Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Raising Farm Kids Requires Loving Patience

January 20, 2002

"My husband is a fine man and an excellent farmer. However, there is one thing that troubles me. He really struggles with his role as a teacher for our kids. He is such a perfectionist that he loses patience and ends up being hard on them. I'm afraid the kids are becoming frustrated and even fear to work with him. I've tried to get through to my husband, but I haven't had any success. Would you put down some ideas in black and white about how to work with children?"

Keep your relationship positive. The standards a person sets for success can be self-defeating and harmful if they're not realistic. Because perfectionists judge their own work so severely, they feel justified in being judgmental and critical of others. To a perfectionist, the standards for successful performance are obvious and exacting. He or she shows little hesitancy about finding fault with work that doesn't measure up.

But to develop their own sense of self-esteem, children need to hear a different message - one of acceptance, love and encouragement. Working together on farm chores presents many teaching opportunities for fathers to get this message across - or to bury it under a quick temper and ready criticisms.

In the long run, what children will remember about life on the farm won't be all the fine work they did, but the relationships that were formed while the work was being performed. How children feel about themselves after the work is done and about the relationship with their parents is more important than whether it is done "right."

Be a patient teacher. Children do not have decades of farming experience. They need to see and have things explained over and over - with patience. Tasks should be carefully selected to match the child's capability and skill. Follow-up should be constructive, gentle, loving and patient.

Praise should be given generously for approximations of success or, at the least, for their willingness to try something difficult. Some children grow up aching for approval and appreciation but seldom hear the words of praise that bring magic to their soul.

A little boy, hardly bigger than a toddler, with eagerness written all over his face, will communicate the message, "I want to be like you, Dad." Such a child wants to be helpful and important. Little steps do follow in big footprints. Dad is this little boy's blueprint for manhood. The eagerness to learn, to tag along and to try things should not be squelched but patiently recognized and channeled.

The farm also opens up a full range of experience for daughters. It is not just a man's world. It is a world they help build and enjoy too. Fathers and daughters experience a closeness rarely found elsewhere in society.

Create success experiences. Children who succeed as adults often do so because they were successful as children. It is the small successes along the way that give kids the confidence to try something new. Children who will do well in the future are "doers." They have drive, curiosity and energy. They know how to take responsibility and persist in a task until it is completed. These qualities are enhanced when kids feel comfortable thinking for themselves, when they feel the freedom to experiment, and when they feel pride in their work.

Expecting perfection of themselves or anticipating that they will be judged critically will make children afraid to try new things. When this is the case, children learn to a disproportionate degree that it is better to be safe than sorry.

Foster autonomy and independence. Parents who raise creative children grant them extraordinary freedom and respect, even at tender ages. There needs to be a willingness to let the child gravitate to his or her own interests and not always follow their parents agenda. Raising "perfect" children puts a lot of anxious tension in the relationship between parents and children.

Emphasis should be put on teaching common goals and values. Within that framework children should have broad freedom to make their own decisions and manage their own work. Limits should be clearly spelled out and discipline consistent and predictable.

Perfectionist fathers have trouble delegating duties, too. The main reason for delegation is to train and develop the children. If that goal is kept in mind, it might be easier to let go of some of the rigidity about how the work should be done. Parents need to live with the differences between their expectations and their child's performance.

Let them go. Just at the time when children are well trained and really useful, they get caught up with their teenage friends and their own developing interests.

Just as children gain competence by mastering a variety of tasks on the farm, they also need to gain social competence and acceptance by mingling with a variety of peers and adults. The steps they’ll take depends on whether they are excited or afraid of new experiences.

Let them go - not for aimless wanderings or pleasure seeking - but for growth experiences and friendships that will stretch their imaginations and deepen their souls. This is another time to demonstrate loving patience and trust in their choices.