(without losing your heart)

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Introduction

Many parents have wished for an instruction manual on how to raise children, and many writers have tried to provide one, but the truth is few “experts” agree on what the “right thing to do” is. Frequently, they can’t even agree on the questions. And there’s a good reason—or several good reasons—for the lack of agreement. Individual differences are one issue: It is true that not all children are the same. I get frustrated when my students write, “Everybody is different,” because while true, it is an utterly useless statement. The question is, How are we different? And similar? Our similarities and differences are always evidence for understanding what it is to be human, and understanding these can guide is in choosing a path forward. To say that everybody is different seems to bring an end to the conversation when it should be the beginning.

But the bigger issue is that we have different priorities and different goals for our children. Thus when we read parenting books, we have very different reactions. Some advise makes sense to us and some doesn’t. Some feels right, while others feel wrong or simply too weird. The source of our disagreements is, however, rarely visible. One goal of this blog is to make the cause of disagreements more visible and to help parents free themselves to think on their own.

There are also SO MANY books and experts out there–giving sometimes the opposite advice–that we parents can easily become confused and overwhelmed if we spend too much time reading them. Trying to follow the advice of even a small sample of the books can be dizzying. Should we cut out all sugar, refuse vaccinations, fill our kids’ lives with charts and stars, or turn them loose on the world to discover how the world works on their own? I have seen parents attempt to follow expert advice like it was a religious text, but more often I’ve seen parents dismiss the experts and simply go with what feels right, which is generally what Mom and Dad did. Parents need, I argue, to put their minds to work, never forgetting the feelings, but making sense of the advice and their reactions to it.

When I had my kids, I was working toward a PhD in developmental psychology, and if there’s one thing I learned, it was that no one agrees with anyone else about anything. If we did, we would not be able to publish endless texts that must continually demonstrate the originality of its authors. Furthermore, I found that theorists were often discussing different behaviors while they argued, seemingly unaware that they were too busy talking (or writing) to hear each other. As parents, I would argue, we have to read what the experts have said, consider the evidence they have, and decide if this impacts our thinking. And yes, it is a lot of work, but parenting is already so much work, putting in a little extra time to test out what you are doing can’t hurt. It might even be a relief to know that there is a reason for approaching a problem or a daily routine in a particular way—something beyond tradition. So this is a place where I begin putting some of this kind of thinking into practice—based on my own experiences as a parent and psychologist but equally because of conversations with students and friends who are also parents. Join the conversation, and let’s think about parenting together.

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What About When Something Goes Wrong?

Something will go wrong. No human being is so perfect as to always be a good parent, and no matter how perfect a parent or a child is, every child will have problems—multiple problems. It’s when the really big stuff happens that you become nostalgic for the “normal problems,” but those normal problems never feel normal when you’re in the midst of them. Stepping back before acting—to try to get some perspective—is almost always a good idea: Look at the big picture. Remember your own problems as a youth. Think before acting.

It’s impossible to go very far in this discussion while referring to a an abstract problem—context is everything—but there are a few general issues worth discussing. First, guilt and/or shame almost always play a role, and if it doesn’t, you are likely to either have a personality disorder or be in denial or both. Second, there was more you could have done or something you shouldn’t have done, so best accept that and move on. Third, you cannot fix everything. And fourth, your children have limitations, no matter how old or how smart or how emotionally mature they are. All of these, whether it’s apparent or not, are about accepting your own limitations as a mere mortal parent (and if you know the myths, immortal parents frequently didn’t do so well either).

Guilt and shame in modern American society seem to be woven into parenthood. Perhaps Freud started it with his focus on the first few years of life and the problems in mother-child relationships that seem inevitable—particularly when mothers are both isolated and given the sole responsibility for a child. I think, however, that as soon as we considered the possibility that people aren’t “born bad,” parenting became the next obvious cause of all things evil.

Let’s, however, be clear about one thing: Society is responsible for its children, and it is society’s neglect of families that is ultimately the cause of many of our worst problems. The “solution” will be for society to play a more nurturing rather than punitive role in . . . well, everything, but particularly in helping families become healthier. In the mean time, families are on their own, perhaps lucky to have a supportive extended family but usually much less lucky.

As parents, we need to remember that we have done the best that we could under difficult circumstances, and all circumstances are difficult. I tell myself this while continuing to feel ashamed and guilty, but it’s important to not let self-incrimination prevent you from seeing what is happening or from taking necessary action. Whether it is substance abuse, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, or something you have never considered, seeing your child for whom they are and as needing you to be a parent is essential.

When something has gone wrong, some reflection on the past can help you understand the problem. Ignoring the past is a mistake because it can help us see both some causes and solutions, but dwelling on our mistakes or another’s mistakes won’t help either. The point of examining the past is to create a change in the future. To change, you have to accept that mistakes were made, clues missed, and actions taken that in retrospect weren’t the best, and then you need to forgive yourself (I am working on it). This takes work, but if we are to make things better, we must focus on what’s ahead—keeping in mind that nothing matters more than that we love our children and ourselves. Being conscious of what happened is frequently necessary.

Accepting that we can’t fix the problem is equally difficult. Our children will misbehave, screw up, have their hearts broken, get sick, and more. The best we can do quite often is to teach our children how we want them to behave, create learning experiences out of mistakes, cry with our children when they are heartbroken, tend to them when they are sick, and in general help them through the problems. Social support has been found repeatedly to make a significant difference in all kinds of problems. We cannot change the world or our children, but we need to mourn, get frustrated, look for best case scenarios, find ways to adapt, and whatever else you need to for yourself and for your child. Just don’t try to make the problem “go away” because no matter what, the problem, once arrived, will never cease to be.

