When I started working with kids at Boys Town as a recreation aide while in college in 1987, I never thought I'd spend the next 30-plus years of my working life at Boys Town. And I certainly could not have predicted how much my time and experiences here would influence and shape me as a person and parent.
After graduating from college, I worked as an Assistant Family-Teacher and then as a Consultant with the kids and Family-Teachers in the Family Home program. These experiences taught me how important it is for children to receive love, guidance and high-quality teaching. It was a joy to witness many of those kids grow and heal, and heartbreaking to see those who couldn't quite make it over the hump. Through it all, there was no denying the power that building relationships and teaching skills – the heartbeat of how Boys Town helps hurting kids heal – had on transforming lives with extraordinary histories.
I then moved into the role of writing for Boys Town. Over the last 24 years, I've had the opportunity to work with some of the most knowledgeable, talented experts in the child care and parenting fields, including our psychologists and other parenting and child care professionals. During that time, I endeavored to soak up as much knowledge and wisdom as possible, and these busy people were always generous with their time and willing to indulge me with some personal parenting questions. This type of family-first philosophy permeates all of Boys Town, where others are always willing to share suggestions or provide helpful parenting advice and resources. Ultimately, these experiences helped me approach parenting feeling much more confident and competent. It's been a wonderful education that I'll always be grateful for (as will my kids!).
While raising our three children, now 25, 28 and 31, my wife and I relied on and incorporated parenting skills learned at Boys Town. Now on the other side of the journey parents with younger children and teens are on today, here are some observations and lessons Boys Town taught me over the last 30 years that had a profound, positive impact on the hardest, most unselfish and most rewarding job we can undertake: being a parent.
- Because our kids don't come with instruction booklets, most parents parent their children how their parents parented them – both the good and not so good. But it doesn't have to be that way. We don't have to follow and use everything our parents did with us. Instead, we can learn new skills that take a positive, more effective approach to parenting. We can keep the things our parents did well, toss aside those things they didn't do so well and incorporate new skills into our own parenting approach. By doing this, we can create a better instruction booklet for our kids to inherit and use – what a powerful legacy to pass on.
- Don't take your kid's misbehavior personally. It's their job to screw up and test limits, and it our job as parents to remain coolheaded and focused on teaching. Learning happens differently for each child and some require a lot of repetitions before it sticks. Stay patient, committed to the teaching process and shut out the rest of the noise.
- Model calmness. It takes two to do the argument dance, unless one person decides not to dance – and adults should be the ones who choose not to get sucked in to the dance by remaining calm and focused on teaching. Also, when parents don't take behavior personally, it makes it easier to model calmness during the dust ups. Show your kids how to act during difficult situations; it's more powerful than telling them.
- Never assume kids know how to do things. Think of them as blank slates and your parenting as the chalk. Parents are teachers of skills in every area of their children's lives – home, school and with their relationships with others. So, continue to find opportunities to teach, teach, teach.
- “That's not fair!" When you hear this, teach your kids that fair does not mean equal. They mean two different things: treating each child in your family individually is fair while treating all children equally is treating them the exact same no matter their unique differences, struggles or needs.
- It's a continuous balance and tension between wanting to build good relationships with your children and being a teacher and disciplinarian. The goal is to always work to be somewhere in the middle and not always on the extremes, where you want to be your child's best friend on one end of the extreme or a drill sergeant on the other end. Both are important – always keep striving for balance.
- Catch children being good and praise them way more than correcting them…like at least four times as much. Doing this helps strengthen your relationship with them and softens the blow when the inevitable correction or discipline happens. Remember, yelling and spanking don't work – research shows that aggression just breeds aggression. Praise works so use it often.
- Success is relative for every child because each child is different. Do your best to temper your expectations and, instead, allow your children to be themselves and discover their own paths. Often, their choices will surprise and delight you.
- Kids don't break easily. Children and teens are very resilient when faced with the unavoidable struggles and difficulties that life brings. Suffering is an inevitable part of life, even for our kids, and many times a necessary driver of growth and change. Seeing this happen to our kids without trying to fix it all the time may be the toughest part of the job.
- Do your best to be the parent you want to be and then let life unfold. Once a solid foundation is poured, we can't control who or what our kids grow up to be; life intervenes to help with that with all its twists and turns. Focus on the present and pouring the foundation, then let the future take care of itself.
- Everyone has something going on in their own home that they are struggling with; no family is immune to behavior, mental health and other family problems. Have compassion for fellow parents and respect their journey. Be courageous about sharing your strength, experience and hope with them about what's really going on with your kids and family. We parents need to stick together and provide each other with hope and support because it really does take a village.
Boys Town continues to provide learning and teaching opportunities for me to share with my adult children. The most recent being Boys Town's #Teach Love message about compassion, equality and inclusion for all. With the scrapped knees of childhood, drama and hijinks of middle and high school and rocky road to the start of young adulthood mostly in the rearview mirror, it's been a joy and education sharing and listening to my kids' thoughts on topics like Teach Love and others like it. Thanks to Boys Town, the learning, sharing and teaching never gets old.