"I never worried about you. I guess I always trusted you to do the right thing in questionable situations," a mother recently told her grown daughter when asked about her daughter's adolescent friends.
We all know what it's like to have that gut feeling that someone is trustworthy, levelheaded and not easily swayed by every new opinion. That's exactly the feeling we'd like to have about our own kids, especially when they're hanging around with friends we don't approve of.
But how do you raise kids to be independent thinkers; to be self-directed; to lead, rather than follow? Bruce G. Klonsky, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Fredonia, has studied the qualities of leadership in children and looked at the way these kids were raised. He's also studied the research of other experts who traced kids from preschool to adolescence to find out which parental discipline style most often produced children who were able to think and act for themselves. Based on these findings, here are some suggestions:
Discipline rationally. Use a reasoned approach. Be firm, don't lose your cool and, most important, explain to your kids your rationale for imposing some rule or disciplinary action. Otherwise, kids feel like you're imposing restrictions that come out of thin air. Always explain yourself. This teaches your kids why discipline is a necessary and important aspect of life.
Allow your kids to assert themselves. Don't stifle their independence all the time. Let them come to their own decisions and don't interfere unless it's absolutely necessary.
Catch your kids doing things and praise them. This kind of positive reinforcement for good behavior teaches kids that it's noticed and noteworthy.
Help both your boys and girls think for themselves. It's a generalization, but in many families, girls are still overprotected and boys left on their own too much. Neither style is the best way to instill leadership.
Klonsky found that young male leaders tended to have parents who gave them more warmth and personal attention, along with reasoned discipline. Since boys tend to be exposed more in our society to antisocial and negative behavior, this extra attention may give them the structure and guidance they need to think and act for themselves.
Parents of young female leaders, on the other hand, backed off a bit and let the girls think for themselves more -- an antidote to the smothering protectiveness many parents tend to shower on female children. Girls were also given specific decision-making responsibilities in these families.
Teach your children to say no. Although this can disturb your deepest beliefs about who is in charge in a family, it's worth it for your kids' self-esteem, says Paul Welter, another family psychologist. They then learn how to say no to other adults and kids and they'll use this to stand up to friends who try to pressure them into unprincipled behavior.
Give your kids affirmations. Tell them you trust them and have confidence in them. Give them specific reasons why. Welter still remembers vividly when his father said to him, "Paul, you've got a good head on your shoulders. You're going to amount to something." With that kind of praise, your kids can conquer the world -- no matter who their friends are.