Kids Are Worth It – by Barbara Coloroso

Cute feet

I don’t have kids, but I have a very cute nephew whose overall well-being and education are important to me. I also have several close friends who are expecting their first children soon and have either started or are looking to start some kind of research on that topic.

Whenever my brother shares his anecdotes, observations, concerns, or worries about his son with me, I don’t have the right answers most of the time, but grad-school and multiple book projects have taught me that there are answers for every question because there are people out there who dedicate their life’s work to conducting research on everything and compiling it for us.

One of them is Barbara Coloroso, the author of Kids Are Worth It! Raising Resilient, Responsible, Compassionate Kids (2010). Her book is a great guide to understanding all kinds of family dynamics, not only essential for future and current parents, but for anyone who ever wondered why we are the way we are, and how we pass it on from generation to generation. Here are some of her insights:

Chapter 1 – Kids Are Worth It!

“I believe that for the first time in our history we have the tools necessary to break the cycles of dysfunction, abuse, and neglect. We now have the individual and collective awareness of the damages that physical and emotional abuse can cause a child, a family, and a society.” (Barbara Coloroso, Kids Are Worth It, pp.10-11)

“If you spend your weekends in outdoor activities with your children instead of sitting in front of the TV, the chances of your children becoming couch potatoes when they grow up are slim – not nonexistent, nut slim. If you take good care of yourself, your children will probably take good care of themselves. If you make disparaging comments about people in your community because of their race, religion, gender, or physical or mental ability, you are teaching your children intolerance, bigotry, and hatred. If, in your words and your actions you demonstrate tolerance, acceptance, and kindness, your children will tend to do the same. […]  The very words we use influence the way we treat our children. The “terrible twos” probably will be; the “terrific twos” have a chance to be something different. Our words can also influence how our children see themselves.” (p.16)

Chapter 2 – Three Kinds of Families

“There are three kinds of families: brick-wall, jellyfish, and backbone. What distinguishes them is the kind of structure that holds them together. A brick wall is a nonliving thing, designed to restrict, to keep in, and to keep out. In brick-wall families, the structure is rigid and is used for control and power, both of which are in the hands of the parents. A jellyfish had no firm parts at all and reacts to every eddy and current that comes along. In jellyfish families structures is almost nonexistent; the need for it may not even be acknowledged or understood. A backbone is a living, supple spine that gives from and movement to the whole body. In backbone families structure is present and firm and flexible and functional. […] Brick-wall and jellyfish families, although at opposite extremes, tend to raise children who know what to think but not how to think or feel, and who lack a sense of a true self.” (p.21)

“Children need parents who model self-discipline rather than preach it. They learn from what their parents actually do; not from what they say they do…” (John Bradshaw, Homecoming)

“The backbone family provides the consistency, firmness, and fairness as well as the calm and peaceful structure needed for children to flesh out their own sense of a true self.” (p.35)

Mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn and grow.” (p.36)

Discipline is handled with authority that gives life to children’s learning. Kids are shown what they have done wrong, are given ownership of the problem, and are offered ways to solve the problem. Their dignity is left intact.” (p.37)

“Children are taught how to think. They are encouraged to listen to their own intuition, to be creative in thoughts and actions, and to reason through problems. They are spoken with, now to; listened to, not ignored.” (p.38)

“The family is willing to seek help. Problems are not denied or hidden. Parents recognize when they need to seek advice from elders or trained professionals, and receive the advice with an open mind and heart. […] If you identified yourself in the brick-wall or jellyfish family system or a patchwork of all three, remember that you cannot change everything overnight.” (p.39)

“Children growing up in an atmosphere in which love and care are lacking or given with gross inconsistency enter adulthood with no… sense of inner security. Rather, they have… a feeling of “I don’t have enough” and a sense that the world is unpredictable and ungiving, as well as a sense of themselves as being questionably lovable and valuable.” (M.Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled)

Chapter 3 – Threats, Punishment, Bribes, and Rewards

“Threats, punishments, bribes, and rewards keep control in the hands of parents and give children the message that “I, as an adult, can and will make you mind,” often with the rationale “for your own good.” The goal is instant obedience. Rather than seeing children as unique individuals with the right to express their own needs and have them respected, parents who consistently employ these tools tend to see kids as people needing to be shaped and made to behave in the way the parents want them to behave. […] Children have a difficult time becoming responsible, resourceful, and resilient if they are controlled, manipulated, and made to mind, robbed of their autonomy and denied opportunities to make choices and mistakes. They cannot develop a sense of inner discipline if all of the control comes from the outside.” (p.43)

“The backbone parent is willing to put the long-term best interests of children ahead of short-term compliance and docile obedience.” (p.45)

“Threats and punishment discourage a child from acknowledging her actions. They deprive the child of the opportunity to understand the consequences of her actions, to fix what she did, or to emphasize with the people she may have harmed. They increase tension in the home and help children to develop a right/wrong, good/bad distorted view of reality.” (p.46)

