In my personal interactions with parents, I am often asked the pressing question: “How did my child end up this way?” How is my child so happy? So helpful? So cautious? So aggressive? This extends to specific personality traits and behaviors, both positive and negative.
Based on my experiences as a parent, coupled with my years studying child development as a professional, I have found that both nature and nurture play a role in shaping individuals. Nature is what people are born with in terms of temperament, intelligence and abilities. Nurture refers to influences from the environment, both immediate (like family and community) and more removed (like societal norms and expectations).
Dorothy Law Nolte’s poem, “Children Learn What They Live,” does a great job expressing my point of view regarding the external influences that profoundly affect children’s development with lines such as these:
If children live with encouragement,
They learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance,
They learn to be patient.
The concept is quite simple: The actions, words and environment that children are exposed to significantly influence who they are. If they are raised with a healthy dose of positive and motivational experiences, they have a stronger likelihood of being happy, healthy, resilient, positive people.
Lead by example
There are many ways that we, by example, can contribute to our children’s positive learning. Sometimes our teaching is intentional. We teach our children the importance of good nutrition by taking them to the market and encouraging them to help prepare and enjoy healthy meals. We introduce them to exciting adventures and opportunities to show them the benefits of exploration and being open to new experiences.
Lessons can also be more subtle. Our children learn from watching how we interact with others. If we apologize for our mistakes, hold the door for someone in a wheelchair or carry someone’s bag for them, we teach our children the importance of doing so. Similarly, if we grab our children by the arm aggressively every time they misbehave, we are teaching them that getting physical with a person when angry is acceptable.
Consider these five essential factors in determining the extent to which children learn what they live:
Abraham Maslow, a pioneer in the field of child development, stated that safety is the foundation for anyone to accomplish anything. If we do not feel safe, it is difficult to function and therefore meet our basic needs. Safety refers to both physical and psychological indicators, ranging from having a physically safe school or home to emotional abuse and bullying. It also refers to a feeling of emotional comfort to take risks and be adventurous, knowing that there is a solid, safe place to return to after trying something new.
Giving children a sense of balance and teaching them how to juggle the ups and downs of life is an essential life skill. The “everything in moderation” philosophy is taught by example and reinforced by parents, and if executed well, can have profound and positive influences on the way children live their lives. Some cake is perfectly fine to eat, but the entire cake or cake every day can be unhealthy.
3. Role modeling
Children learn both healthy and maladaptive behaviors from observing those around them. For example, when children see parents brushing their teeth every morning and evening, they learn good oral hygiene habits. Psychological behavior, like having a positive attitude or taking things in stride, are also learned by example. Conversely, one client’s son picked up on her practice of speaking in a very loud voice, which started to cause problems when it was interpreted negatively by his teachers and coaches.
4. Adventure and openness to new things
Interest and curiosity are the foundations of knowledge, growth and change. Infusing our children’s lives with opportunities to try new things will teach them to take risks, enjoy the thrill of adventure and push themselves to grow through exploration.
5. Acceptance of self and others
Every day, I meet with people who are unhappy with who they are and the people around them. Sometimes their unhappiness stems from real issues that need to be changed, but people—both adults and children—also struggle with things they have little control over. There’s the boy who has to study twice as hard as his peers to get good grades in math, the girl who despises her curly hair, the painfully shy child who dreads birthday parties—they all struggle with aspects of themselves. As parents, we need to emphasize acceptance as a cornerstone of learning.
Those of us who are better at practicing self-acceptance are happier, more motivated, more resilient and more likely to be successful.
While life poses many challenges, we have choices in how we tackle them. We teach our children valuable and powerful lessons from how we live our lives. We should be mindful of the degree to which our conduct teaches children about life, their places in society, their futures and their values. Creating safe, balanced, accepting environments for our children will enhance their happiness, successes and resiliency.
Listen to our podcast: The Perfect Parent, with Stacy Kaiser
Stacy Kaiser is a licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is also the author of the best-selling book How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know and an editor at large for Live Happy. Stacy is a frequent guest on television programs such as Today and Good Morning America.