Today’s post is the third in a multi-part series on Wise Parenting. Each post focuses on one of six principles for parenting wisely: 1) Stay cool, calm and reflective, 2) Frame the problem appropriately, 3) Aim for the right purpose, 4) Expand the perspective, 5) Apply the best knowledge, and 6) Find the right balance.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
~ Cheshire Cat to Alice, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The same can be said when it comes to wise parenting. Without some clear goal in mind, some larger purpose to guide the problem-solving process, it’s a lot less likely that you’ll reach a wise solution. A wise purpose is about what you would ideally and ultimately like to achieve. For instance, when you are pondering how to respond after your teen breaks his curfew and wanders in late for the second time in a week, it’s important to ask yourself, “what do I want to accomplish here, what is my ultimate purpose?” If your focus is punishment for disobeying you, you may feel a little better in the short run, but it’s doubtful your child will learn anything of longer-term value. By focusing on a more caring and farsighted purpose like helping your child learn responsibility or the importance of living up to agreements, the response is likely to yield future benefits.
Knowing how to aim for the right purpose can be challenging. When it comes to parenting, a wise purpose often has the following features:
- Unselfish. A wise purpose gives priority to our children’s best interests rather than the parents’ needs. For example, when we are embarrassed by our teens’ appearance, it often says more about us than them. As my wise grandmother once said to me, “Stevie, it doesn’t matter how long your hair is or what you look like. What matters is the kind of person you are and the way you treat others.” (Then she added, “Since it doesn’t matter, why don’t you cut your hair.”)
- Balances long-term aims and short-term solutions. For instance, while in the short run we want to keep our child safe and healthy, our long term aim is to help our teen develop the judgment and ability to manage their own health and safety in the future.
- Principled and ethical. A wise purpose is consistent with our moral and ethical values and is about doing the right thing for the right reason. For example, asking your teen to treat you with respect and consideration because “in our family we follow the golden rule and treat others the way we expect to be treated” is a more constructive and worthy purpose than doing it to avoid being punished. In addition, such a principled purpose models your values and provides a rationale that communicates an important lesson.
- Focuses on positive aims. A wise purpose is more about achieving hopes and possibilities than avoiding fears and dangers. For instance, rather than focusing on how to prevent our teen from smoking, we might try to help him or her develop a healthy lifestyle built on responsible choices.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make when addressing childrearing problems is implementing strategies that have little to do with solving the problem. This is because they are aiming for the wrong purpose. When we are clear about the purpose — what we’d really like to see accomplished — the strategy or tools that are needed to achieve it become much clearer. For example, imagine your teen is doing poorly in school. Your first reaction might be to ground him or take away some privileges because he isn’t living up to your expectations. But if your ultimate purpose is not about how to keep him from disappointing you, but rather about how he can succeed in school both now and in the future, then it makes sense to come up with strategies that can help him improve in the areas where he is struggling. Working with him you might ask: what it is that would help foster his academic success? What could he do differently to bring up his grades? Would some tutoring help him better understand the material? Would more time on homework and less time on the computer better prepare him for exams? Are there problems in the classroom (like a girl he’s trying to impress) that are affecting his concentration? If the goal is school success, then we need to look for solutions that help him succeed and avoid those that have little to do with the problem.
Identifying purpose is the most important step in wisely responding to most parenting challenges. Until we know where we’re headed, it’s impossible to know which road to take. A carefully, well-chosen purpose is like a beacon of light lighting the way.
By Stephen Small
Stephen Small is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. He and his wife have been married for 30 years. They are the parents of 3 former teenagers and a new son-in-law.