Perhaps the most important task is to see and love our children for whom they are, not whom we want them to be. I remember bracing myself for this acceptance while pregnant with my first child, telling myself that no matter whom my child turned out to be that it wouldn’t matter, and I can’t imagine my children turning out differently than they have. This doesn’t mean that I don’t wish their behavior was different sometimes: Is it really that hard to put things away or to wash a few dishes? But they are whom they are, and I wish nothing different.

As my oldest child began to have real problems in school, I was confused and blamed myself for not working harder. I blamed myself for not protecting my children better. I blamed myself for not trusting my sense of what was happening more. As school problems first occurred, I examined the problems in the schools. I don’t regret this because I was right, and I found a school that would work with whom my child was. But there was a lot more I could have and should have done. When the emotional problems emerged, I became far more paralyzed and ignored my own expertise. I could’ve, would’ve, should’ve . . . But I failed. For all I “know” and all the experts I sought, a wonderful, happy ending was not the result. Rather, it’s been messy, painful and frightening, and an on-going process without end. I don’t have answers, but I do have hope and a loving relationship with both my children. We’ll figure it out as we go, and that’s really all a parent can do.

Developing with your child: The toddler years

At around 7-8 months of age, the quality of an infant’s relationship with the world changes in important ways, but this frequently becomes most evident as babies become able to “toddle” about. Their movement helps parents become aware of just how much they are now interacting with the world. Toddlers are on the move and learning about everything at all times—until they sleep, giving us a chance to catch our breath. Language is also blossoming so that children can interact through word as well as deed, discovering that they are active agents in the world. The role of parents—while still very much about assuring basic needs—becomes more about guarding and guiding in these first explorations and giving our children safe opportunities to discover themselves.

Erik Erickson theorized that starting at one, children begin to confront the basic tension between autonomy and shame/doubt. I am uncertain about this being the primary conflict, but it is a useful one for parents to consider because parents can play a very positive or a very negative role in a child’s efforts to resolve the tension. As infants mature enough to act with some degree of intentionality and agency, they are less dependent on others for their moment to moment actions—being free to move around and assert a presence. They are cognitively and physically freed as compared to the infant. This changes everything because something resembling choice becomes possible, and parents can help create opportunities for good choices, be neglectful and allow disasters to happen, or become controlling and deny the child’s right to choose, causing shame and doubt when unfortunate choices are made. As with all parenting, it is a balancing act between being involved without controlling and allowing freedom without becoming neglectful.

It seems that a basic sense of self is developing in toddlers. “I” becomes connected to actions, and “you” becomes something distinct—separate and outside the child’s control. “No” becomes a way of declaring that “I am me and not you.” Accepting these sometimes silly and petty assertions can help the child come to know the fundamental aspects of who they are. Too often, parents seem to interpret these behaviors as defiance and make the interaction about their own power. Sometimes parents feel they must constantly remind children about who is in charge rather than being confident about how much our children really need and love us.

Parenting is not a competition but an opportunity to guide a child to knowing what their power is. Limits are necessary, but these should not be about asserting dominance because rage and shame are both possibilities that—if not resolved—can have serious consequences down the road. The attributions we give our children’s behavior—the way we understand why they do what they do—can influence how we respond. I recommend reminding yourself that toddlers know very little about how the world works. They cannot have bad intentions, only intentions that come from their limited understanding of the world. They are incapable at this point of wanting to hurt another person because they can’t understand that others have a different perspective than their own. Remember that their experiences are very different than your own and that everyone wins when we enjoy their efforts to become people.

During the toddler period (I am not comfortable claiming a precise age), language and movement truly work together in development to help children learn basic subject-object relations. Children are discovering the extent to which their needs and desires are connected to the world, and parents can help by making their own needs and desires separate from those of their children. There is an opportunity in potty training (a focus of Freud’s) for children to learn self-control, acceptance of mistakes, and accomplishments, but if caregivers get angry too often (a vague measurement that will vary from one child to the next) when a child makes a mistake, it is natural that the child will develop feelings of shame and self-doubt. If potty training is about the parents’ desire for ending diapers rather the child’s need to master this skill, the emotional strain can be difficult because children can’t handle their own emotions yet. And of course potty training is only one of many scenarios in which this tensions exists.

There is nothing more ridiculous on some level than seeing a parent losing their temper because a child is having a temper tantrum: A true temper tantrum is when children genuinely cannot control their emotions, but sometimes parents think that losing control of their own emotions is the way to fix the problem. Yelling may bring an end to the temper tantrum, but this “control” has come from the more powerful emotion of fear taking over rather than some semblance of self-control. Similarly, the repetition of “no” that can occur is not about our sense of the word; it is simply about asserting a difference, so insisting on a “yes” denies the child’s right to be separate and in control of their own thoughts.

Self-control is theorized by Lev Vygotsky to come from language. As children go from a few words to grammatical sentences, they gain a powerful tool for not only communicating with others but for guiding their own actions. Basic grammar tends to emerge at about two and a half years old, and it is as children enter their pre-school years that they begin to truly internalize language in a way that changes everything. Nevertheless, even in those first “no’s,” words are about establishing a relationship with the world; they are a tool to establish themselves as individual people. Parents have the possibility of using words to really help children grow.

