It’s intimidating to consider the responsibility of parenting. We know how our parents’ behaviors impacted our lives, but resist the reality that we are now bestowed with the same great power of influence. We therefore must educate ourselves to be best equipped to tackle life’s parenting struggles as they arise.
In general, children land in therapy long before parents ask for help with their tactics. Parenting is not easy - at all! It demands that we attain a higher level of personal refinement. In the best of circumstances, we are unable to show the consistent patience, restraint, compassion, and empathy that our children require. Combine our natural inhibitions with life’s stressors, and we’re left in a game rigged to make us lose.
Are there any surefire techniques in parenting? Can I guarantee my child will succeed, grow up well-adjusted, and attain their potential without growing to resent me?
Yes - partly. We cannot guarantee successful or well-adjusted children, because a) those terms are subjective, and b) life is hard. We can, however, guarantee that our children not grow to resent us. There is something we can do to guarantee that our children are put in the best position to thrive in all facets of their lives.
After World War II, scientists in the UK surveyed around 70,000 kids as they moved through their lives over a 70-year period, to see how they were doing in terms of health, education, and overall thriving.
Helen Pearson, chief magazine editor for the world’s leading science journal, tasked herself with interpreting the results of the research. Among the abundance of data produced by the study, Pearson was able to list an array of parental behaviors that the studies have associated with improved outcomes for even at-risk kids. It is no surprise that “being emotionally warm, talking to (not at) children, listening to children, making it clear that you have ambitions for their future, and taking them on excursions” were associated with improved outcomes.
Warmth, love, unconditional positive regard, quality time - these are the foundations of parenting. Instruction is simply a necessary evil that must be utilized from time to time. We often get distracted by instruction and use it as our primary parenting tactic. We make comments, shout at, and berate. We state (or sarcastically imply) what we want to happen, and convince ourselves that this should influence our child’s behavior.
We are attracted to instruction as a primary parenting technique because it is easy. It is accessible. It doesn’t require much thought, self-control, or composure.
Positive body language, however - the most useful language in the parenting domain - requires effort, energy, and consideration.
Okay great. So, I’ll do the positive body language thing and I’ll stop shouting my instructions all the time. I will tell my children calmy what they are doing wrong and focus more on positive moments together. Warmth, love, etc. But how do they learn to behave? If they didn’t learn when I repeated myself a thousand times, why would a single calm comment attain better results?
There are two fundamentals needed to answer this question.
First, we must alleviate the pressure we put on ourselves as parents for children to change their problem behaviors immediately. We want instant results, but this desire is completely unreasonable. Adults can take decades to learn new behavior patterns. We get worried if our children don’t learn to behave better in one day.
“We just talked about this! What’s the matter with you? You never listen!” This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The parent’s anxiety about the child not improving their behavior harbors resentment and loneliness, which exacerbates negative behavior. We must display composure and maturity, and have confidence that children will grow from their surroundings. By believing that we have to teach every single life lesson to our children, we put tremendous strain on the relationship, allowing neither parent nor child to breathe. We must believe that it is not our words, but primarily our actions, from which our children learn. Which brings me to the second fundamental: educating through example.
As I mentioned above, children land in therapy long before parents ask for help with their tactics. Countless times, after seeing the troubled child for a few sessions, I schedule a family session and meet the parents as well. Low and behold, the problem behaviors the child is exhibiting, mirror - or are a direct response to - the behaviors he is receiving. For weeks, I have heard how the problem child is explosive, berates his siblings, needs things to be exactly his way with no flexibility for others, and requires the undivided attention of the entire room whenever he has something to say.
Before the family session begins, I often see the parallel process between the child’s behavior and the way he is treated.
Dad makes a comment that the son didn’t get up quick enough when I opened the door to the waiting room. “No respect!”
Mom shoots an eye roll that pierces my heart; I can’t imagine what it did to this poor boy. They enter my office and inform the child that he will be sitting on what they have deemed is the least comfortable looking chair, and then the onslaught commences.
“I’m really not sure there’s any point to us being here today. He needs to straighten up, plain and simple. What are you planning on doing about his utter disrespect? Is there a way to fix this? Because it’s unacceptable! One day he’s going to get a real smack when he gives his attitude to the wrong person. Maybe then he’ll learn his lesson!”
Mom glares at Dad, reminding him that this isn’t the place to talk so openly. That should be saved for the home environment, where the child is alone and helpless without the support of the therapist.
It’s no wonder that this child displays a lack of respect; his parents demonstrate a complete disregard for him as an individual, and attribute no respect to his needs or feelings. They model a “my way or the highway” mentality, and are upset that he has learned to be rigid as well. He berates his siblings, probably using similar language he is used to receiving. He pines for attention, and therefore is irritable when he doesn’t have the attention of everyone in the room.
When our children act out in ways that we don’t appreciate, it behooves us to consider where they learned this behavior. We may blame their friends or we may blame our spouses, but more often than not, we are failing to set a good example ourselves. We may not be able to change ourselves overnight, but we can at least cut our children some slack when they exhibit the same behaviors that we do, rather than reproach them for mimicking us.
Children don’t only pick up our negative habits. A child from a judgmental, berating environment may grow to follow suit, but so will a child from a loving and accepting home. A home filled with love and warmth will produce children that are loving and warm. If we treat each other with respect, our children will do the same. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the next day, but a steady amount of “good example,” with a consistent stream of positive body language, will guarantee our children are primed to excel to the best of their abilities. In the meantime, while we wait for this example to do its job, a little instruction, a lot of warmth, and a heavy dose of unconditional positive regard will help our children’s worlds go round.