Most people wish to have a positive impact on the children in their lives, but many assume that to do so takes a lot of time and effort. This means that they leave such things to others, such as their partners, parents or teachers. However, the science of wise psychological interventions has found that even the smallest nudges at just the right time can have massive impacts on people, and this is especially true of children. After all, how often have you heard people say things like ‘… and that was the moment I knew what I wanted to do!’.
This means that everyone a child encounters, parents, grandparents, older siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, family friends, neighbours, and even relative strangers, has the opportunity to have a positive and significant impact on a child’s life, no matter how much, or little, time they spend with them. It’s simply a matter of providing just the right input at just the right time. Of course, this is easier said than done, and identifying which input is most appropriate at which time can be difficult. However, there are some basic principles that, if you always follow them, will mean that you are likely to be giving a child just the right inspiration at just the point in their lives when they are most receptive to taking it in and acting on it.
These principles are based around four inter-connected concepts: the importance of modelling positive behaviours for children to see, developing a growth mindset, resilience and learning from mistakes and failures. Together, these concepts help to show children how they should behave in difference situations, how they should respond to any difficulties they encounter, how to achieve their goals in life, and the importance of trial and error in learning and problem solving. These are all key skills in ensuring children grow into adults who are capable of leading happy, successful and independent lives.
So what are these principles? Well, in no particular order, they are:
- Model Positive Behaviours: Children learn how to behave, not through what adults tell them, but by watching what adults do and how they behave. This means that one of the best ways to promote positive behaviours in children is to act in the way you would like them to behave. In particular, if children see you giving up at the first hurdle whenever you encounter any difficulties in life, then they will learn to do the same. However, if they see you trying different solutions until you find one that works, then they will learn that this is the way they, too, should behave when they find themselves in the same situation.
- Actively Listen To Them When They Talk: Children not only learn by copying, they also learn by asking questions. This means it’s important that they have adults in their lives that they can speak openly to without fear of being ignored or ridiculed. This is where active listening comes in. Active listening is a way of interacting with others while they talk which signals that they are being listened to, and it involves providing positive feedback on what the person who is speaking is saying. It also allows you to steer the conversation in specific directions to help a child learn from their own questions.
- Be Clear And Consistent About What Behaviours Are Acceptable: In order to learn how they should behave in any given circumstance, children need to be provided with clear and consistent signals from those around them. This means that each time they do the same behaviour, they should get the same response, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. The response should also be sufficiently clear so that there is no ambiguity. Adults are used to picking up on very subtle cues about how their behaviour is being interpreted by others, but children often miss such subtleties. This means they need much clearer signals about what behaviours are acceptable, and what are not, in any given circumstance. This means calmly explaining to them exactly why a particular behaviour is acceptable, or unacceptable, and praising them very specifically when they behave well.
- Encourage Them To Do Things For Themselves: Adults often feel that they should help children out as much as possible. Yet, if we don’t give them the opportunity to try things for themselves, they will never master the skills they need to grow into happy and successful adults. Yes it can be frustrating watching them struggle with something that you would find simple, yes it can mean that things take longer to get done, and yes, they won’t necessarily do it as well as you will, but doing things for themselves, no matter how difficult they find it the first few times, is the only way that they will learn. As a result, if you don’t let them to do things for themselves, then you are robbing them of the opportunity to learn a new skill. Not all kids will be equally willing to try new things, but all will benefit from a bit of gentle, positive encouragement, and from helping them learn new skills whenever the opportunity arises.
- Let Them Know Mistakes Are Okay, As Long As They Learn From Them: Part of learning any new skill is making mistakes. Yet, many children are very risk averse when it comes to the possibility of failure. This means that they won’t try new things in case they make a mistake and fail to finish the task successfully. As a result, children need reassurance that mistakes are not something to be feared or avoided, but that they are a perfectly normal part of any learning process. They also need to be taught how to learn from their mistakes so that they don’t make the same ones over and over again. The best way to do this is to sit down with them after each attempt at a new task and ask them what went right, what went wrong, and what they could do differently to make sure it goes better next time. If you get them into the habit of doing this, they will not only learn to do it themselves, but they will come to understand that mistakes are an opportunity to learn rather than something to be avoided at all costs. This is a crucial part of both resilience and of developing a growth mindset.