Control tactics, positive or negative, have as their objective to compel or prevent actions and coerce kids to behave in an adult-approved way. As a result, kids learn to do what they are told without question – not because they believe it is the right thing to do, but to get the reward or to avoid the punishment. They “do to please”; they are often submissive, obedient, and compliant. Or they spend lots of time and energy figuring out if and how they can get away with something and not get caught.” (p.49)

“Kids who are consistently bribed and rewarded are likely to grow into adults who are overly dependent on others for approval and recognition, lacking their own self-confidence and sense of responsibility.” (p.50)

“Kids are more likely to do chores willingly if they feel that we truly need and welcome their help, that we are not simply giving them chores to teach them lessons or because we don’t want to do the chores ourselves.” (p.51)

“If you punish a child for being naughty, and reward him for being good, he will do right merely for the sake of the reward; and when he goes out into the world and finds that goodness is not always rewarded, not wickedness always punished, he will grow into a man who only thinks about how he may get on in the world, and does right or wrong according as he finds advantage to himself.” (Immanuel Kant, Education)

Chapter 4 – The Triangle of Influence – Encouragement, Feedback, and Discipline

Encouragement can come at any time. It is nonjudgmental, and it emphasizes the child’s importance by expressing confidence and trust in the child. It inspires; it imparts courage and confidence; it fosters and gives support. It helps a child develop a sense of self-pride and enhances internal motivation.” (p.72)

“When children are rewarded or punished, what is often lacking is any constructive feedback on what they are doing. Without the feedback, they will find it difficult to develop a strong sense of self; they will become hyper-vigilant or hyper-critical, or self-absorbed. Feedback enables kids to look at their expression of feelings, their behaviour, and their deeds honestly and realistically.” (p.73)

Comments are basic instructions and can help kids organize and sequence activities.[…] The key is that the comments are statements without any emotional loading or ulterior motives. They are intended to instruct, not attack. Constructive comments contain no hint of sarcasm, ridicule, or intent to embarrass.” (p.76)

Chapter 5 – Three Alternatives to No and Other Plan Bs

“Both brick-wall and jellyfish families run the risk of their children being easily led into cults or gangs where someone else does their thinking for them. Backbone parents save their no for the big issues, when there is no bend, when they mean it, intend to follow through with it, and it is in the best interest of the safety and well-being of the child. With the no they give an explanation that is meaningful. Children can then begin to develop their own internal moral structure that enables them to function responsibly and creatively in society. These are the children who will also have the spine to stand up and speak out against injustices.” (p.94)

“What kids need instead of minilectures are opportunities to solve problems they are confronted with or have created.” (p.95)

Putdowns are generalizations and labels that reduce a child’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Kids who have been scarred by put-downs tend to use these tools against themselves.” (p.98)

Be careful” is really a plea, directive, or a cloaked command aimed at the person spoken to. It may be a way of trying to tell your child you love her and that you are concerned. If that’s the reason you say it, just say so: “I love you and I’m concerned.” The ownership of the statement stays where it belongs, with you.” (p.99)

Chapter 6 – I Can Be Me

“Kids tend to rebel at three ages: at two, at five, and at puberty. […] Kids rebel at two against their mothers. They rebel at five against Mom and Dad. […] And at puberty kids rebel against the entire older generation.” (p.102)

“At each age of rebellion, in an attempt to establish an identity apart from their parents, kids try any number of ways to say, “I can be me.” The two-year-old insists on dressing himself, buttoning the top button in the third buttonhole, pants on backward, and shoes on the wrong feet. […] The five-year-old takes great glee in publicly contradicting both Mom and Dad when either of them tries to relate an incident to a friend.” (p.103)

Chapter 7 – Keeping Your Cool without Putting Your Feelings on Ice

“Other people cannot make you angry. They may tease you, provoke you, or invite you to be angry, but in the end you choose your response. And you alone are responsible for that choice and for accepting the consequences that come with it.” (p.116)

“Those of us who grew up with destructive tools may never be able to rid ourselves totally of them, but we can make sure we don’t use them on our kids. […] Children who, in anger and frustration, throw a math book across the room may not know other ways to express anger. Children who throw themselves on the floor kicking and screaming when they don’t get their own way have learned that this technique hooks the adults they are performing for. These actions are all learned. […] It is possible to teach kids to replace these irresponsible action with more appropriate, responsible expressions of their feelings.  But first they need to know it’s all right to feel. It is all right to be happy, concerned, joyful, sad, angry, frustrated, and hurt. Feelings are motivators for growth or warning signs that something needs changing.” (p.117)

“When we are angry or hurt, our feelings are signalling our mind and body that something is not right and needs to be changed.” (p.118)

“Backbone families acknowledge their own feelings and label them. They admit that they are angry, or hurt, or afraid, then do something responsible and purposeful to address these feelings. They make assertive statements about themselves. They acknowledge their children’s feelings as real and legitimate, without passing judgement on those feelings. They teach their children to handle their own feelings assertively.” (p.123-24)

