By Anne Field
Experts say that successful, happy people -- those who do well in their chosen careers and form satisfying relationships throughout their lives -- tend to share certain qualities. And parents can help nurture those key traits in their children, even when they're infants. Here's a look at the top five qualities your baby will need, according to child-development experts, along with some ways you can start your little one on the path to acquiring each of these all-important assets.
A basic trust in others is the foundation on which all other traits rest. Without this characteristic, babies face an uphill developmental battle.
She'll have a hard time building relationships, feeling confident, and moving forward unless she has the ability to trust, says Debbie Phillips, a child-development specialist with Work/Family Directions, a consulting firm in Boston.
Imparting trust starts right from the time your infant is born. You can bond with your baby in a way that instills in her a profound sense of security, a faith in the world -- and ultimately, in herself. In infancy, that means responding to her basic needs. Feed her when she's hungry. Rock her with she wants to be cuddled, change her diaper when it's soiled. But also make the most of your daily interactions by talking to her, singing to her, and making eye contact. To create a really safe feeling, introduce rituals such as reading a story every night before bedtime.
When she's a toddler, your child's needs become more complex. Of course she needs to be fed, bathed, and taken care of, but she also needs you to look at her scribbles and her block towers. Acknowledging her achievements may not seem as vital as, say, giving her dinner, but it is. She'll tell you in her own way "I need you to notice this," says Susan Landry, PhD, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston. Try to pay attention to her signals and react accordingly to her needs.
Also pay attention to your baby's temperament. Not all children are alike and your little one will trust you more if you tailor your actions to suit her personality. Some babies, for example, can take lots of stimulation, while others seem to erupt or shut down when there's too much going on. The more you show your baby you understand her particular disposition, the more she'll feel that you're on her side.
It's true: Good things come to those who wait. Kids who learn patience are able to persevere and are more likely to succeed, says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, an advocacy group that focuses on infants and toddlers. Teaching a child the quality of patience can help instill in him a feeling of independence and accomplishment.
Want to help your child along? First remember this: Your baby is watching. If you fly off the handle when you come up against rough traffic or a long line, you'll set a poor example. They're like sponges, taking everything in, says Jody Johnston Pawel, a parent educator and author of The Parent's Toolshop: The Universal Blueprint for Building a Healthy Family (Ambris, 1999). Experts call it modeling -- do the right thing and your kid is more likely to follow. Become quickly exasperated when your toddler spills his milk and you'll convey one message; calmly help him clean it up and you'll teach him something else completely.
Attaching words to your little one's emotions also helps foster patience. Toddlers generally can't say a whole lot, but they understand most of what you tell them. So if your 18-month-old throws a fit when he can't put his puzzle together, tell him you understand and acknowledge his frustration. Similarly, if you find yourself about to blow a fuse, explain how you feel instead of lashing out.
Toddlers don't have the same sense of time that we do, which makes it even harder for them to be patient. You can help by marking time in ways other than minutes and hours. For instance, if your child asks for some juice when you're in the middle of sewing, rather than responding with, "I'll get it in five minutes," try saying "I'll get it as soon as I'm finished with this set of pants." This way, he can watch your progress and gauge how soon he'll get his juice.
To succeed in life, says Doreen Virtue, PhD, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles and author of Your Emotions, Yourself (Lowell House, 1996), you need to know how to make commitments and follow through. It's something that even a baby can begin to tackle. In fact, when your 1-year-old gleefully starts dropping her bottle on the floor, waiting for you to pick it up, only to repeat this exercise again and again, she's ready to start learning about responsibility. That's because she has developed a rudimentary understanding of cause and effect and the realization that there are consequences to her actions.
Specifically, that means you can start thinking about baby-size responsibilities, like handing her a spoon and asking her to give it to Dad. As she grows older, you can make chores more advanced, perhaps asking her to throw her socks in the hamper or stack her videotapes. You'll make it all that much more palatable if you also explain the value of each task. But make sure to keep your explanations brief to avoid confusion; for example, the hamper is "where dirty clothes go to get clean," and stacking videos "makes it easy to find what you want to watch next time." She may not understand your explanations at first, but eventually the ideas will sink in.
