By Jonathan Decker (Clinical Director, LMFT)
In my observation as a counselor, the person who most influences an individual's life is generally their mother. For better or worse, many trace the foundation of their identities back to their relationship with their mom and what they learned from her.
Such was definitely the case with me. My mother passed away in 2006. She was a marvelous woman. I am reminded of Lincoln's words: “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” From observing her (and my wife) through the years, as well as my professional experience and study, I've found seven common traits exhibited by exceptional mothers.
1. Give Genuine, Regular Affection
You will make mistakes as a mother. All good parents wonder occasionally if they're “messing their children up.” The biblical Peter taught that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), and nowhere is this more true than in parenting. Explicitly expressing love, appreciation, respect, and support for your children will help to neutralize the effects of your natural, human mistakes. It will also build your kids' self-confidence and strength.
2. Teach Your Children Values
Honesty. Integrity. Hard work. Compassion. Accountability. Other sources can supplement a mother's teaching of these characteristics, but none replace her daily feedback and loving instruction. As your kids grow up they will make their own choices and become their own people, but the foundation upon which they build their identity usually comes from you.
3. Practice What You Preach
Of course, instruction and feedback will only get you so far. Many children are ever-vigilant for parental hypocrisy. You can't reasonably expect your children not to yell if you do it yourself. If you insist that they eat vegetables while you eat chocolate, that they abstain from violence while you put hands on them, that they watch their language while you regularly curse in their presence, or that they pick up after themselves while you're untidy, you'll lose their respect. You'll end up with children who do what you do, not what you say.
4. Embrace Imperfection
That said, of course you won't be a perfect example. Create a climate where you and your children try your best, but imperfection and mistakes are met without harshness or judgment. Model accountability by apologizing if you say something you regret or neglect to do something important. Let them know that mistakes are part of the learning process. Doing so will encourage them to keep trying instead of giving up because they feel shamed for error. If you must offer correction, direct it at the behavior without attacking the person. Affirm the worth of the child and your love for him or her.
5. Be a Mother First and a Friend Second
If your kids aren't mad at you once and a while, you're doing it wrong. Parents who try to make their kids happy by indulging in their every whim and granting them unlimited freedom end up with entitled, ungrateful children who use the parents instead of respecting them. Have your kids work for things. Follow through on consequences. Trust your judgment over theirs when it comes to safety. It's okay for your kids to yell “I hate you!” on occasion; just make sure it's because you're firmly holding to boundaries and expectations, not because you're being snide, condescending, or mean.
6. Love Yourself
If you don't love yourself you may be in danger of relying on your children to meet your emotional needs. If you don't respect yourself (and, in turn, rely on your kids to make you feel respected) you may take their disobedience or back-talk more personally than is warranted. This may make you feel worse and injure your relationship with your kids by triggering your rage. Love yourself enough to take care of yourself. Make time for your dreams, your passions, and your hobbies. Remind yourself regularly of your strengths and good points as a person and a mother.
7. Relinquish Control
Many parents make the mistake of trying to make their children think or behave in a certain way. “You will clean your room!” “You will not fail this class!” Children, like adults, are autonomous beings with free will. They'll make their own choices and will resist attempts to force them to do otherwise. Nobody likes being told what to do; you certainly don't and neither do your kids. Issues on which your children “have no choice” should be few and far between, and limited to issues of safety. Otherwise, honor their free will by giving them choices with consequences. Let them make the choice, then always follow through on the consequence.
Instead of “you will clean your room!” it becomes “You can clean your room and keep your toys or not clean it but I'm taking your toys away for a week.” If they choose not to clean the room, you take the toys for a week (or however long). When they cry for them, reiterate that they knew this would happen, they made the choice, and you hope they choose better next time. Instead of punishing them out of anger (leading to their resentment) you follow through on established consequences (helping them learn to make good decisions). Control leads to rebellion. Supporting their free will helps them to feel respected, keeps you from being the “bad guy,” eliminates disobedience, and increases their ability to think.
BONUS: Shape Your Children's Perceptions of Men
Yes, this is the father's role as well, but don't underestimate your influence. If you tolerate an abusive relationship they may later do so themselves (or become the abuser), because they've observed that behavior occurring without consequences. If you're separated or divorced but their father is a good dad, support their relationship with him and save your complaints for your counselor or support network.
If you're still with their father (or father figure) draw attention to his goodness. Appreciate him, back him up, and help them to learn what type of man they're looking for (or want to be). My own mother did so when she left this note where we'd all see it:
You've got this, mothers. I believe in you.
If you'd like support in applying these concepts or for your well-being and relationships, please schedule a consultation with Jonathan here.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.