During the toddler years and beyond, children need their parents to teach them the basics of self-control and interpersonal relationships. The words we use will eventually become internalized, and it is best for the child if their is an overall positive message: like you are lovable and competent and effective. Our words can teach the beginnings of self-control: I alternated between counting and breathing with my children as ways to help them learn to calm themselves. I would do it with them in a calm, soothing voice. “Let’s take a deep breath, drawing it in all the way to your belly and then let it out slowly.” And then we would count together so that slowly the crying would stop and normal breathing would return.

Similarly, parents’ responses to mistakes and defiance can be crucial: It is not necessary to push children to stop being silly in part because they don’t understand that they are being silly. They are incapable of self-control, and Jean Piaget demonstrated very clearly that young children are incapable of being logical, so insisting that they “behave” is as ridiculous as expecting a fish to walk. Understand the child’s capabilities and limitations, and then you can help the child grow. This is what Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is all about, but this concept is most useful as the child enters the preschool years.

Developing With Your Child: Infancy

When a baby is born, it is utterly helpless.

That and their complete dependence on parents are what scared me most as a new parent, but the experience varies a great deal from one parent to another despite the romantic myths. I was one of the lucky ones: As I settled into parenthood, I was so taken by my children—so in love—that all things seemed possible. In my children, I saw the future with more hope than ever before. I thus found it easy to make my children the center of my world, and for the most part, I believe this is what parents need to do. Parents need to care for themselves, their other relationships, their jobs, etc., but parents of infants need to constantly be be aware of the baby at some level. When caregiving is truly shared among caring and devoted adults, it’s best because turn-taking helps keep a healthy balance, but I really was on my own in parenting and was happy for a time to make my children the center of my world—in part because I knew it would not last long and that, before long, they’d be grown. To some extent, I was always wary of missing some important part of their lives and selfishly didn’t want to risk missing something important, and that anxiety quieted any restlessness.

The question for this blog is, What do infants most need from their parents? What do those utterly helpless neonates need for healthy psychological development? It’s amusing to see how much in the beginning parents fuss over little issues, most of which don’t matter at all in the long run. I was overtaken with feelings of failure because nurses insisted on giving my daughter formula in the hospital and because the delivery had been so difficult, leaving me too exhausted to dote on my newborn, but none of this seems to have mattered. Our basic problem as parents is that we don’t know with any certainty what will matter, and to some extent, this will never change because no amount of research can satisfy all the questions that arise in parenting.

There is actually some consistency in the research about attachment if not about anything else. Research and different theories are in surprising agreement about one thing: Babies need sensitive and consistent attention to their needs. The specifics are unclear, however, and I believe that the devil is in the details—the ones that we have no research about. I suspect that the inconsistency in a lot of parenting research is because the quality of actual parenting activity is much harder to measure than the simple frequency of particular actions or the general philosophy of parenting, which may have little to do with what parents do over the long term or at key moments in development. It’s hard to research, but I suspect it matters less, for instance, how affection is shown than the meaning underlying affection: Words that carry a depth of sincere emotion are likely to be more beneficial than hugs given with a sense of obligation. And consistency is not the same as rigidity: Babies need to know that people are there for them much more than they need to know what time the bottle will come or what time the lights will go out.

It is evident that what seems to be the same parenting behavior can take on different meanings to different children or in different moments, and I suspect that this has everything to do with how the parent understands it as well as the cultural meanings that frame it. For this reason, I believe parents should care for children with love and wonder rather than duty and distraction.  I think the best way to make babies feel safe and loved is for parents to genuinely enjoy their time with their children, and it is simultaneously more enjoyable and less stressful for the parents if they can achieve this. Similarly, it is probably better to leave a child crying for a while than to arrive angry at being disturbed even if the parents believe they aren’t showing their annoyance, and when I hear about babies who reject nursing, I wonder how often this is because the mothers were uncomfortable with breastfeeding. The latter is easy for me to speculate about because—after a couple weeks of pain—breastfeeding was easy and always a bonding experience with my children. I didn’t do as well at consistently feeling joy when helping my child with homework, too often being overwhelmed by conflicting responsibilities, confused, frustrated, and sometimes desperate for progress. I’d like to think I got better, and that my child’s disability was objectively difficult. To be clear, I am saying that no parent can be loving at all times, but it is a worthy goal, and being loving most of the time is adequate yet potentially the most important gift a parent can give. My concern is when parents never seem to enjoy their children, but I don’t know if there is research that addresses this question.

The beginning months of life are the time when parents most need to conform to the infants’ needs. I am opposed to feeding according to a schedule and to sleep training unless it is necessary for the parents—that they need it so they can function—because I find no evidence that these directly help infants. I strongly suspect that before being exposed to processed foods and corn syrup, infants will eat when they need to because they are hungry and not eat when they are not. Forcing an infant to comply with a schedule teaches children to eat when they aren’t hungry and to not eat when they are. The same is true for sleep schedules. In general, rigid schedules don’t serve the needs of children but are catered to the needs of their caregivers.

