General Parenting Issues — 24 December 2003
The best gifts parents can give their children

This is the season for gift giving. Most parents carefully select the most appropriate presents for their children. They search, shop for, wrap, and prepare the gifts to be opened with glee at the right moment. Much emotional, mental and physical energy is expanded to delight and benefit the youngsters.

Yet, the biggest gifts you can give your children do not come wrapped in bright holiday paper, they do not take space, they are not given once a year and they may not cost anything, yet their value is immeasurable.

The best present for children is the commitment to spend quality time with them throughout the year. This is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Children who get daily attention, of at least twenty minutes of shared interaction with their parents, tend to thrive.

The ads about “Success by Six” correctly implores parents to play, read, have joyous exchanges, talk, sing and share loving time with their children, so that the children will be more likely to succeed in school and life.

Some very loving parents get mired in life’s demands. They talk of their fatigue, distractibility, impatience and irritability as reasons for not being more available to their young children or adolescents.

Parenting is an immensely demanding job. It is a task that requires us to consistently defer our needs to our children’s needs. This demand is very physically exhausting when our children are infants and continues to be challenging as they grow. Though less physically demanding, parenting is very taxing as our children reach adolescence. At this stage, the emphasis in parenting is on the emotional tasks of listening, responding, guiding and teaching out teens how to successfully transition to adult life. Throughout our children’s growth our mission is to love, respect, and care for them in a way that best enhances their chances for a healthy and happy adulthood.

It is my opinion that the two most important child-rearing goals are helping our children develop a healthy sense of self-esteem and become decent towards others. People who feel good about themselves and have caring feelings for others are very likely to live up to their potential and become contributing members to our society.

Healthy self-esteem evolves through approval and validation of children’s worth by parents and other adults. Every thought, behavior, expression and interaction a child manifests must be positively responded to or lovingly corrected.

Children are most responsive to guidance when it comes from a person whom they respect and trust. Trust is engendered for children when they feel loved, liked and approved of. Only then, can they be receptive to behavioral changes. When children are ignored, maltreated and abused, they do not trust or respect the adults and thus are not likely to follow their guidelines.

For young children, play time, shared fun experiences, make believe talk, physical activities, games, songs and laughter facilitate their emotional development, their creativity, their enthusiasm for learning and their sense of safety.

When adolescence arrives, the dynamic changes between parents and children as the process of separation begins to occur. Parents need to be present, interested, loving, as they provide guidance, regardless of the attitude their maturing teen-agers exhibit.

Parents who successfully handle their pre-adolescent children are less likely to have grave difficulties with their teens. Parents must learn to handle their own feelings of rejection, isolation, disrespect and even disdain that their teens may create. It is the time to give and give and hope that the giving will register enough with the teens to help them mature well, even if there is no immediate evidence to support this expectation.

The rewards of giving your children the gift of time, attention, love, concern and guidance may come only years later. By the time the children are in their twenties and are more autonomous and independent they may begin to have enough perspective to appreciate the parenting they received. Until then, parents must cope with delayed gratification, doubts about the efficacy of their parenting, and concerns about their children’s choices, with patience, hope and grace.

The best gifts you can give your children are:

  • Full loving attention, care and guidance.
  • Placing your children’s needs ahead of our own. This does not mean the children always get their way, it means that their needs are considered first and foremost in your parental decisions.
  • Spending time together on a daily basis in play, loving interaction, conversation, help with homework while exhibiting your deep interest in the children.
  •  Enthusiastic responses about your children’s reactions, ideas, behaviors and being.
  • Affirming your children’s worth regularly and documenting it through their behavior. “I saw how well you shared your toys today- this shows what a kind and generous person you are.”
  • Correcting their behavior, while validating their value. “You are such a nice person, hitting is harmful and it is unlike you to do something so unkind.”
  • Being attentive to your teens even when all you get back are grunts. Parents who stay interested and aware of their adolescents lives help the teens stay on course and grow to believe in themselves.

As you give your children their holiday gifts this year, please ask yourself if you are also giving them the most important gifts they need throughout the year.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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