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“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.” ~ Elizabeth Lawrence
As parents, we want our children to become caring and responsible citizens, as well as resourceful and resilient adults. So how do we influence our children in this direction? How can we give them the inner discipline and self-confidence to become happy and productive adults? The answer lies in empowering our children, not controlling them. We love these wonderful human beings so much that often we think we are protecting or “just taking good care of them,” when we are really doing their thinking for them.
Giving them the freedom to make decisions and — yes — mistakes is the key to becoming confident and responsible adults. One goal for all parents is to teach children how to think, not just what to think. Both our children AND WE have to practice to make this happen! Have you heard yourself ever saying, “You have to think for yourself … Don’t forget your raincoat.” “If you put your backpack in the same place when you get home, you will always know where it is. How many times do I have to tell you to think for yourself?” Looking back, I now chuckle at myself. My child learned at an early age what I thought he should do, but often did not get the opportunity to practice how to think for himself.
In order to believe they can solve their own problems, children need self-esteem, integrity, and a sense of powerfulness. In order to feel powerful, children need to be given opportunities to practice taking responsibility and making decisions. Parents need to guide their children through this process of decision-making without passing judgment, and let them grow through the results of responsibility. You can say, “Do you want to go to bed now wearing your red pajamas, or go to bed now wearing your bunny pajamas?” Children, at a very young age, can start making some decisions, just not all the decisions. You don’t want to say, “Do you want to go to bed or not?” By having power over a situation, a child develops dignity, integrity, and a sense of self-worth. Responsibilities and decisions need to be age-appropriate and meaningful. Asking a 15-year-old to mow the lawn is appropriate; asking a 5-year-old to is not. A 4-year-old can help set the table or sort the laundry; a 12-year-old can sort, wash, dry and put away laundry, and set the table on his own.
We need a plan to constantly increase the number of responsibilities and the decision-making opportunities for our children. Then, when they do leave us to go on to college, or to work in another city, they will be making their own decisions, and taking full responsibility for their behaviors. Our little bundles of joy don’t just automatically blossom into happy, engaged, and responsible adults. We have to help make that happen by not just loving them, but by giving them the opportunities to think on their own, grow, make mistakes, and keep trying again and again.
As John Milton said in Paradise Regained, “The childhood shows the man as morning shows the day.”
The Education Team