The other side of the argument is that we all need to learn that we don’t always get what we want and that we need to learn discipline—that infants need to begin even at this early age to deal with discomfort and conforming to the needs of the moment. Research suggests that self-control may be the best predictor of school performance after all. I understand this perspective, but first, no caregiver can protect children for long from having to wait or from being disappointed yet it seems sadistic to intentionally discomfort a child when it’s not necessary, and secondly, ample research suggests the infants, who have their needs promptly tended, do better later on. In so much of human interactions, intentions weigh greatly on how we experience a situation, and this is likely to start early. Therefore a child who experiences a parent “coldly” allowing them to suffer will have a very different experience than the one whose parent is upset with the child about unavoidable discomforts. Children need empathy.

Establishing a trusting relationship during a child’s infancy is from many perspectives the most important accomplishment for parents. The significance of this relationship is further demonstrated by evidence that stressed parents are correlated with babies who have higher stress hormones, cortisone, which could affect children’s brain development. Parents need to take care of themselves if they are going to be what their children need them to be, but most importantly they—we—need to leave behind the stressors as much as possible when we are with our children so that we can truly be trustworthy and loving. Infants seem not to have a clear-cut attachment or a basic understanding of facial expressions or even a clear sense that you are the same person who fed them yesterday until they are 7-8 months old, but their brains are developing at an enormous rate those first months. The basic patterns that are developed are likely to stay with them their entire lives, helping them grow into secure and confident adult or becoming an obstacle in the future. The quality of parent-infant relationships is crucial.

Developing With Your Child, Introduction

How I miss the ease of parenting a young child! It was exhausting, but I was always pretty certain I knew the best course of action. With teens, I’m never certain. With this in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to think about how we need to adjust our parenting specifically to the age of our children (never forgetting individual abilities and temperaments).

Stage models are helpful in this consideration, if limiting. Age matters, and it’s important to think about how old a child is because it suggests what a child might be capable of, how the child might respond emotionally, and what position they are likely to take in their families and communities, but there is nothing worse than reducing someone’s experience to it being “a stage,” so be careful. Remember that it’s complicated. Stages and ages mean something but not everything.

In many ways, the first couple years are important in many ways. It’s logical that the beginning sets the stage for everything that is to come. And as I’ve written in previous blogs, attachment theory has influenced me a lot, even though I have significant doubts about it. It is not a stage model, but it focuses on the first two years of life. The basic truths—regardless of theory—should be kept in mind: Infants are entirely dependent on adults for survival, and this fact influences everything. This dependence quickly changes too. It does not really ever disappear, but the trek toward independence begins early and should shape parenting.

Jean Piaget is responsible for one of the most studied and scientifically supported stage models, and I think that his stages of cognitive development are useful, even though I have serious issues with its view of a child as developing in isolation and the rigidity and wholistic nature of the stages. Piaget’s theory is extremely helpful in understanding how children think–and how differently they tend to make sense of their experiences. Children simply do not think the same way that adults do, and we’d all be better off if we remembered this—and the fact that other adults also tend not to think the way we do even when they are capable of it. But people are also not complete aliens, and a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences can help us avoid many mistakes and misunderstandings. The key insight of Piaget is that things adults frequently take for granted are frequently beyond children’s capacity to understand, pressuring us to constantly ask, How is this child understanding the situation?

From a very different angle, Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages offer some keen insights as well—if we always keep in mind that these stages, with their emphasis on different primary conflicts for each stage, are clearly influenced by culture and specific contexts. I don’t entirely dismiss the underlying psychosexual stages as developed by Freud (though I mostly dismiss them), but I also don’t believe they offer much that is useful for parents to think about. Erikson’s shift to more “ego-oriented” concerns addresses issues parents are frequently already thinking about and in a way that offers a perspective contradicting a lot of common parenting beliefs, which is perhaps the most useful part.

These stage models will be used a as guideposts in this discussion, marking directions and possibilities and suggesting topics rather than defining the landscape. I will not attempt an in-depth or summary description of the theories in this discussion, focussing instead on what is useful in particular situation—the opposite perhaps of how I teach. My theoretical perspective is the contextual approach of “cultural-historical activity theory,” which—as the name suggests—places all aspects of development within the context of culture, history, and activity. Thus a deep and meaningful understanding of children and parenting requires an extensive understanding of the children’s histories. In this discussion will talk about an abstract child, but that child doesn’t exist. A consideration of actual children shows this in important ways.

I hope that these broad discussions will be thoughtfully applied by taking into account all of the specifics. The point of this series is to focus on age because usually, the older they get, the larger children’s worlds become and the greater the task of understanding the individual child becomes. The most frustrating and sometimes sad part of this is that, as parents, our influence in the immediate is gradually reduced, so that the choices over schools and dinner sometimes seem the only decisions we can make. I, however, believe that it is the little everyday conversations that matter most—the ones we rarely think about. I want us to explore how those conversations with our children change in the hope that our development as parents can keep pace with that of our children. Most importantly, we must develop: Hugs won’t save the day for long, and our job is not over when our children can feed and dress themselves. Parenting matters always.

Developing Empathy

I increasingly worry about the lack of empathy and growing sense of entitlement in the people around us—particularly those who have the power to do some serious damage. Clearly, capitalism and the need to compete at all costs rewards some of the most despicable qualities humans can possess, but the way we raise our children can make a significant difference and to me is an important part of making the world a better place. I reject the idea that personality disorders and mental illnesses are ever entirely about the genes one inherits; the behaviors and ways of thinking we “inherit” from family is far more influential in my opinion. Many (Steven Pinker and Iain McGilchrist for example) have persuasively argued that the evolution of empathy has been essential for the development of human societies. When leaders, whether of countries, companies, or families, reveal a lack of empathy for the people they lead, we have wars, lay offs, and abuse that are devastating to the victims. Perhaps I will take on writing a convincing argument for why we need to nurture empathy as a way to save the human world later, but it’s much easier to consider how we might nurture empathy and an ethical stance that is healthier for the world in our children. As always, parents must decide what they want to prioritize.

