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Raising Responsive and Responsible Children

by Richard Gallagher, PhD, Anita Gurian, PhD and Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D.

Introduction

It becomes apparent that we are facing novel challenges in raising responsive and responsible children. Parents of every generation seem to moan "it wasn't like that when I was growing up" or "when I was your age." That's the good news and the challenging news. The world is a different place now than at the start of the 20th century, and it is sure to change in the next century. With change come both challenges and opportunities. No challenge is more important than helping children become valuable citizens. Children with good values and a sense of responsibility grow up to be valued and responsive human beings. We offer some strategies to help parents prepare their children for changing times.

The challenge of time

Over the last several decades parents have had less and less time with their children. Estimates indicate that children in the United States spend 10 to 15 fewer hours of time with their parents than they did in the 1960s. In addition, the time we have is more stressed as work responsibilities and pressures have increased, with the result that adults report getting less sleep and less personal time than in many previous eras. As a result they are more frazzled even when they are with their children. Children themselves can feel similar pressures as they strive to do it all and compete with or outdo their peers.

The challenge of the media

The media have done a good job of increasing their presence in our lives. With this increase comes easy and ready access to vast amounts of information and entertainment, bringing with it the potential for both positive and negative influences. In the past, before the dawn of cable television and the Internet, parents need only cope with a few television stations, a few prominent magazines and local radio stations, and most programming messages to children respected the role of parents in regard to their children. Families today, however, are confronted by hundreds of media outlets providing information and marketing for a broad array of ideas and products aimed directly at children. In addition, a 1999 study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found television viewers and moviegoers were being exposed to violent scenes every four minutes. Certainly some messages and content are benign but a growing amount reflects disrespectful, antisocial, promiscuous or aggressive behavior, that is at variance with parental values.

The challenge of materialism

With a growing economy, low unemployment, and no threat of imminent war, many of today's families do not experience poverty or live threatened by the loss of income. It is likely that we are in a phase of overindulgence with our children, which psychologist William Damon has documented as a major problem for contemporary parents. But there are still many children and families in the United States and in the world who do not benefit from this country's riches. For children living in comfort, parents must make efforts to establish sensitivity for the plight of others who may be less fortunate. And for parents who struggle to provide for their children, they must make efforts to inculcate a sense of pride in their children and motivate them to achieve their dreams.

The challenge of the use of leisure time

Maintaining a healthy level of discipline over our children's actions also means setting good standards for how they use their time in and out of school. According to the Horatio Alger Association, the number of teens participating in school-related activity outside the classroom fell from 82% in 1998 to 77% in 1999. Children have an astonishing amount of free time that can be used to make constructive contributions to others, including to their family, through chores and to society through work or volunteerism. They can also learn new skills and foster their talents. However, if their efforts are balanced with some leisure time, they are setting the stage for a balanced, fulfilling adult life. If time is squandered, skills and talents often atrophy. When adolescents have not learned to use time constructively, they often seek cheap thrills through risky actions.

The challenge of adolescence

Adolescents seem to feel the pressure of adult responsibilities and dilemmas at ever-earlier ages. Perhaps as a result of less contact between children and parents, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of problems during adolescence. Although fluctuations indicate a downward trend, in comparison to the 60s and 70s, the 90s has been a period of increased teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, death by homicide and suicide, non-lethal violence, and sexual activity without attached meaningful relationships. As teens rush to grow up, either out of necessity to overcome unfortunate life circumstances, or as a way to get ahead, risks and benefits ensue.

Meeting the challenges

As we are aware of the challenges, so are we aware of what parents can do to meet these challenges. Based on formal research and the clinical experience of professionals, a consensus is a building on the steps parents can take to raise healthy, responsive and responsible children. A place to start is in understanding what's involved in finding the appropriate parental middle ground between certain extremes. A useful way to view your task as a parent is to learn it is a balancing act.

Balancing affection and control

The children of parents who are able to balance an affectionate relationship with a high level of parental control have a better psychological outcome. The combination of affection in the form of love, warmth, time, and respect accompanied by a high level of parental control, in the form of limit-setting, results in children who are more self-respecting, put more effort into their goals, and experience less distress when they are confronted with problems. The children of parents who show only part of the balance - affection without control or control without affection - often have difficulties in social situations and are prone to poor achievement and effort. In the case of too much control, children learn to suppress their actions and have low self-esteem.