- Ask Them What They Learned And Not Just What They Did: At the end of the school day, or any day for that matter, parents and other adults frequently ask their child what they did. This is well-meaning, but it has an inadvertent and unwanted side effect. If the day has not gone well, it will cause the child to focus on their failures rather than on their successes. If, instead, you ask the child about what they learned, this shifts the focus from their actions to the outcome of their actions. This is particularly important when things have gone wrong as it allows them to shift the focus away from any negative aspects of it and towards what they learned from their mistakes, providing a much more positive perspective on it. It also encourages the child to see learning from their actions as key role of life rather than the actions themselves, and again this promotes the development of resilience and a growth mindset.
- Encourage Them To Think Critically About The World Around Them: Critical thinking is an essential life skill, and it is one that does not necessarily come naturally to most people. However, with a bit of encouragement, especially in childhood, good critical thinking skills are relatively easy to develop. This can be done by inviting a child to ask questions, discuss how we can tell the difference between facts and opinions, and think about how we can find things out.
- Help Them Set Goals And Work Out How To Achieve Them: In order to be able to make a success of their adult lives, children need to learn how to set goals and then work out how to achieve them. Few children receive any specific training in how to do this. Instead, they are left to learn from their own experiences, and it means that many fail to ever become competent at this important life-planning skill, resulting in adult lives that are unfulfilling, frustrating and often chaotic. Yet, learning to set and achieve goals is relatively straight-forward, and can be as simple as having someone explain or demonstrate how to break a large complex task down into smaller components that can be completed much more easily. One of the best approaches for doing this is S.M.A.R.T. Objective Setting. This stands for Specific (make sure that goals are outlined specifically and not generally, as it is easier to work out how to achieve specific goals); Measurable (make sure that any planned steps towards the chosen goal are easy to measure so that you can tell when you have completed them); Achievable (make sure that the individual steps can be achieved, and if they are not achievable, work out what additional steps need to be added to allow it to be achieved); Relevant (make sure that all steps will actually take you towards the intended goal, and not in a different direction); and Timely (make sure you include a timescale for achieving both the intermediate steps and the overall goals so that you have a target to work towards). If you practice this approach to goal-setting with a child whenever you can, it will soon become second nature, and it will help them develop both resilience and a growth mindset.
- Share Problems You’ve Faced And How You Overcame Them: Adults have a tendency to hide their failures from children. This means that children don’t see the effort that adults have to put in to achieve things in life, and it leads them to conclude that success is something that just happens, rather than it being something you need to work towards. The best way to counter this is to share examples of problems you’ve faced in life and how you overcame them. This allows children to see that everyone, even adults, encounter problems, and that with a little effort, most problems can, one way or another, be overcome. In addition, it will encourage children to talk about their own problems both with other children, and with the adults in their lives, and this can only benefit them because as the old adage says, a problem shared is a problem halved.
- Give Them As Many Opportunities And Experiences As You Can: In order for children to learn what they like and what they don’t, what they can do well and what they might need to work at, they need to be exposed to as wide a variety of opportunities and experiences as possible. The best way to achieve this is with a bit of forward thinking. Try to keep an eye out for suitable opportunities, and whenever you come across one, note it down so that you have a list of things that you can do with the children in your lives whenever you have the opportunity. The key here is to make sure that you have a wide range of ideas which will take a variety of different lengths of time so that you always have something you can do regardless of whether you have only a few minutes or a full day to spend together.
So, these are ten principles that will help you have a positive impact on the children in your life, and the more work you put into implementing them, the greater the impact you will have. However, there is a way of multiplying this impact many times over: this is by getting other adults in your circle to do the same thing, The more adults a child is exposed to that are providing the same positive inputs, the greater the effects will be on them. With enough adults on board, you can build a community that is dedicated towards promoting a positive impact on children through the development of core life skills such as a growth mindset and resilience. This has the added advantage that all the children within the community will be equally equipped with the same skill sets, and will be able to push each other forward in a way that adults cannot, greatly increasing the chances that they will all grow into happy and successful adults. Of course, it can be tricky to approach other adults and suggest changes to the way that they interact with your, or even their own, children, but the benefits are potentially so great that it’s well worth the effort.
However, even if you are the only adult in a child’s life who decides to implement these principles, and even if you can only do it for short periods at a time, don’t be put off. From what we know of wise psychological interventions, we know that often it only takes a single adult working to have a positive impact upon them to greatly increase their chances of developing the core skills they need to make the most of their adult lives. This means that no matter what, it is always worth the effort of implementing these principles whenever you can. Even if it fails, at least you’ll know you did the best that you could.
About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.