Theorists have argued for various types of empathy, but there is general agreement that empathy is an innate ability of “normally functioning” humans. It often first becomes visible when an infant is witness to another person in pain and they react. Empathy is part of what helps us be social, and other primates are capable of some of the ways humans are empathetic, but our increased ability seems directly connected to our ability to think abstractly. Pinker argued that our increased ability to empathize is connected to the novel and our emersion in other people’s lives through these acts fiction, and research on theory of mind demonstrates that the ability to take the perspective of others develops gradually as a child’s understanding of the world grows. Piaget documented the stage-like qualities of perspective taking. When I argue for the need for empathy in our children, it is about both the early emotional reaction to the emotional states of the people around them and the later ability of children to fully understand that other people have experiences that are different from our own and reflect their unique experiences. To be fully empathic in my sense of the term, someone needs to comprehend the different perspectives and be able to feel them, but I argue that it will not develop if it is not in some ways nurtured in children.

The most important way of nurturing empathy is to offer it to our children. This means not being authoritarian in our interactions whenever possible but explaining the reasons for our actions and sympathizing with our children’s distress when our demands are unpleasant. This is not to say that the jades “This hurts me more than it hurts you” is appropriate. In fact, this is the opposite of empathy. Perhaps the lessons start with being sensitive to the likes and dislikes of our children. Both of my children were upset by water in their faces during baths, which made hair washing very difficult. I compromised, sympathized, and apologized during the process. After trying different methods, I found the best and safest way to give my infants a bath was simply to get in the tub with them, allowing me to give them and myself a sense of safety (after the seat I had purchased to give support flipped over!) while still accomplishing the task.

With almost all infants, physical closeness provides a sense of safety and comfort and can be a way to show empathy. Our bodies are important tools with young children. There are a few children who are so hypersensitive that they do not enjoy being touched, but even in these rare cases, being close can help. Closeness with just anyone does not help though. My oldest child hated being picked up by people she did not know well, and I found on vacations with extended family, that staying in my arms was her greatest comfort. My behavior seemed selfish to some of my extended family, but I could see how much distress my child experienced when adults attempted to pass her around like a toy and the bigger children all tried to show their maturity by picking her up. We were in Greece quite often when this problem presented itself, and my lack of being able to speak Greek probably made things more difficult. I tried to explain that my daughter didn’t like being picked up, but this became an early clash in cultures for us. Many additional clashes will clearly happen as there is growing awareness that making our children kiss and hug the scary new relative primes them for sexual abuse.

More importantly, I believe, is how we respond to our children after we punish them. I remember with one child, when she was two, she kept putting coins into the VCR (for the younger generation, that was what we had instead of dvd players). I could not get her father to stop dropping coins on the floor, posing various choking hazards, but as I relaxed about her not swallowing them, she found the alternative of putting them places. I would sweep her up and put her in her playpen, which really seemed to feel like jail to her. I would leave her there for only a minute, and then I would carefully explain why I had put her there. Every time. The explanation involved lots of hugs, sympathizing with her distress, and comforting her.

With my other child, the problem became hitting when she was three and four. This example is important because it combines the response to punishment and more active empathy building. As the younger child, she had competition for my attention and for use of toys. She never hit me, but a few times, she hit her sister. She would immediately get a time out, which always led to crying, and afterwards, I would sit with her to talk. I explained how important it was that she not hurt her sister or anybody if she could avoid it. I assured her that I loved her and worked out strategies for how to talk to her sister as well as working on controlling her temper. I wish I could remember the details better, but I remember very clearly working with her to think about how her sister felt. In both these cases, I was pushing them to understand the situation at a level beyond what they were currently capable of because this is how higher levels of thinking are developed.

It was in the connection between my children that I worked most consistently and seriously on developing empathy. I talked consistently with them about thinking about how their sister felt, reminding them that they loved each other and helping them find better ways to resolve conflict and cooperate. I was as actively involved as I could be in those early years. Now that they are both teens, I need only remind them about their tone, and they have never had a drawn out fight—ever. I think of all the fights I had with my younger brother and realize that there generally was no adult in the room, and when there was, there was usually a simple and forceful demand that we stop fighting, period. Clearly, I developed empathy without this particular intervention, but I have the advantage of children who rarely fight and are far more loving with each other than I ever was with either of my siblings.

Thinking that involves empathy is best learned by involving our children in thinking that  includes empathy. Lessons in morality and responsibility are best taught this way. In the last few years, my youngest daughter has given money to performers and homeless people while I was with her. I actively admire her giving of her own money, and we have talked about the different views about giving money to those in need. These are moment when we share our empathy for others and contemplate solutions. These types of conversations are, I believe, the most important ones to have with our children, but the task of raising caring, responsible, and intelligent children is accomplished in a million small conversations and actions. How have you nurtured empathy with your children?

