The 4 R's of Child Rearing
The 4 R’s are foundational pillars of child development that when learned will help children succeed in school, at home and in life. They give children the ability to solve problems, navigate complex relationships and have the fortitude to overcome adversity. These are attributes nearly all of us desire for our kids, however, they can’t be bought or bequeathed, and they are only acquired through effort, intent and ongoing support.
To help delve deeper into what the 4 R’s mean in raising confident and capable children, we asked four uniquely qualified individuals to provide their valuable insight. And while each concept is addressed separately, you will find that a universal element in teaching respect, responsibility, resilience and reverence is letting children experience life beyond the protection of a parental safety net.
We all want children who show respect to us as parents, to their friends and teachers, and ultimately to themselves. According to psychologist and parenting coach Kate Roberts, Ph.D., the best way to establish this is teaching through role modeling and experience. “Typically how it happens for a child is, they are raised in a respectful environment,” she explains. “When they are old enough to understand the concept, the adults in that environment tie their respectful behavior to the word respect.
“Early on, children need to learn there are other people in their environment to consider,” says Roberts, adding children often identify the boundaries of being respectful through developmentally appropriate games and social activities, in addition to what they see from a parent. “Children who have more difficulty either don’t understand the concept, and/or they haven’t been exposed to it in their environment,” she says.
Perhaps most importantly, ensuring lessons are learned comes down to how you deliver them, and by delivering them consistently. If you do it in a yelling voice, demanding obedience, your children may do as you say, but they don’t learn respect. “If you do it in a respectful way, [children] won’t cross the line and will also learn to be respectful. It’s a win-win,” says Roberts. “It’s not a lot of extra work. You are just doing it every time you have a teachable moment.”
Scenario #1: You ask your 8-year-old daughter to pack everything she needs for her ballet recital. When you get to the studio you discover she mistakenly brought her older sister’s slippers. Her reaction is to blame you.
How to proceed: At that moment it is not important who packed the wrong thing. You need the right shoes to perform. Let your daughter know you want to help, but can’t if she is going to blame you for something she was responsible for. Does she want to work together to solve the problem? If so, you can go to the teacher together and begin searching for a solution
The takeaway: As parents, if you respond by pointing fingers and playing the blame game, you are going to end up with children who don’t take responsibility. Blame is all too common for both kids and adults, and it’s a huge sign of disrespect.
Scenario #2: Your second-grade son is a star soccer player in a league where everyone plays. It’s his turn to sit out while a less effective player takes his place. Now your son is on the bench making exasperated faces and mumbling negative comments.
How to proceed: When you see your child having trouble processing something like this you need to talk. Yes, he is a more advanced player, but his teammate is getting the opportunity to learn and improve, creating a healthy environment for everyone’s development. Point out to children the advantages they’ve had, such as additional experience or instruction, and remind them of their responsibility to respect teammates as well as the rules of the game.
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The takeaway: In life, people play different roles that have different values. This is an opportunity for your son to learn to respect that. By providing context in the moment, he’ll perhaps see the larger view beyond his own.
Responsibility is something parents tend to dole out in increments, often painstakingly – with the desire for wanting your children to become independent clashing with your instinct to guard them from danger. William Southwick, director of admissions at Dexter Southfield in Brookline, agrees it can be a difficult to know when to let your children experiment, and maybe fail a little bit, and when to be there to protect them.
Experience and adversity are the very things that help children learn and grow. “If they’re given the opportunity to try things and be successful it can be really powerful,” says Southwick. “And if they are never really given a bit of independence, at some point they’ll get it and maybe won’t know how to deal with it.”
The fallout from failing to develop responsibility can manifest itself in many ways, from struggling with time management as you advance in school to the inability to take instruction and follow up with the necessary hard work. In teaching responsibility, Southwick feels it’s crucial to find balance between incentives and repercussions, in addition to standing strong on what’s important by occasionally making what he calls “wildly unpopular” decisions.
You have to be consistent in teaching your child responsibility, but without the element of real-world experience, lessons will often die on the vine. “If it’s going to be a teachable moment, they really have to come to it themselves,” Southwick adds.
Scenario #1: Your sixth-grade son was in a group of kids who were witnessed defacing a piece of school property, and everyone who was there is facing punishment. He tells you he wasn’t involved and you believe him, but it would take more than that to get him off the hook.
How to proceed: Your child wants you to bail him out, and you feel compelled, but in reality things are not always fair and sometimes you need to face the music. Let him know that while you believe he had no hand in the vandalism, he still made poor choices in being there and doing nothing to stop it. Remind your son that as a member of any institution there are always rules, and we are all responsible for learning and following them.
The takeaway: This is about raising a child with the character to make the right decisions. That it seems unfair is perhaps the most important part, as guilt by association is a reality of life that’s best learned sooner than later. By supporting the institution and letting your son take his medicine today, you are making sure he understands to what degree he is responsible for his actions.
Scenario #2: Your fourth-grade daughter signed up for an optional drama class that meets twice a week at lunchtime, and although she loves it, it’s slipped her mind to attend on more than one occasion. Now it’s time for the end-of-semester performance and your child is upset when told she can’t perform.
How to proceed: The kids in the class were asked to make a commitment by showing up, and only those who followed through are getting the reward. The fact it was an honest mistake doesn’t change the reality she acted irresponsibly. Talk to your daughter about her forgetting and also about what she might do in the future. Then point to some ways to demonstrate contrition by apologizing to the teacher, attending the performance or lending a hand backstage.
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The takeaway: The disappointment of missing the show is likely painful for all of you, but it’s important to learn there are repercussions when you fail to live up to responsibilities. By accepting the consequences and focusing on ways to correct mistakes, rather than dwelling on what’s past, your daughter can learn her lesson and move forward in a productive way.
