- Joellen Monson
Everyone knows that the story of the "Three Little Pigs" teaches us that diligence, practicality and hard work can pay off when hard times come a knocking. But this morality tale can teach us a bit about parenting as well.
It's hard to know why some children will lead happy and successful lives despite enduring difficult or traumatic events while other children who grew up with many advantages and luxuries feel resentful and unsatisfied as adults. Over the years, research has clearly shown that money - either the lack of it or lots of it - is not a key ingredient in raising successful individuals. So what are some things that are?
Take those Three Little Pigs and their outlook on life; One possible metaphor of our little Fairy Tale could use the perspective of how a good FOUNDATION in life skills can be a key element in providing success and satisfaction in life.
Let's begin by considering the first Little Pig's "house built from straw" - some general structure is in place and some basics appear to be there but is it good enough? Elements in a family's structure can look ok on the outside but looks are deceiving. When the elements of alcohol or drug abuse, violence or criminal activity are present obviously there is little room for structure, support or strength and eventually life can come tumbling down around you. Not everyone has such obvious elements in their lives yet they still really struggle and seem fail at keeping the wolf at bay. According to Hopelink, an organization in Washington state which has served homeless and low income families through programs which promote self-sufficiency (www.hope-link.org) there are a number of factors which can cause a family to be "at risk" for failing to meet their basic needs and thereby limit growth potential of all family members.
But as you continue reading remember that many of these elements can be present regardless of family income! So, beyond the obvious abuse issues mentioned above, a family can also be at risk when; there is overwhelming debt and unpaid bills, when there is evidence of malnutrition (anorexia is growing in suburban communities), when children have no rules or boundaries, run away or hurt themselves, if children have behavior or discipline problems in school, if the family is isolated with no network of support, family members are being verbally or emotionally abused and family members need mental health services but won't seek help. While there are many more factors, many of these combination of elements can result in an environment where positive self image is neglected, coping mechanisms are strained to the breaking point and their house of straw collapses.
There is a saying that "The opposite of dysfunctional is dysfunctional", meaning that at one end of a spectrum you can have too little of something but it can be equally damaging at the opposite end where there is too much.
Which brings us to the second house in the Three Little Pig's story. This one has always seemed the most interesting because there is clearly effort and thought that went into the "house of sticks" yet despite some sturdiness, it too fell under pressure. In this, probably the largest group, families may look good on the outside are really not providing enduring, built-in stability for times of trouble. These are the parents who believe loving a child means doing everything for them. They believe that throughout their child's entire lifespan a parent's job is to insulate and protect their child from life's difficulties and hard decisions. These families seem like a loving and safe place; they have knowledge of basic nutrition, spend no more than 1/3 of their income on housing, have employment which offers a livable wage and some benefits, children attend school regularly and are passing their subjects, family members experience positive and healthy relationships with a connection to their community.
Many families fall into this category and go through life with an overall feeling of security and contentment - as long as nothing really goes wrong. These are the parents who worry so much that their child won't get good grades in school so they do the child's homework. They are the parents of teenage drivers who continue to let the young adult use the car despite ongoing traffic tickets. These are parents who will help their child cope with a serious emotional event by taking them shopping or out to eat to stop the emotional pain. These children grow up learning that the rules don't apply to them (they are always the exception to the rule), money or food will solve most problems or that if something is hard, mom or dad will fix it. So, like the house of straw, when encountering those extra pressures, stressors and strains, the house of sticks will fall to pieces.
So at last we come to the Little Pig who looked to the future, who planned, learned appropriate skills to meet his goals and stuck with his task of building the lasting "house of brick". This type of family is not only continually growing but thriving. They not only contribute to their personal mental and emotional wellbeing but give back to their community as well. These families are able to save money for the future, their employment skills are transferable which also provides for advancement opportunities, they generally eat nutritious, regularly scheduled meals together, there is a positive attitude toward learning and a high degree of success. Parents have learned and consistently employ child development knowledge and parenting skills and are actively involved in their child's school. These family members live healthy, abuse-free lifestyles, maintain good mental health and know how to access support resources when needed. These are families who feel safe expressing their feelings and needs, use clear communication and engage in conflict resolution or problem solving skills when difficulties do arise.
The children from these homes learn that there are real life consequences for their positive actions as well as their negative behaviors. By being allowed the opportunity to struggle, being given the ability to experience trial and error, success and failure they are able to gain a grounded sense of accomplishment, confidence in their own abilities and therefore a strong sense of self-esteem. Through open discussions with their parents, children can express their worries and fears then work together to build skills to address problems that have solutions or learn coping skills to deal with those which do not. By teaching children to save money they learn delayed gratification - that working toward a goal may take time but it can be worth it in the long run. Good nutrition teaches one to respect for their body, respecting oneself is the beginning of respecting others.
Ultimately, these parents are using their values to provide their children with the long term stability and solid foundation to handle adversity and overcome obstacles which will enable them to not only enjoy life but to thrive - no matter how many wolves come knocking at the door!