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Whenever someone is having problems with a child, regardless of the circumstances, the first question that should be asked is how much quality time those who are important to the child have been spending with him. Anyone’s ability to resolve problems, to stand firm in the face of adversity, and to work through difficult conflicts depends on the strength that comes from personal relationships out of which develops a strong belief in self. Disruption and acting-out are symptomatic of a fundamental problem: insecurity fed by the loneliness that comes from a lack of warm, caring, joyful relationships.
From my experience in working with families and consulting in schools, corrections, mental health, and residential treatment centers over many years, plus raising my own eight children, I believe that nothing is more important than our individual alone time with our spouse and with each of our children. Children create their perceptions of their parents based on the time they have spent with them and the quality of that time. We all tend to listen to and respect those whom we perceive respect us, who care about us, and have expressed, both verbally and by their actions, a belief that we have worth as a human being.
What gives a teacher or parent true access to children is when the children believe that whoever is working with them cares about them and, more importantly, believes in their ability to resolve their problems. If you don’t have confidence in your children’s ability to succeed, they’ll know it, and that lack of belief will very likely translate into your children’s lack of confidence in themselves. Thus, the most important step when teaching responsible thinking involves spending the kind of time that is going to create this belief on the part of children that someone cares about them. I call this quality time. This is discussed in detail in my books Love Guaranteed and Freedom From Stress.
With this belief in themselves, children are able to commit to themselves not only a promise to resolve their problems, but also to do so cooperatively with those who spend individual alone time with them. Over the past 30 years, I have taught couples and parents with children how to build sufficient strength in their marriages and families so that they could resolve their problems in reasonable and rational ways. Quality time is the only effective program I’ve found that will create the kind of love and trust needed for relationships to survive and grow.
From perceptual control theory, I have learned that we create our perception of others from mutual, interactive types of experiences that people have with each other. The criteria for these experiences are as follows: first, whatever you do, you must be aware of each other; second, you must create the enjoyment, rather than passively watch TV or a movie; third, you must spend this time alone together with whomever you are trying to build a relationship; and fourth, this activity should happen on a daily or regular basis.
The success stories using quality time are many. I once had a single parent tell me that she had never had a day’s problem with her 18-year-old son. The boy’s father had left her prior to her son’s birth. She said to me, “When my son first began to walk, I resolved right then that he and I would take a walk every day of our lives together.” And she added, “We’ve done that. Many times he’d come home from school and he’d say to me, ‘Come on, Mom, we gotta take our walk.’”
The greatest story of all was during a group meeting with former prison inmates, on probation. I was running these groups for Jake Jacobs, an adult probation officer. I had asked the group members what were the toughest problems they had on probation. Most talked about disagreements with their spouses or live-in friends. One man whom I will call Charlie said that he had been doing well with his girlfriend for the past three months. When I asked what he was doing, he said, ‘‘We take a long walk every night.’’
I asked how he figured this out. He pointed to Jake and said, ‘‘He gave me this card on quality time. It said you had to take a walk, and that’s what I’ve been doing.’’ Charlie had been a drug addict since he was eight years old. He was then 38 and had been a recovering addict for two years. He’d been in and out of prison many times, gone through two marriages, and had, in succession, lived with and beaten up 15 to 20 women. A year after he told me this, he was still succeeding with his girlfriend. He invited Jake and myself to his wedding but had to delay it because he wanted his son, who was in prison, to be best man. Today, Charlie is married, is still taking his walks, and is still doing well.
Over the years, as I was developing my ideas on quality time, I never realized that the best example was right under my own nose. I’m speaking of my lovely wife, Hester. It was only after our grandchildren began to appear that I became conscious of how she really worked with children.
As they would arrive at our home for a visit or an overnight stay, no sooner would they be in the door than she would be down on the floor with them, doing a puzzle, coloring a picture, playing a card game, or figuring out the rules of a board game. Or she would be off on a bike ride, or taking a walk down the street, or having a tea party, or creating something in the kitchen.
She takes children to her poster shop, and there they answer the phone, or help my son, Thomas, who runs the framing department. Hester set up an area in her store for children, with a small table and chair, and with blocks and other creative toys with which they can play while their parents are shopping around. Often, when their parents want to leave, the children want to stay and play.
For outings, Hester takes children to the train park, or to the zoo, or to one of the local art museums, or to climb one of the many mountains around Phoenix. My daughter Dorothy does the same with her two children. The rest of the family claims that she’s the only mother who is going to wear out her children! She’s always on the move, and she and her husband, Eric, constantly expose their children to the many experiences that can enhance a child’s world.
Thus, the key to raising children has to do with creating an atmosphere in which youngsters are likely to obey rules and to learn to think responsibly, and their parents, in turn, have access to working with them. Quality time is the only kind of activity that will create that kind of atmosphere. This also means that not only must parents set rules and standards that reflect the parents’ own values and beliefs, but they must follow through with the natural restrictions that flow from refusal to follow rules.
In turn, all children eventually must learn to respect the rules of the culture in which they live, or they will be in conflict with the people in that culture. My experience with my own children has taught me that children tend to adopt the standards and values of their parents if they’ve established a close, loving relationship with them, and if the choices they have made that reflect those values and standards in the home have brought them a satisfying life. Ultimately, if children perceive you as caring about them, as believing in them, and if they recognize the existence of reasonable standards within the home, they are more likely to work cooperatively to find a way to get along.