Top public schools have recently announced they are taking measures to counteract the rising tide of depression, self-harm and eating disorders they see among pupils and that these include parenting classes and family counselling to tackle the problem of ‘pushy parents’.
But, while some parents do pile on unreasonable pressure, others are the most wonderful source of strength and inspiration for their children. What do these parents do?
In my book I identify the six fundamental character strengths that will help any child live a strong, happy and healthy life and look at the key actions that parents can take to build these.
A good backbone can only grow out of love, calm and security. This loving security is priceless in the earliest years, and vital all through childhood. Let your child feel and know that you love them, that you see them for who they are, and are interested in their life. Let them know that your love is consistent and dependable – not dependent on how they look, achieve or behave –– and that the limits and boundaries you set for them are set out of love in order to keep them safe and help them to grow. Make sure they feel secure in this love even when you are physically absent, or are a parent living in a different home. And help them see how this love can ripple outwards towards pets, siblings, family and friends. Help them learn to love the world they live in by teaching them to take pleasure in others, develop compassion for people less fortunate, enjoy the arts and creativity, and grow a sense of wonder and delight in the natural world. And help them learn how to be always grateful for what they have.
Keep a clear sense of where you are going as a parent and be honest to yourself about your actions and intentions. When you strap your toddler into the buggy to walk round the corner, is it for their safety or your convenience? Is how you are speaking to them going to make them feel loved and respected, and help them grow up balanced and strong? Hold in mind the long-term goal – a firm, flexible backbone –– and think about the messages you are conveying with all your words, deeds and gestures. Be mindful of how a good character is built of good habits, and help your child develop a good disposition of mind through games, goals, projections, planning and evaluation. As they grow, teach them techniques to help them run their own minds.
Promote play –– it is the main way children grow physical, emotional and mental skills. Encourage playing in every way possible –– online, with puzzles and board games, through make-believe, singing, rhyming, running, laughing, playing sports, word games, acting, dancing, being bored, playing family games and exploring. Provide different spaces to play in, and opportunities to play alone and with others. Encourage playing and exploring outside at every opportunity. Make sure there is always time for play by limiting screen time and structured activities. Hold firmly in mind that trips to the shops, or out for pizza or a hamburger, are not play for your child, and that they offer none of the advantages of active play. Neither are long car journeys, watching movies, or visiting adult friends. Play is active, participatory, and fun.
Keep a balance. Be an authoritative parent, who knows how to provide both love and boundaries. Be thoughtful and wise, but accept you don’t know all the answers. Expect high standards, but keep the pressure off so your child can grow and learn without fear. Help your child make friends, and also be happy in their own company. Balance courage with kindness, resilience with honesty. Remember that being a parent throws up dilemmas on a daily basis, and aiming for a grounded balance will always help keep things on track.
And that’s it. Helping your child to grow a strong and flexible backbone will always be a long, slow, hidden journey, but I can absolutely promise you that by holding the goal in mind and navigating steadily towards it you are certain to get there in the end. And the prize will be truly priceless. You will have helped grow a wonderful human being, able to achieve their greatest potential, enjoy fulfilling relationships and simply be happy to be alive. And no achievement will ever be greater than that.
Backbone: How to Build the Character Your Child Needs To Succeed by Hilary Wilce is available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.co.uk for £2.99