Last week we had conferences at my kids’ elementary school. We go through the same drill every time – discuss each class and subject and talk about what they’ve learned that quarter. Don’t get me wrong, I am immensely proud of how hard my kids work academically. They expect high grades and so do I. But to me, this is not the most important part of the interaction. Sometimes we have to ask, but most of the time we wait for their teacher to bring it up. Are they a good friend? Are they helpful? Are they good?
Even just thinking about the concept brings tears to my eyes. I was in their shoes once. I know school can be hard, especially as they grow through the years. It’s not the academics that define school for me, it was the friendships. I want so much for my kids to have the same sort of friendships that I had, but that’s not for me to determine. So I’m on a mission to make sure that I do everything I can to help them be good to others and themselves by teaching them these four lessons:
Be a good friend
Friendships can make or break a school experience. As a former school counselor, I’ve seen my share of friendship issues. It’s not the fights and makeups of friendships that makes a kid a good friend. It’s when kids recognize that someone is feeling left out, being bullied, or sad. It’s when they can realize that the definition of “friend” is not something that is exclusive or limited – it’s open-minded and inclusive. By asking my kids “how were you a good friend today,” I get to hear stories not only of how they were nice to someone else, but often how someone was a good friend to them that day.
Last year I found this note in my daughter’s backpack on the last day of school. We had a long talk about the person who gave her the note, what happened that made her feel left out, and how she made the right choices to help her feel better. Then we celebrated. We didn’t even talk about grades at the end of that year, we talked about friendships.
Be a good classmate
Before this year, I assumed that being a good friend meant the same as being a good classmate. During first grade conferences last month I came to the realization that these are two completely separate concepts. It took my son’s teacher to point out that my son is helpful to other classmates, especially when it comes to math. He has a way of explaining how he decodes problems in a way other kids understand. He loves the subject and recognizes that not everyone does. In the same way, I’m sure some of his classmates help him in other subjects (especially art – he definitely needs the help!!). But being a good classmate goes beyond explaining how to figure out math. Kids can be good classmates in so many ways – from joining study groups to inviting kids to sit with them at lunch to being respectful and listening during class. Being a good classmate means so much to students, teachers, and the school culture as a whole.
Be a good family member
As an only child raising two kids, this is where my parenting skills sometimes lack. All too often I’ve said to my arguing kids “you’re lucky you even have a sibling!” I get frustrated when they fight with each other or forget to say please or thank you. I forget sometimes that these are opportunities for growth, not always for punishment. By turning the conversation from “don’t” to one of empathy and compassion, my kids can learn to put themselves into each other’s shoes and recognize that they are built in buds. This doesn’t mean that they can’t get annoyed with each other at times, but they should always have each others’ back – even if it means telling mom or dad when they need to protect each other.
Being a good family member isn’t just reserved for siblings. It is important for my kids to treat my husband and I with respect and to be helpful around the house even without asking (still working on this). I also reinforce the fact that my kids are lucky to have grandparents and great-grandparents who are near and dear to their heart. Being good doesn’t just mean helping them around the house. It means engaging in conversation, celebrating them, and spending time learning about their past.
Be good to yourself
Kids who love themselves love others. I’ve seen too many kids get in their own heads and bring themselves down. When they’re down, it’s hard to bring others up. Now that I’m the parent of an almost-tween girl, I can see the tendencies starting to begin. “I’m dumb” or “my legs are fat” begin the spiral toward a constant comparison to other; which then leads to friendship, self-esteem, and discipline issues. It’s hard to love yourself, especially in today’s hyper-critical media environment. Butts are too big (or too small), athletes are too slow, and politicians aren’t smart enough. When kids are seeing this every day, it is easy for them to reflect it back on themselves.
But how do we teach kids to be good to themselves? It starts with modeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m uber critical of myself (still working on it) but I work really hard to make sure my kids don’t see or hear me obsessing about clothing sizes, grey hairs, or failures at work. Kids need to know that they should be comfortable telling us everything about them that they like as well as successes they’ve had. My daughter does this, and even though everything in my Minnesota-nice mind wants to say “stop bragging,” I know that she needs to be encouraged to recognize these aspects of her life and appreciate them for what they are. Finding the balance of striving to be the best they can be, recognizing their strengths, and letting themselves fail is the key to helping kids be good to themselves.
I am far from the perfect parent, and my kids are also not the perfect model children. But our story is evolving, and these conversations are as common as “how was school today?” I can only hope that my kids make the right decisions day after day to be good to themselves and to others so at the end of this crazy parenting-of-kids gig I can say “I’ve raised good kids.”