Tantrums usually occur when kids are tired, hungry, frustrated, or all three. If parents remain calm, they can help their children by eliminating the cause or by redirecting the energy in a more responsible and productive way.” (p.125)

“For kids, being able to verbalize that they are tired, hungry, or frustrated is a skill to be learned over and over again.” (p.126)

Chapter 8 – Realities, Mistakes, and Problems

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” (Reinhold Niebuhr)

“When a brick-wall parent make a mistake, it must be someone else’s fault. […] A jellyfish parent either tries to make the mistake seen inconsequential or sees it as proof that external forces control what happens. […] A backbone parent admits that she made a mistake, takes full responsibility for making the mistake, avoids making excuses, figures out how to fix the problem created my making the mistake, recognizes if and how another person was affected, and figures out what to do next time so it won’t happen again.” (p.137)

“If you get all excited about your child’s performance, connecting his performance with his dignity and worth as a person, you are encouraging him to view mistakes as a negative reflection of himself; something to be denied or blamed on someone else. […] Instead, whether the paper is an A-plus or a D-minus, simply ask your child to tell you about it.” (p.140)

“Before starting to solve a problem, it is critical to know who owns it. If you are going to solve a problem, first make sure it is yours to solve. Most of the time it does neither of you any good if you solve someone else’s problem. If you find yourself either rescuing or avoiding your kid’s problems it may be time to consider some of the old parenting tools you are still carrying around.” (p.141)

“It is usually best to allow kids to experience the consequences of their mistakes and poor choices, which are theirs to own. They learn that they have positive power in their own lives.” (p.148)

Chapter 9 – Getting Your Kid Out of Jail and Other Mega-Problems

“We can love completely without complete understanding.” (A River Runs Through It)

“Our love for our children need to be unconditional. Our likes and dislikes can be and usually are highly conditional. We don’t have to like the funny-looking hair, the earring in the nose, and the silly-looking shoes. But our live needs to go beyond all that.” (p.159)

Chapter 10 – Settling Sibling Rivalry

p.175 – Kids don’t come out of the womb knowing how to deal with conflict. It is a skill that needs to be learned. And it will be learned, one way or another. Without conscious, wise, parental care the “skills” they are likely to learn are violence and aggression or passivity and evasion. Kids need to be taught how to enter into conflict and deal with it non-violently, constructively, creatively, and responsibly.

Teaching Conflict Resolution:

“If we saw our parents run from conflict, we will probably show our children how to run as well. […] If screaming is the only way you feel you will be heard, don’t be surprised if you hear the same volume and tone of voice coming out of the mouth of your five-year-old. […] But if, when you are in a disagreement with your spouse or friend, you use the “fair fight” rules and your kid hears you say, “When you do that, I feel hurt,” or “What do you need from me to feel better about this situation?” you’ll notice her using similar techniques in her own conflicts. And if, when you get angry with your kid, your tell him that you are going to your room to cool off before continuing the conversation, you may discover him doing the same thing next time he’s angry.” (p.178)

“Being able to see the other person’s point of view is one of the most useful skills in resolving conflict.” (p.184)

“When we teach our children to look at more than one side of a story, come up with a plan, and speak assertive lines at home, they are better equipped to handle conflict at school and on the street.” (p.185)

Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the embracing of conflict as a challenge and an opportunity to grow.” (p.207)

Chapter 11 – Chores, Relaxation, Recreation, and Rebellion

Bribing kids to do chores gives them the false message that:

  • All good deeds are financially rewarded.
  • If it’s not rewarded, it’s not worth doing.
  • The bigger the reward, the more worthy the deed.

Paying kids to do ordinary, everyday chores can give the, the message that they should expect a payoff for any accomplishment. Growing up with such bribery can result in adults who are overly dependent on others for approval and recognition, lacking self-confidence and a sense of responsibility.” (p.212)

“Backbone parents know what their values are, even if those values fly in the face of conventional wisdom  or the latest trend.” (p.241)

Chapter 12 – Money Matters

“I give children an allowance for three reasons: to learn how to handle money, to make decisions about their own money, and to set financial priorities.” (p.245)

Chapter 13 – Mealtime

Forcing kids to eat when their bodies tell them they are full gives the message “What your body tells you doesn’t count. I know what you do and don’t need. You don’t.” When a kid trained this way is fourteen and peer pressure tells her to have sex or take drugs, she will hear the message she has always heard: “What you feel doesn’t count. I (we) know what you need. You don’t.” (p.265)

Picky eaters, for the most part, come from panicky parents. Most kids would not have a problem with their food if we didn’t worry so much about it.” (p.268)

“Teach your kids manners, not etiquette. Manners are social graces that enable people to eat comfortably around one another; etiquette is adhering to rigid social rules and codified courtesies that often get in the way of people breaking bread together.” (p.271)

Other Good Books: 

Dan Popov, Who Are Our Children Really? (1995)

Linda Kavelin Popov, The Family Virtues Guide (1997)

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (2004)

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