Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

My husband and I have five children with ages ranging from 9 to 25.  Three of our kids have reached adulthood safely. The younger two, we hope, will follow suit. As parents, we figure we’re doing something right, since the oldest three are well-adjusted, self-sufficient, alive, and not addicted to anything stronger than jogging on the beach.

So what’s the secret to our success?

We attribute it to letting our kids be who they want to be. Allowing that kind of freedom isn’t easy, but no one ever said raising healthy and happy children would be.

Letting your children be who they want to be means celebrating them as individuals with their own interests and hobbies, regardless of what society or their friends think.

And despite your own expectations about who you want them to be.

All of my children are incredibly different: a son is in the Army who would rather play video games than date, marry and give me grandchildren; a son with Down syndrome whose smile brightens each day; a daughter with a pierced tongue and a 4.0 in college; a son who fills our home with the constant sound of drumming and singing; and a daughter who literally dances through life.

As different as they are, they all share an amazing sense of self that I believe comes from the way our family celebrates everything about who and what they are, even though they are all so very different from each other and from us.

Even when it would be easier to say, “No, be like this. Be like us. Think like we do.”

In our house, we have three golden rules of parenting:

  1. Offer compliments when your kids do a good job. I’ve learned that the more confident your child is about who he or she is, the less likely he or she will succumb to peer pressure. My daughter wasn’t comfortable in her own skin in middle school. Rather than run out and buy her the most expensive clothes to conform to what the “popular” girls were wearing, we consistently reinforced her with how amazing she was for just being herself. We complimented the decisions she made, the way she looked, the strengths she had. The result of all of this?  She began to feel better about herself. As her confidence grew, her peers turned to her for advice, complimenting her about how cool she was for setting her own style and not conforming.
  2. Encourage your kids to form their own opinions and interests. When kids are raised in an environment where being who they want to be is not just tolerated but encouraged, they begin to expect others (including their friends) to like them for who they are and not for what they are willing to do. It’s a powerful message that becomes internalized. Our oldest son is nothing like us. He’s conservative and we’re liberal; he’s obsessive and we’re relaxed, he’s quiet and we’re loud. Rather than judge him for being unlike us, we embraced his differences and helped him realize that being different is OK. We say out loud to him, “We love you. Period. No matter who you are, no matter what you do.”
  3. Let your kids know differences are what makes them special. Our youngest daughter has two parents and four older siblings influencing her world. With her, we’ve found it especially challenging to help her understand that she is free to be and think what she wants. When we see that she is conforming to get the attention of an older sibling, we tell her, “It’s OK to do what you want to do. It’s OK to say ‘no’ if you don’t want to do what they do.” We encourage her to ask questions, voice her opinion and explore the world around her. We let her know that her uniqueness is what makes her so amazing.

As parents, I think we all want our children to grow up valuing what we value, placing importance on the same things we do. Unfortunately, we can’t control who or what they become and how they live. Our children only come to that from being given the freedom to get there on their own.