I told Fred Levine that I thought my main job as a parent was to clap for my kids and encourage them. He agreed. Later he asked me if I was getting any adolescent rebellion from my daughter. She is 11 1/2, which is a little young for a lot of rebellion. But my answer was, "You don't get a lot of rebellion when you are clapping."
Really. When they are young, they need someone to applaud when they go down the slide. When they are older, then need someone to applaud when they do well at school or sports. (And I suspect that even most adults need someone to tell their triumphs to.)
Then you will have a good relationship with your child. Then parenting is fun and childhood is fun. And if your child is talking to you and listening to you, then you might have a chance to say the few things that are useful to say. That isn't why you should clap, but it is an important incidental benefit.
The reality is, as explained more in the essay "Accepting Your Children (and everyone else)", children want to be powerful and competent.
Showing Children How they Could Be Better
Only one thing is known to turn off the impulse to competency and success, and that is failure. From one adult point of view, young children are always failing – they never do something as quickly and effectively as an adult could. Um, you don't need to tell them that. And you aren't really lying, because they are doing well given their ability.
So try not to point out the imperfections in their efforts. (I am sure you would like the same courtesy.) Try not to do things for them just because you can do it faster or better. Okay, occasionally you might suggest a way of doing something better, but the key word here is "occasionally".
You should use what little parental influence you have to encourage your children to do things and try things. You have to realize that they are probably better off following their own impulses. So, they would tend not to try things that are too hard; they would tend not to try things that are too easy; they would tend to try things they are likely to enjoy.
So don't fight them on what they want to do. But you can still encourage them, both in general to try things, and specifically to do what they want.
You can also give them opportunities. When my daughters were young, I taught them to run the credit card through the machine at the grocery store, and I involved them in making purchases. I remember thinking my older daughter was old enough to experience climbing a ladder (when we had the ladder out), so I let her do that. She was afraid, making me suspect I had started too late. So I also let my younger daughter climb the ladder.
Making decisions is also important. They can, at least occasionally, decide what to eat and what to wear. One problem with classes (like ballet) is that they end up being like school -- your children are following instructions, not making decisions about what they want to do or trying to accomplish their own goals.
You have to remember this. Human beings are not built to collect knowledge. Instead, they are built to accomplish goals. Learning occurs best in the course of trying to accomplish goals. So the best thing for your child's learning is that there are goals your child are trying to accomplish.
Sometimes children actually do not pay attention to what makes them happy and what does not. There is a particular problem when the happiness is delayed. And delayed happiness is what occurs for being responsible, and I suspect it is what often happens for sharing and caring. So, as a parent, it always helps to point out if something makes your child happy.
For example, I tell my children not to put their fingers in the hinge of a door. This advice, by itself, accomplishes nothing; they still do it. But once their fingers get pinched, they learn very quickly. I think -- though I have no proof -- that my information increases the speed of their learning.
Similarly, I tell them again and again that the only way to win a fight is not to get in it. Alas, they still do not seem to have learned this.
I have thought deeply about how and why people are kind and responsible. Let me start with being kind.
First, as described in the essay on Good versus Evil, there is a kind of a Golden Rule that people in a sense cannot avoid: You will think of yourself the same way you think of others. In other words, if you dislike other people for being selfish, you will dislike yourself for being selfish.
There are two ways you can use this to help your children learn to be good. First, the reality is that people do not always notice what makes them happy and unhappy. So you can explain this principle to your children. They probably won't believe you, but your advice increases the chance that they will make the learning connection when they experience the connection.
Second, you can control what the contract is. If a child expects people to cheat and be selfish, then the child will not feel bad for cheating and being selfish. So, a primary determinant of how your child acts is how your child is treated. You should be fair, of course, and not spoil your child. But you should show your child respect, kindness, and generosity. You should also model those.
Now returning to the general issue of how to help your child be kind and responsible. The second factor is that people are built to be social animals. They are like wolves, not panthers. So they enjoy being together, they enjoy having friends, and they like it when the people around them like them.
So they will learn to be kind to the other people around them. This does require empathy.
In a movie, we all like it when the "bad guy" is punished and gets what he deserves. That's probably our desire for revenge, which in a way is noble – revenge is making the world fair, and people don't get any personal benefit from revenge, it just makes society a little more fair. Anyway, notice how bad the bad guy has to be. The bad guy is never shown doing anything nice. We never learn anything about the bad guy's past that might be contributing to his current anti-social behavior, such as abusive parents. The bad guy is shown to be completely selfish and completely uncaring of other people, such that the bad guy will do horrible things to other people just to get what he selfishly wants.
When all these requirements are met, then we enjoy it when bad things happen to the bad guy. If these requirements are not met, then we tend to feel at least a little guilty or bad when the bad guy is punished.
So anyway, people like to be social. As far as I can tell, the only criterion is that they would like other people to be social back. So, I can enjoy being nice to someone if I know that person would be nice to me if our positions were reversed. I don't particularly enjoy being nice to someone who would not be nice to me. I do enjoy being nice to children who would not have the skill to reciprocate my kindness, but then it is because they are less adept. And even then, they usually do like me and like being nice to me.
A very big part of being responsible is getting the big picture. With respect to time, psychologists call this "delaying gratification". To put this in terms of money, just to make the example easier, there is no value in putting off receiving $2 today in order to get $1 tomorrow, but there is a value in putting of receiving $1 today in order to get $2 tomorrow.
Children are notoriously bad at delaying gratification. Actually, adults aren't that good at it either. Probably the only cure is letting them grow up. Again, experience is useful.
I have the rule of thumb that children will fail at their first available opportunity. If you make sure they don't fail while they are in your home, then they will fail when they go to college.