Helping to clean is, of course, a useful chore. But don't expect too much. For a toddler, picking up more than three or four toys can be overwhelming. Try making it a game or singing a special clean-up song while you put the toys away.
Of course, we're often so rushed that we discourage our children from doing chores because it takes them too long. If you're pressed for time, choose one or two key responsibilities -- but make sure you enforce them.
Empathy is key to the development of a person's social competence, says Phillips. To have successful relationships, you have to know how people are feeling and respond appropriately. While even infants exhibit a primitive form of empathy, kids don't really become capable of putting themselves in another's shoes until somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6. Before then, they have trouble seeing the world from anyone's perspective but their own. When a 2-year-old bops his friend on the head, he doesn't understand that it hurts because he hasn't felt anything himself, says Phillips.
But there's a lot you can do to help a child develop empathy. Asking your toddler, "How would you feel if that happened to you?" doesn't cut it, since he's so profoundly egocentric. Instead, explain to him how his actions affect others. If he bites his brother, explain that it hurts and may cause a boo-boo. If you see another child with a skinned knee, talk about how it must sting. And be ready to make those comments over and over again. This is one quality that needs a lot of repeating before you can expect it to take, says Pawel.
Be careful of television. If you watch cartoons in which the characters beat up on one another, point out how, in real life, that would feel bad. While the difference between reality and fantasy is still blurry for your child, you'll plant the seed of an important lesson. At the same time, not all programs are harmful, and some are even beneficial. For example, a 1998 study done at Yale University showed that preschoolers who watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood or Barney and Friends tended to get along better with other children than those who didn't. Dorothy Singer, the codirector of Yale University's Family TV Research Center and leader of the study, believes the results reinforce the importance of modeling behavior. These programs convey the message to children that empathy, compassion, and friendship are important components of a happy life. They emphasize sharing, mutual respect, and love. Children who watch these programs model their behaviors after what they see.
Even more crucial is your behavior as a parent. Do unto your child as you want your child to do unto others, says Lerner. That means paying attention to his needs and showing him that you respect his feelings. If he throws his crayons in anger, calmly insist that he help pick them up -- but tell him you understand that he's mad too.
By learning to act independently, your child will grow up with a strong enough inner compass to know what she wants and to make sound judgments on her own. Perhaps the most effective attribute you can pass on to your child -- one that helps him be patient, responsible, and self-sufficient -- is the ability to solve problems. If your 14-month-old is getting impatient because she can't play with another child's toy, acknowledge her unhappiness, but encourage her to look for other solutions, suggests Phillips.
Help your child break tasks into small steps, and then let her master each step on her own. If she can figure out how to pull down her own towel, open the cookie jar, or spread jelly on her toast, she'll feel more autonomous and confident about tackling bigger tasks around the house.
You can also help build self-reliance by giving your child age-appropriate things to do. At age 1, that may mean learning to eat with a spoon, and a year later, putting on a loose-fitting shirt. Make things as easy as possible -- buy shoes with self-fasteners instead of laces, for example -- and be prepared to assist when necessary. If your toddler desperately wants a cookie, pick her up so she can open the cabinet, grab the package, and pick one out by herself.
One of the best ways for your child to learn self-reliance is by modeling your behavior. If you're having trouble, say, assembling your new computer, talk to yourself out loud, walking yourself through the steps, so your child can see you going through the process of solving the problem.
While you're at it, don't forget to foster your child's individuality. Remember that it's important to solicit and acknowledge her opinions. If you see her grab the same shirt again and again, say "That must be your favorite." When she's older, you can encourage more sophisticated decisions. When shopping, ask your toddler to select a shirt from a choice of two. Inquire whether she'd rather play with her Frisbee or a ball.
Trouble is, teaching these qualities can be time-consuming -- letting kids solve their own problems takes time -- and that's something parents just don't have. But you'll be helping your child more if you resist jumping in and doing things for her. Lucky for you, your parents taught you patience and empathy. See how those lessons come in handy?
The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.