With everything children have going on in their lives, parents might feel like helpless bystanders. But youngsters still look to their parents for guidance, even when they seem to be looking away.
"Sometimes, parents forget the power they have in the lives of their kids. But that power can't be overstated," says Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, director of family and congregation initiatives for Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based research organization dedicated to the well-being of children. "In survey after survey, when you ask kids for the most important influence in their lives, they tell you it's their parents."
That's especially true for teenagers, even when they appear to be pushing away their families. "Adolescence is naturally a time of change, and change can cause stress," says Mr. Roehlkepartain. "But it is also an exciting time for kids and parents to get to know and interact with each other in new and different ways."
Guiding children through these changes takes love and commitment — and skill, Mr. Roehlkepartain says. "You can love kids to death, but if you don't set boundaries, for example, they won't know what is and what is not appropriate. If you insist on doing everything for them, they will never develop the capacity to be independent thinkers."
Search Institute's philosophy is that every child needs a strong foundation of values, competencies and other assets to become a healthy, caring and responsible adult. Institute officials have identified 40 of these assets, under broad categories of family and other support, personal empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies and positive personal identity.
Both at home and in their communities, parents can take steps to make sure their children develop the assets they need. Here are some ways you can start today.
Widen the Family Circle
Children need support and opportunities for growth both in and outside their families, says Mr. Roehlkepartain. Parents are the key to making both work together. Here's how you, as a parent, can encourage that growth:
Treat children as individuals. Children have the same basic needs, but they need to get them in different ways. Adjust your parenting to each child's temperament, interests and talents.
Grow with your child. "Get to know your kids at each stage of their development," says Mr. Roehlkepartain. "Enjoy them for who they are, not who you hoped they'd be."
Encourage friendships with other adults. A caring teacher, coach or mentor can be a good resource for a young person. "When kids have other adults to turn to, it also takes some of the burden off Mom and Dad," says Mr. Roehlkepartain. "Be a friend to other kids in your community, too."
Be aware of what's going on in your child's life. Peer pressure and pop culture are not necessarily negative influences, but you may need to help sort things out. Support positive friends and trends. Be ready to talk — and listen — when something is wrong. Instill strong values, then trust your child to know the difference between right and wrong.
Connect with other parents. "Families today are more isolated, which means that parents have to try to figure things out on their own far too much," says Mr. Roehlkepartain. Build support and allies for yourself and your family through schools, religious communities and civic activities.
Promote quality resources for children in your community. Become an activist for good schools, after-school activities and opportunities for self-realization and expression, such as the arts, sports and community service.
"Take love seriously enough that you learn to be a good parent to your children," says Mr. Roehlkepartain. "It's the best investment you can make in their future and your own."