Unless you tell your children what you believe about them— what you think their talents are, what their character is like, what you expect of them—you might be surprised what they think.
I was giving Quinn a check-up for kindergarten. He said his dad was overseas fighting in a war and that he missed him terribly, and couldn’t wait for him to come home. He was proud of his dad and tried to describe his uniform for me.
“My Dad really misses me,” he said. “He’s proud of me and says I need to be the man of the house while he’s gone. My mom says I don’t, but I believe my Dad. He’s tough, you know, and when he comes home he’s gonna take me hunting. But I have to be twelve to shoot a gun, he says, because I’m too young now.” Quinn talked rapidly and his voice seemed strained.
“Yup. My dad told me that I’m the smartest kid he’s ever known. He’s right, you know. I am smart. I read every day because I know that when my dad gets home he’s going to want me to read with him.”
I asked Quinn to get a book from the waiting room to show me how well he could read. When he stepped out, I asked his mother about his dad. “He’s in jail,” she started. Then she broke down crying. “He never calls. He doesn’t write either. He got busted for drunk driving and was so humiliated he couldn’t bear to tell Quinn where he went. We told him that dad had work to do far away. Quinn turned that into he was overseas fighting a war. I just didn’t have the heart to correct him.”
Children have vivid imaginations and at six, which was Quinn’s age, it’s not unusual for them to create an imaginary friend. In Quinn’s case he was creating an imaginary father to make up for the absence of a real one. It was okay for the moment, but eventually he would, gently, have to be told the truth. Neither his mom nor I looked forward to that moment.
Quinn imagined what his father believed about him—and maybe he was right, maybe his father did think he was the smartest boy on the planet; maybe he had told Quinn so earlier. The important thing was that Quinn was sustained by his belief that his father was proud of him, and believed him to be strong and smart.
Quinn’s father was set to be released from jail in the next few months. My hope was that he would reaffirm his son’s faith in what his dad believed about him. That would make the transition much easier.
The academic research has shown us that kids who have good communication with their fathers are much less likely to have trouble with drugs, alcohol, or depression. It seems as though dads have a unique power to boost their children’s sense of self-worth, of being grounded, and of belonging, which acts as a shield not just against drugs, alcohol, and depression, but, what is often related, teenage sexual activity.
Here’s how you can help fill that need.
1. Communicate simple truth.
Kids see right through platitudes and hype. It’s no good getting C’s in school and having your father boast that you are one of the smartest kids in the class, if you still can’t get your grades up, no matter how much you apply yourself. So praise needs to be honest. If your child is getting C’s and that’s the best he can do, tell him that’s fine, that you admire his tenacity for working so hard, and help him discover the subjects or practical skills at which he can excel, while he hammers out his C’s in Calculus or English.
As a parent you should be positive—and never talk critically of your children to other people—but you also want to be truthful. Your kids will appreciate that—and appreciate that C’s in math don’t spell the end of your affection for them or mean that they’re mediocre in everything, or for that matter that with enough effort and time they can’t improve in math!
2. Praise their Character not the stuff they do.
Kids want to know what you think they’re made of deep down. So tell them, “I believe that you are courageous, strong, patient, committed, hard- working, chivalrous,” or whatever the case may be.
3. Let them catch you talking about them.
When I was rejected from every medical school I applied to at twenty-one, I thought my life was over. I thought I was too stupid to go and that’s why I was rejected. One day I overheard my father talking on the phone to a friend and telling him that I would be going to medical school in the very near future. I was stunned. In that moment, my life changed. I was filled with the deep knowledge that my dad believed I could succeed in medical school. That was it. I was going. Period. That overheard conversation meant nothing to my father; it meant everything to me.
When you really believe in your kids, they’ll hear it in your voice. If they hear you talking about your belief in their goodness, perseverance, or courage, they will believe it—and it might just change their lives.
4. Take advantage of their failure.
The very best time to communicate sincere belief in your son or daughter is during a time when they feel they have failed. Then, their self-esteem is low, they are thinking that they are worthless, dumb, incapable. That is the perfect time for you to step in with a smile and say, “I don’t care what just happened on the field, I don’t care that you just flunked your exam, I know what you are made of and I believe in you. So stand up again and get back at it.” These are words that change your kids’ lives.
*This is excerpt from Meg Meeker’s brand new book Amazon Best Selling book HERO: Being the strong father your children need.
Meg Meeker is a New York Times bestselling author who writes with the know-how of a pediatrician and the big heart of a mother because she has spent the last 30 years practicing pediatric and adolescent medicine. Her work with the NFL, the United Nations, and countless families over the years has served as the inspiration behind her best-selling books: Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know and Strong Mothers, Strong Sons: Lessons Mothers Need to Raise Extraordinary Men. You can pick up your copies on Amazon or at MegMeekerMD.com
Dr. Meg is a parent and has spoken nationally on parenting issues, including personal appearances on numerous nationally syndicated radio and television programs including The Today Show, Dateline with Katie Couric, Fox and Friends, The Dave Ramsey Show, The Laura Ingraham Show, NPR, Oprah Radio, The World Over with Raymond Arroyo and more.