Children have many relationships, and they will have access to a wide range of contexts over the years. The parent-child relationship is but one context among many, and these other contexts can have tremendous influence on the course of their lives.
For example, recent studies document the powerful influence that sibling relationships can have on children's development. If physically hurting a sibling gets that sibling to back down, then children could learn that aggression is a useful strategy for managing conflict. If children see that older siblings behave badly, but suffer few consequences from parents, the lessons learned can also be powerful and dangerous.
Children also learn from relationships with peers, with teachers, with extended family members and with many other individuals. Children go to school, to the mall, to a friend's house. They play soccer, they play in a band, they hang out, they surf the web. All of these contexts have the potential to shape children's development. As parents, we cannot afford to ignore or underestimate the potential influence of these other contexts.
Most parents wisely try to keep children away from risky contexts.
Some parents believe it is essential to set strict limits on what their children read, hear and watch. They might choose to home-school their children and severely limit where children go and with whom. This approach can work well for some families and some children, but it doesn't work for all and most parents adopt a less strident approach when managing the other contexts in children's lives.
Either way, it's not easy managing children's access and exposure to undesirable people, places and things. Try finding a movie or song that your teenager likes, but doesn't push the limits of your own sensibilities. Or try putting a lid on young love, TV-watching or text messaging! It can be done, but limiting access is not the same as limiting the appeal of those contexts. We are not around 24/7 to monitor all that children say and do, and sometimes an appealing but forbidden context is visited when children are not under your watchful care.
There are, of course, plenty of contexts outside the home that are worthy of your children's time and attention. Hopefully, their school is one such place. And despite what you might have heard, most peers push children in positive directions, away from the things parents' fear. In fact, positive peer pressure can be a parents' best ally during the teen years. Certain activities and organizations, depending on how they're run and who is in charge, can offer children rich opportunities for positive youth development.
Unfortunately, some children have limited access to positive contexts. Some neighborhoods are without safe parks, child-centered activities and a ready corps of volunteer parents. Some streets are marked by violence and distrust and offer little sense of community. Gaining access to positive contexts can also be too costly for some families and some children. Transportation to choir rehearsal or to ball practice costs money, musical instruments and sports equipment cost money, and time with a tutor costs money. Positive developmental contexts are not equal opportunity employers.
Some children struggle to succeed in the positive contexts that are available. They might look or talk differently. They might smell bad or do poorly academically or athletically. They might have trouble following rules. As a parent, you want to help your children succeed in positive contexts. You educate the teacher about your daughter feeling excluded on the playground or you look for a coach who's willing to tolerate your son's lack of focus. But if your children lack confidence and are limited in their ability to be a good playmate or a good teammate or a good student, there's a strong chance that their experiences in these otherwise positive contexts will be short-lived and non-rewarding. They won't enjoy it, they won't be successful and they won't be accepted.
One of the biggest obstacles to managing the contexts of our children's lives is that children make choices, including choices about the contexts in which they invest their time and energy. The choices could be trivial and benign or they could be serious and risky: What they watch on TV, what music they listen to, which friends they pick, where they go after school. Our children might choose to stay in their room, refuse to confide in us, or plan activities outside our home and outside our awareness.
A certain amount of that is spot-on: We want our children to be independent, but it's hard to know when they're ready to make wise choices about important matters. And we don't always know the level of risk involved. What's also challenging is that some of the riskier contexts are quite appealing. Classic examples are homes where parents are "cool," friends who drink or use drugs and romantic partners who are "experienced." Other attractive venues are virtual gathering places that are unsupervised, anonymous or only a click away. As a parent, we wonder when is the right time to step in and say, "Let's watch something else," or "No, I can't let you do that," or, "I'm not comfortable with you going there."
But how do we know where and when to draw the line on our child's independence if we have trouble gauging the risks? Our daughter's new boyfriend could look good "on paper," but we can't know if he's a standup guy when we're not around. We won't know about all the opportunities that our kids have to drink alcohol, to smoke weed, to have sex. We could miss those times when spending the night with a long-time friend is actually quite risky for our daughter or when our son's part-time job means daily contact with kids who use drugs and don't care about school.
Even more challenging are times when our kids are drawn to an appealing but risky context but hide it from us. We ask and they say there's nothing to worry about. We ask their friends and get the same answer. We might ask our friends and get the same answer. So what's a parent to do about potentially risky but attractive contexts that could threaten our child's health and development?
My strongest recommendation is to compete and compete well. And the best way to compete is with a parent-child relationship that is solid, supportive and appealing.
This is a different way to think about the job of parenting. It says parenting is important, but we're just one player in the game and we better be an appealing, competent player.
Think about the relationship you have with your children. More importantly, consider what your children think about that relationship. Is it a plus for them? How invested are they in that relationship?
What's it like to be your son or your daughter?
What's it like to have you as a parent?