I was once talking to a foster mother who had just taken a teenage boy into her home. She was frustrated because one of the expectations she has for her kids is that they make their beds, and for the third day in a row, her new foster son had not done so. The mother had not had a conversation with the young man about it; she just expected that as a teenager, he would know how to make a bed. I encouraged her to speak with him about it. When she did, the young man informed her that it was the first time he’s ever had a bed so he didn’t know what she meant by “making the bed.”
Everybody knows that all humans have basic needs, starting with food and shelter. But there are other critical needs that need to be met in order for children to grow into well-adjusted and content adults. While the list of things kids need beyond the basics could go on and on, there are some key competencies that improve well-being as they grow into adulthood. These competencies include good decision-making, self-control, a moral belief system and good social skills.
How do young people learn these important skills and competencies? One of the most important ways they learn is through role models. Kids are constantly watching the adults around them and they are affected by how they see adults behaving. Adults can help children in several important ways. Perhaps the most important way is by connecting with them, and/or helping them develop connections with other healthy adults.
Connecting with a young person means looking him or her in the eye and asking how he or she is doing and then really listening to the answer. It means being sure she can name at least one adult she can turn to for help. It means providing a safe and secure environment for kids, not just ensuring their physical safety, but also their emotional safety. It means demonstrating that we keep our work and guard our promises. It means taking the opportunities to teach them how to behave and how to manage their feelings. So, what does it feel like to be angry and what do we do when we are angry? We need to give kids a script and help them practice that script. If we ask a child to do a chore, like make the bed, and she struggles with it, perhaps she needs you to show her how to correctly do that chore, instead of assuming she already knows.
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When you’re thinking about how you can help children and youth navigate their world, consider the power you have as someone who can role model for them positive and productive behavior, or the impact you can have on an adolescent simply by truly listening to him.
Denise Herr McCann is the division director at YSB, and the Communities that Care mobilizer.