The responsibilities of being a parent

Parenting is a responsibility, not a right, but the laws are having a hard time catching up with morality. Legally, a woman is no longer the property of a man, but socially, a man screaming for hours at his wife is still considered their “private business.” If he beats her, the police might get involved. Many years of fighting for women’s rights have led to limited legal protections possible in places like the United States. The effort to protect children has made similar progress, but children, for the most part, are still considered property. As with the ownership of women, there are laws that protect children from physical and sexual abuse and extreme versions of neglect, but children do no have the right to leave or choose a different way of life from their parents or even to proclaim that being routinely humiliated and degraded is abuse without “proof.” Most children, knowing nothing else, are not able to realize that this behavior is wrong or unusual. And when there is a conflict between the parents on how to raise a child, the courts are very limited in how they can intervene. There is evidence showing that emotional neglect and abuse alters the way brains develop—perhaps more than physical abuse—but the courts are still more concerned with parents’ legal rights than the what is best for children. The courts address obvious cases of abuse but are not able to address the equally dangerous neglect and abuse.

I don’t know what the way forward is, but I stand firmly that the responsibility, not the rights, of parents need to be more central in our legal system. My oldest child—at the age of six—began to argue for the rights of children. The argument was that children should have the right to live on their own and work. I tried to explain how there had been a great battle to protect children from work so that they could gain an education, even while I was proud of her sense of autonomy. I was forced during this and because of my research to think seriously about what my rights and responsibilities as a parent were. When does knowing more give parents the right to make decisions and when doesn’t it? Is simply being an adult rather than a child give one the right to make decisions for another? There is clearly the need at times, but what about the other times when it is not so clear?

I was also confronted with a husband who took no responsibility as a father, whom I had to petition to babysit if I had work to do and with whom I could not trust to take care of the children’s basic needs: When I did have to leave, I made sure the kitchen was fully stocked, the needs clearly outlined, and the time as short as possible. A lot of this sounds very similar to the stories of other women, but I’m not sure what to with this observation. I would frequently get a babysitter when my children’s father was home because his work (which routinely involved hours of online chess) could not be interrupted to care for his children, and now I am told by attorneys that his complete lack of responsibility cannot be used in our custody battle. The fact that I intervened when he became emotionally abusive and prevented worse abuse may have protected my children at the time but now prevents me from “proving” the need for legal protections for them.

Laws are rigid, so I don’t believe this basic problem can be legislated, but I feel the need all the more to fight for communities to play a bigger role. I could argue this from feminist perspective, which I support wholeheartedly, but it the more important reasons are about what is best for out children. I never wanted to be the sole caregiver of my children but was forced into the position. Having only one “parent” is less than ideal for children  in numerous ways—from the problem of that parent becoming unavailable to questions about how to best integrate a child into the larger society—but it is not a standard part of main stream culture to have that community involved. I ask myself routinely, What world could we create in which children’s needs are truly central? When so much of parenting is relative—about priorities and specific contexts—how can we as a society move forward to create healthier children? If I feel I have no right to tell you how to raise your children, what rights should I have to decide how my children are raised? What rights should their father have?

Defining Good Parenting

In starting this blog, I stressed priorities. I don’t really feel I have a right to say what is good parenting and what is not, but of course that is a lie in so many ways. I have a lot of strong opinions about parenting. I refer to research because of the illusion that it is objective—unbiased—but I know that it is impossible for research to be completely objective. Yet it gives us a place to start a conversation, to consider what the researcher saw as a priority—a way to test some of our beliefs. I am inadequately exploring the bias in the research itself—maybe I’ll get to that—but let’s start with the bias in the questions we ask.

I was just reading about the benefits of diverse schools here: How Socioeconomic Diversity In Schools Helps All Students. One of the few things that is clear from research—if you examine grades and standardized test scores—is that children from impoverished homes are less likely to do well in school than middle-class children. People tend to think that success in school is objectively a good thing, but there are even reasons to doubt that (another thing to come back to). There is a lot to consider in this clear fact, and there have been numerous “efforts” to change this (though politicians seem quite unwilling to consider the possibility that poverty itself is the problem). If you follow the link within the above article, you will find another article that discusses the benefits of economically diverse schools for middle-class children, at least if you want your kids to be “successful” in a diverse world because you believe that embracing diversity will improve your child’s chances of success. I believe in diverse schools—so much that I put my children into a private school with one of its missions being to have an ethnically and economically diverse student body—but this is because of a belief in social justice and a need to struggle for a better world. In all honesty, I have no idea how to help my children succeed in the world at this point. I keep half-joking with them that perhaps outdoor survival training would be best, and when I talk about careers with my students, I sadly have to tell them that there are no guarantees and that preparing for flexibility is the best advice I can offer. If I dwell on this too much, I will have an anxiety attack.

So what does it mean to be a good parent? Perhaps I am writing this primarily to figure it out a little more for myself. I wanted to have true co-parenting for my children so that they would experience a more gender neutral world and the support of two committed parents. Sadly, I failed to make this happen because it takes two committed parents. I thought I was doing what was best for my children by working to keep their father as involved as possible—because children, I believe, are best off with as much adult support as possible—but I now believe that they would have been better off without him. I believed in helping my children excel in academic skills, allowing my husband to pressure me into emphasizing academics more than I was comfortable with, and my child can do amazingly well on standardized tests but is too anxious to leave the house most days. I made a lot of choices that I wish I could take back.