Balancing child time and parent time

Infants and toddlers need constant time and affection in order to thrive. As children grow, these needs become less obvious. However, research shows that even through late adolescence, young people benefit from signs of affection and time with their parents. Adolescents who have regular contact with their parents in pleasant circumstances are much less involved in high-risk actions and are more successful academically. Contacts don't have to be elaborate in order to foster mutual respect and affection. Simply talking, particularly about the child's interests, playing games or enjoying entertainment together builds relationships. Beware, however, of becoming so child-focused that you lose time to recharge yourself. Parents who do not take care of at least some of their own needs may come to resent their children. And unknowingly, parents who bow to every whim teach their children to take others for granted, or worse, feel entitled to special treatment. Taking care of your own needs teaches self-respect.

Balancing parental information with outside influences

In order to help children interpret the information they get from the media and other outside sources, parents need to talk with them about the difficult issues they will confront throughout their lives. By taking a proactive stance and initiating discussion of tough issues such as aggression, violence, sexual activity, substance abuse, we let our children know that we care about what happens to them and capitalize on our ability to be a more powerful influence that other sources. Proactive parents also listen to their children, really hear their views and beliefs, even if they differ from their own. Parents who approach their children and establish good connections, send the message that no topic is too trivial or threatening to hear, and have children who continue to turn to them. Parents also help children develop independent thinking by encouraging the development of problem-solving skills. Having children take steps to define problems calmly, generate alternative responses, choose among those alternatives, and review the outcome has proved to be a valuable strategy, even for young children. Children who are taught to use this approach are more likely to be successful with friends, in school and when confronted with new situations.

Balancing involvement with freedom

Although it seems that children want to be left alone, this isn't quite the case. Parents are faced with the decision about how much to intervene—or interfere—with their children from the minute they are born. Parents watch anxiously and eagerly as they see a child take his first steps, feeling the tug of witnessing the child's strong drive to be free and on his own and the urge to protect him from any falls. The same approach parents take in helping their one-year-old learn to walk should be taken when helping their teenager learn responsibility. Parents should allow their children to explore the world in reasonable, age-appropriate doses. Unless they are living with strict restrictions, children will learn about television shows, songs, toys or games that are at odds with parental values. With guidance, however, children can learn to be critical thinkers and to make informed judgments. Isolation doesn't work very well in our complex, information-laden society, and only makes the forbidden material that much more enticing. Being involved in a child's life - knowing their friends, attending PTA meetings, becoming familiar with their likes in music - shows you're interested and that you value who they are. But involvement does not mean insisting they do things your way. And freedom does not mean they live without regard for person and property. Allowing children to test out their own ideas and behaviors helps them discover what is right for them.

Balancing supervision with freedom

More and more parents are decreasing their supervision of their children as soon as they physically can take care of themselves, usually around the ages of nine or ten. As a result, many children are unsupervised when they leave school until their parents come home. Children and adolescents take most of the high-risk actions over which we have become concerned in the last decades between the hours of 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM on weekdays. Most parents must or want to work outside the home, leaving a void of time between a child's home from school time and a parent's home from work time. But parents can be alert to their children's activities by setting up specific plans for them and being clear about what is expected from them.

Balancing service to self and service to others

At some point, children will be "on their own" and must fulfill their own needs. They learn to take care of themselves by being taken care of by their parents and watching how parents care about others. Respect and appreciation are best taught by example and experience. Children do best when they live in a home where each individual's contribution to the well being of the family and functioning of the home is honored. It is easy to translate these attitudes and qualities to the world at large. It is never too early to engage children in charitable activities—having toddlers share toys, having your child escort you when bringing home baked cookies to a neighbor at the holidays, encouraging your teen to volunteer in an after-school program—these actions allow children to appreciate what they have, understand their value as a person, and gives them a sense of their ability to contribute to the good of the world.

It is instructive and encouraging for parents to know how today's students characterize the American dream. According to the Horatio Alger Association, they dream of more than "career or material success". Instead, they mention wanting "universal welfare, including happiness and harmony for all." Today's teens aspire to lives in which their emotional needs are fulfilled in a family environment and a community of friends and neighbors. At the same time, today's students expect to give back to their communities [and] their greatest motivating factor for seeking further education [is] having the ability to make a difference, to change things for the better". Whatever the challenges of the 21st century for parents and children, it appears our future is in good hands.

About the Authors

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.

Date Published: December 1, 1999
Date Updated: May 1, 2007