As a former minor league baseball player and President and CEO of South Shore Baseball Club, Frank Niles understands failure is typically part of the terrain and essential to developing resiliency. He believes parents today are often too eager to intervene, and as a result deny their children opportunities to find their own way. “Then [kids] have a hard time shrugging off [failures] and get away from things that are challenging for them,” he says.
Children learn to deal with adversity partly through the behavior we project upon them, but more effectively through experience. In a culture where everybody gets a trophy, those lessons are increasingly fewer and farther between. “In life we do keep score,” says Niles. “I’m not the guy who is miserable when I lose, life goes on. But you do have to want to win, and try to win, and when it’s over it’s over – you move on.”
Failing as a child is not life or death, but rather a learning experience that prepares him for more serious challenges ahead. Niles notes, “Parents love their children but don’t know well enough to do what’s best, which is teach kids to be OK without them. Whether it is an injury or a strikeout or losing a game, if you just stay out of the way, the kids are over it in 15 minutes. They just plod on.”
Scenario #1: Your 10-year-old daughter was a standout in the recreational softball league and has moved up to the traveling team. Suddenly she finds herself in the middle of the pack. After a rough game where she goes 0 for 4, she wants to quit and go back to the recreational league.
How to proceed: When children step up in competition and inevitably face new challenges, there are typically skills and techniques to be learned to give them a better chance to succeed. After confirming this is something your daughter enjoys participating in, have a conversation to explore ways she can work to get better. As a parent, you need to establish a culture that’s supportive rather than judgmental and dictates that when you fail, you react by doing what it takes to keep it from happening again.
The takeaway: Everybody gets knocked down from time to time. When it happens to your child you want her to be able to dust herself off and bounce back. In a competitive setting it’s important to separate your expectations from your child’s. Therefore, at the end of the game, instead of referring to the good, bad or ugly, simply say, “I love watching you play.”
Scenario #2: Your son just started middle school and is excelling, except in math where he’s always been strong. He is feeling negative about his performance and you are afraid it might be taking a toll on his self-esteem.
How to proceed: Your impulse might be to hire a tutor or get more involved in the homework, but consider how your actions could actually cheat your son of the opportunity to deal with this challenge on his own. Remind him gifts are given out in all different ways and some things in life you just have to struggle for. Is he giving it a reasonable effort? If so, encourage him to keep working hard and to ask for help when he needs it.
Read About Reverence on the Next Page!
The takeaway: Sometimes parents can get caught up looking too far ahead, dwelling on whether your child will get into the AP program or be accepted to the best school. If instead you place the emphasis on enjoying the journey and giving a good effort, in most cases you will arrive at a reasonable destination. He needs to learn when things get tough, one shouldn’t throw in the towel.
In a culture where families rely less and less on religion to teach a moral compass, establishing a sense of reverence in your child is perhaps more crucial than ever. According to Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University, we have that opportunity every day. “At any given moment a parent with their child can point to the sky and simply say, ‘You see those stars up there? We are made of the same stuff they are made of. You are 5 or 6 or 7 years old and I’m 30 or 40 or 50, and those stars are billions of years old. And that’s who you are. You have that inside every part of you,’” he says.
Epstein believes parents can steer a child and give them a sense of their own internal compass, but in the end kids are more interested in our behavior than our ideas. “So to really cultivate that kind of reverence within our children, it’s necessary to not only say it, but actually behave accordingly,” he says. “If we are constantly rushing around from one thing to the next and don’t take time to appreciate the life we have, how are they going to appreciate the life they have?”
According to Epstein, reverence provides the entire context for who we are and our place in the larger narrative. “Children become more confident, more resilient and in many cases better able to give love and receive . ... Because they understand they are not here by accident. They’re here through a process of billions of years of evolution,” he says.
Scenario #1: You step into the backyard to discover your 7-year-old twins in the garden making a total mess. They’ve pulled up the root vegetables, smashed green tomatoes and are using corn stalks as battle swords.
How to proceed: Instead of flying off the handle, take a deep breath and start a conversation. Let them know it’s natural to be curious, and sometimes even destructive, especially when you are a kid – then point out how the things they destroyed were living things with a purpose. Ask them to spend a moment imagining what it’s like to be a different kind of creature. Then share with them something interesting or surprising about nature that may instill reverence.
The takeaway: This experience provides the opportunity to address the human nature you share with your child and the nature of all living things. Nobody is reverent all the time, and every person at some point tests limits. There’s a lesson in understanding how the things that were destroyed fall into the greater story of survival and balance. Taking a moment to explore those connections can create a sense of reverence for them.
Scenario #2: It’s a new school year and all of a sudden your 13-year-old daughter is part of a social scene that doesn’t seem to include her best friend forever, Jessica. When you ask if Jessica is part of her new group, your daughter’s response is she just doesn’t fit in.
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How to proceed: Tell your daughter you understand it is easy to forget about someone you haven’t seen as much when you are around new people. But also give some reasons why it might be good to maintain that friendship for the future. You can explain how you’ve kept friends in your life for a long time and how good it feels, or tell her how you lost touch with childhood friends and years later really missed them. She needs to see things you are reverent about to learn reverence from you.
The takeaway: Part of demonstrating and teaching reverence is acknowledging who children are biologically and neurologically. They’re more inclined to pay attention to what’s in front of them now because their brains haven’t made all the connections needed to understand why it’s important to have people from our past stay with us in our future. While your impulse may be to intervene, it might be more effective to simply share your experiences, express your desire for your daughter to have good friendships and let her make her own decisions.