Fighting for a better world for me is a value that is intertwined with being a good parent. In some ways, having children once seemed like one way to improve the world. Now I begin to think that the greatest challenge as a parent might be to instill hope in our children—hope that the world can be better, hope that they can have a meaningful life, hope for a future worth living. Perhaps the greatest challenge as a parent is helping our children want to live. There is a lot of research that considers how poverty impacts children (for example here), and the role early experience plays in developing neural networks is an adequate explanation, but one that only addresses the biological aspects of the mind. A more artistic, perhaps meaningful, explanation is that children is desperate situations never develop the hope they need to thrive. Helping all our children develop hope is a battle that must take place on two planes: in our parenting and in how we relate to the world around us.

 

 

Play

Do you play with your children? I cannot refer to a large body of research to argue for or against parents playing with their children, but I think the question is a good one for thinking about what it means to be a parent.

Someone asked me a startling question awhile ago: why do I spend so much time with my children? and I’ve been noticing since then that parents are often talking about needing a break from their children. Of course, my children are teens now, but I don’t remember ever wanting a break from my kids for more than getting more work done or more sleep. This led me to begin wondering what people mean by “a break” and why they couldn’t take some breaks with their children.

Perhaps the better question is, Do you enjoy being with your children? I made a conscious decision when my oldest was two years old to enjoy my time with her rather than trying to make her conform to my desires or comforts (which resulted in frustration usually when I tried). I for instance transformed our walk to and from daycare from one of battling about whether she would ride in the stroller, walk, or be carried (at 1, she began to refuse to ride in the stroller) into adventures of finding pine cones and learning to get the fuzzy seeds to fly off dandelions when her breath was not strong enough to blow them off. Those walks have become some of my fondest memories, and some of the pine cones are still on a shelf. I decided then to have fun with my children as often as possible, and I recommend it.

Parenting, of course, has changed enormously over time, and it varies lots between and within cultures. I don’t think my parents ever got on the floor to play with us or gave voice to a toy, and I’m certain my grandparents didn’t even throw a ball with any of their children. Perhaps this shift reflects differences in our jobs as much as our ideas. Research by Bernstein in the 1970s compared class differences in London to find that–to some degree–parenting practices reflected the kinds of jobs parents had: Parents who were professionals and were friends with their bosses tended to talk with their children in ways that were more “elaborated.” Parents who worked in jobs that required deference and formality with their employers tended to require obedience and formality from their children, using a “restricted code.” I think this difference is really about the same parenting styles Baumrind described with authoritative and authoritarian because the way we talk with our children is most of what it is to parent. The way I view it, the more parenting is about obedience, the less it is about joy and love.

If you want a warm and supportive family, you need to be warm and supportive. If you want an obedient and respectful family, you need to model the behavior you want: be disciplined and respectful. Parents begin creating the kind of family they want from before the time their child is born. I recommend making sure you have some fun in amongst all the chaos and work and exhaustion. If you find child rearing boring and tedious (which of course it is at times), your child will think it is about them. Value the time you can spend with them, and don’t be afraid to say when necessary, “I’m sorry. I am busy right not. As soon as I am done, we’ll play,” and then make sure you do. You can’t spend all your time playing, but make at least a little.

It’s Complicated

With everything I write or say about parenting or psychology, I feel that I must insert this phrase: “But it’s complicated.” We (“experts” and anyone who thinks they know something) can make the task of raising children sound easy. I caught myself doing this with a student recently who was observing a class of disabled students (the focus being on education rather than parenting at the time): I listed off a range of strategies that can help a person with ADHD, such as finding socially acceptable  ways for them to fidget rather than trying to force them to be still, striving for routine exercise and breaks, and redirecting the person to the task with simple, non-judgmental prompts. The student responded that they were doing all that in the class she was observing. I took a breath and smiled.

The problem is that it takes time and consistency and then the strategies you picked might not work. Ideally, you involve the student in picking the strategies because what helps one person might not help the next and choice can be empowering. I’d like to believe that if a sensitive and intelligent person takes the time to get to know the child and involves them in the process, they will always find a way to help eventually, but sometimes we don’t. And I wish I had said all that and more in class, but I was too caught up in recognizing my own glibness. (I don’t remember exactly what I answered at that point.) The fact is that all the best strategies ever devised fail as often as they help. And when it is your child, the stakes are higher and your ability to think through things clearly are typically impaired because you care so much and you need to fix things.

The hardest part of parenting for myself has been accepting that I can’t fix everything. I can’t make my children’s father into the kind of father they deserve, I can’t find better schools, I can’t make my children overcome bad habits and personal struggles, and I can’t make their lives easier or happier. One of my children is struggling enormously, and I’ve had to let go. I haven’t given up, but I can only offer my help and wait until my children want it when it comes to the important things.

Particularly as our children approach adulthood, we cannot control them. In fact, we can never control them and should not try. I don’t like the word control. There is a lot I like about Bandura’s self-efficacy theory, but self-efficacy is frequently equated with control beliefs. This focus on control is, I think, a Western form of madness. Not only do efforts to control create enemies and rebelliousness, but it makes us obsessive and frustrated. Breath, I tell myself. This is something I can’t control.

It is on this issue of control that the effects of our power as parents can become dangerous. Our job as parents is to do everything in our power to help our children while loving them–being amazed by and in awe of them–no matter whom they become. The research on parenting doesn’t exactly lead to that phrasing, but the idea of unconditional love has long been a successful tool in therapeutic situations. I would argue that reminding ourselves how lucky we are to have our children helps us deal with the frustrations. It is, after all, amazing that they came into our lives!

