment is shifting away from passive roles (the world happens to us) to active roles (we make things happen in the world around us). Volunteerism offers a platform where kids (and adults) can feel encouraged, empowered, and can directly see their impact on the world around them.
Volunteering together builds healthy neuropathways, supports conscience development, and increases resilience — for everyone involved. For older kids and teens, follow their lead in choosing volunteer opportunities.
All of the things that make our world a better place when done by adults — all of the engagement that makes our civic institutions and communities function in healthy ways — all of them require a foundation of engaged compassion.
4. Convey that you believe in your child.
Even with something that is tricky to master, we want our kids to know that we believe they will get there. We also want them to know that we trust them. Sometimes this may be more of a Jedi mind trick (“I know you’ll do the right thing” is often code for a worried parent trying to elicit a kid’s conscience), but it works better than shaming kids into compliance.
If your child has a track record of poor decision-making, you might need to be more concrete about the steps to good decision-making, all-the-while conveying that to err is human and that you know they will get to a place of self-sufficiency, even if the road is bumpy. Collaborate with helpers if your child has had difficulty making safe, smart decisions.
When kids know we believe in them, they feel empowered and make better choices.
5. Don’t wait for a crisis to happen.
Our fast-paced society doesn’t allow us the time to think, to be intentional. This is the one investment that can make the biggest difference in your parenting: dedicate time to think about parenting.
Every family should have a trusted someone — counselor, clergy member, pediatrician, educator, friend — who helps them think clearly about their kids. Take a moment right now to think about who your trusted someone is. Do you talk regularly? Do you only reach out when it’s a crisis? Think about increasing that contact — like the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Each child is unique; the situations they encounter are complex. And just when they master something, development kicks-in and all the things that worked before will need to be recalibrated. We do best by our kids by embracing this part of life — this messy, bumpy, exciting, and thwarting part of life.
We don’t have to wait for our kids to be in grave distress before we ask for help. The day-to-day minutiae also warrants our thoughtful consideration; tending to it can sometimes prevent a larger crisis. Professionals who work with kids welcome your questions, about small and big things.
More than anything, find someone who helps you be the parent you want to be.
Shari Nacson, LISW-S, is a freelance writer, child development specialist, and nonprofit consultant in Cleveland, Ohio. As a public speaker, she enjoys helping busy parents become more intentional with their child-raising strategies.