Will they evolve and change? Yes.
But have they already received the lion’s share of input for who they’ll become? Also yes.
A study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that a child’s personality is largely set by the time they are six. This is echoed elsewhere.
So for those of us caring for, parenting, or teaching young kids, what do they need?
I’ve been asking this question since my first child was born. (Now I have three.) And what follows is the result of my own reading, research, and my conversations with professionals and parents.
Kids need fairness. This applies to others and to themselves. It means appropriate consequences for bad behaviour. But it also means being forgiving (and asking for forgiveness).
Fairness has to do with justice. It is very important for kids to know that in their lives, and out in the world, there is right and wrong, and there are good consequences for what is right, and bad consequences for what is wrong.
Kids need parents to be consistent. We need to be steady. We can’t lash out one time, and then not do anything the next when confronted with a similar situation.
This also has to do with consistent rules, bedtimes and routines. Without this, kids spiral into chaos affecting their mood and behaviour. With it, a child feels incredible security and safety.
(If you need help with behaviour and discipline I highly recommend you read or watch 1-2-3 Magic by Dr. Thomas Phelan.)
Oh, and when kids whine for a treat, you say ‘no,’ they whine some more, and you give in… You’re not being a “loving parent.” You’re telling them that if they keep escalating misbehavior, they’ll keep getting rewarded.
“Warmth” is a better word than “love.” Everyone says they love their kids. But to a young child, they need warmth—this comes across as affection and feeling that you like them. It means that you are with and for them through life. That you will consistently show up as a supportive person even when they make mistakes.
According to Jennifer Senior in All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, one of the negative by-products of our highly individualistic culture after World War Two, is that children “went from being our employees to our bosses.”
This is for a variety of reasons and is connected to the illness of hyper-parenting (see below), but here let me just say this: Kids need to be a part of the family team.
The home is a mini-economy, and as soon as a child is old enough to form some words, they need chores to be a part of the team. They will feel included, feel like they have purpose, and will gain a bit more respect for everything the parents do day in and day out.
This roots them in a strong, purposeful team who is working together, advocating for each other, and cheer-leading each other. “Team” may be one of the biggest bulwarks against the quicksand infatuation with Me-Me-Me.
Kids need meaning. This will evolve as they grow. They need to know how they fit in to the bigger world. And even before they enter school they will be asking existential questions.
Studies have shown many positive effects of church communities on young people. For example, they provide social support, role models, and caring people; they nurture healthier lifestyles and pro-social behavior (healthier living, less drugs and alcohol, less negative behaviour including sexual promiscuity); and they foster bigger purpose and meaning—a worldview much more significant than their own little bubble.
Church communities also provide opportunities for service which is a major factor in faith formation.
The Journal of the American Medical Association cited a study that showed how, in the 20th century, each generation was three times more likely than the previous generation to experience depression. Psychologist Martin Seligman speculates that this is because we’ve replaced faith in God, church and community with the “self.”
Kids need meaning. And while yes, mom and dad are the #1 factors in a child’s early faith formation, they can’t do it on their own.
Kids need to be respected and to show respect. When you are respected as a person, you gain confidence and strength.
But kids also need to show respect. Any and all backtalk needs to be stomped out immediately. There is no time on earth when it is tolerated. Usually it’s an attitude that is picked up from other kids, TV, from you, or videos and it is unacceptable, always. You are the parent, and they need to honor you. (Obviously, I’m big on respect!)
So far I’ve said that these 6 things are huge: Fairness, consistency, warmth, team, meaning and respect.
But I also wanted to highlight a few of the biggest mistakes.
First: Thinking “Happy” Experiences are the only Good Experiences
If we simply try to cram our kids’ days with things that make them smile, and if we try to minimize difficulties, we are not preparing them for the real world.
Second: Overscheduling (and Hyper-Parenting)
Kids need unstructured time every day. It’s a time when boredom and imagination thrive. And more and more kids are being deprived of it in favor of scheduled activities. And it’s stressing them out. And you.
In All Joy and No Fun, Senior also discusses the phenomena of hyper-parenting. “Today it is the impeachable conviction of the middle class that children ought to be perfected and refined in order to be ready for the world ahead.”
One of the problems is that this also exhausts parents, erodes the family unit, and does little to actually helps kids develop in a healthy way. Usually it perpetuates a parents’ own confusion about what a healthy child is and what the purpose of life is.
Third: Neglecting Your Marriage
When you have little kids, you’re in the trenches. I know, I’m there! But your marriage is a bedrock for your child(ren). Sometime in this early period is when many separations and divorces happen (or start to take shape) because you are in survival mode and neglecting one another. So instead, date your spouse. (Here’s a blog I wrote about making that a priority.)
Fourth: Putting Them To Bed Too Late
Kids need a lot of sleep. A lot more than adults. The result is sleep deprivation… and lack of attention… and acting out…
Last: Too Much Screen Time
The Kaiser Family Foundation produced some research about screen time and kids. We’re often told that helping our kids be tech-literate is a good thing. And it is… to a point.
The study highlighted how too much screen time retards tissue development (because people, especially kids, are wired to be doing things while they develop), and also how kids with lower grades are the ones who’ve been exposed to more media and technology.
I should also note that our culture is now facing an overwhelming deluge of easily-accessible and harmful pornograpy. (Here’s my blog about it.) All internet activity should be monitored.
A Way Forward
Like a lot of other things in our culture of fast-paced fuzz it’s hard to know the way ahead.
But I think that the simpler way is often the better way.
By the time a child is six they are a living, walking blueprint of who they will be for the rest of their lives.
Be fair. Be consistent. Be warm. Build team. Uncover meaning. Teach respect.
But let’s end with what is most important: Start with the end in mind.
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of life?
For me, it has to do with Jesus and his kingdom. So I take that, and work it backwards into everything else, including how I parent young kids.
But what about you? Ask yourself about the purpose of life. And work it backwards into your parenting.
You, your child, and the future person they’re becoming, will be glad you did.