There are many different philosophies about parenting. Some say that our children have a great responsibility to us while others argue that it is only the parents who have a responsibility to the children. Some believe we should push them to be independent while others encourage interdependence and sometimes dependence. Some drive their kids to success while others support their children’s decisions. Examples of every approach working and failing can be found, and these differences are about values really and beyond the scope of “science,” but logic dictates that only parents who feel they are owed something and feel the need to control their children will be disappointed. It is the selfish aspects of parenting that create disappointment because we were relying on our children to satisfy our pride, make us feel wanted, or even to provide us with material supports as we age. Control is about getting what we want, not what our children want. We are disappointed when we wanted something. Worry, anxiety, love, and empathy are about our children, but disappointment, anger, grief, and embarrassment are about us. This is not to suggest that we must be perfectly selfless as parents–I know very well that acts of “selflessness” frequently include feeling better about myself–but when we feel that disappointment, we can remind ourselves that it comes from what we want rather than what is necessarily the best thing for our children. We can never know what is the best thing.

My goal in writing this blog is to begin a conversation by sharing my reflections on theory and research, so please respond so we can make this a dialog. I hope we can collectively create a way of thinking about parenting that is neither guilt inducing nor paralyzing. But thinking it all through does not immediately or reliably change our children or the world we live in. It might allow us to have the kind of influence we want.

The research on attachment makes it clear that sensitivity to the child’s needs is connected to more confident and well-adjusted children. The research on parenting styles similarly suggests that responsiveness (and also demandingness) are best. But as with everything, oversimplifications can lead to problems: being so opposed to the way our parents did something, for instance, that we go to the other extreme, causing new problems. In overcoming one problem, it seems inevitable sometimes that we create a new one. What does it mean to be sensitive and responsive? I will work on some specific examples, but I think it is about constantly asking, what are these children experiencing? And making space for the children to communicate what they want, even if you have to say no.

How we hear/read advice can easily change the impact, which is why the “complicated” rule is important. Research, for instance, has found that “yelling” can damage children as much as spanking, such as is described here: http://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/yelling-at-kids/. I can’t speak to the quality of this specific research, but the accumulation of research about brain development, the role of cortisol, and the effects of emotional abuse and neglect strongly suggests that there is an accumulative effect that influences how our brains develop. Is yelling serious? Yes. Just keep in mind, that it’s complicated, and striving for improvement is infinitely better than condemning yourself or being overcome by guilt.

I strongly believe that children are far better off staying with even the most abusive parent if that parent commits to change and seeks help in making it happen. It’s an opportunity for the children to truly feel loved and to learn about commitment when a parent faces their darkest parts and become better for their children. It becomes an opportunity to see that we can make a choice to change–to rid ourselves of bad habits, carelessness, and cruelty.

Everyone loses their temper, and believing that it is a problem is not the same as arguing that if parents aren’t perfect, their children are doomed. The reaction of many parents to the research was as interesting to me as the research: Some felt that the demands and guilt being thrust on parents was absurd, but are parents so threatened by the possibility that they are imperfect that their behavior cannot  be explored? I made the choice to apologize to my children when I lost my temper (or made bad parenting decisions) and to soothe their distress because I wanted them to believe that the lack of sensitivity we all show at such times is not a good thing–that we should always strive for better, take responsibility when we fall below our standards, and work to make amends when we’ve injured someone. A world where that happens routinely is the world I want to live in.

Ultimately, it comes back to the question of what we do with the power we have as parents and whether or not we use it to truly pursue what is best for our children rather than what’s best for us. We must take care of ourselves if we are to be there for our children (something I’m finally taking seriously), and finding the balance between that and what is best for our children is the ultimate balancing act. In the end, we must put our children first. The problem is in deciding what’s in their best interest.

I really need to start getting more specific. Next time!

Needing Compliance

I don’t have clear research to back up my take on Baumrind’s parenting styles and the role of “power,” but it follows from some of the thinking about corporal punishment, which has been correlated with a wide range of problems in children and adolescence. More importantly, it is a helpful way of thinking. In part, it follows from my philosophy on spanking: When we spank, we teach that “might makes right” and that the strongest gets to set the rules, which is exactly what happens when we use our power as parents rather than our authority–when we make a demand based on being the parent rather than knowing there is a good reason for the demand.

Think of the child who cries or screams to the point of making us lose it. It is not the end of the world if we lose our temper and yell, but think about the difference between screaming for the child to stop, which in essence is a demand to do what you say, not what you do. Instead, I have successfully quieted children with “You’re hurting my ears” and “I want to help you but I can’t understand what is wrong.” In the first, I was able to encourage my children’s empathy, and in the second, I was able to express my desire to help, if only they could express themselves so I could understand, showing my desire to help while giving the child a way to help themselves. Of course, it was never a simple statement. I had to exaggerate the pain caused by their screams, and I often had to help my children calm themselves, which I did my guiding them to breath deeply and to count to ten, etc. It required that I get close, touch them, and give them my undivided attention, but I had a lot less yelling and crying as a result. Most importantly, I developed their empathy and their thinking, and that was always my priority.

I’m going to have to develop this one a little at a time, I think, but our children need to know we’re there for them, and if we want them to become good, thoughtful people, we need to be good and thoughtful parents.