Like most every parent in the world, I deeply love my kids, and want what is truly best for them. However, parenting can be extraordinarily difficult and complex, and it is often unclear how to order my life, or how to act toward my kids, that would be most helpful for them. In some ways, it has been tremendously helpful for me to have a strong knowledge base of Psychology and parenting science. In other ways, my knowledge always has a way of coming up short, and has led me to adopt an attitude of humility as I quest for what best works with my kids as they grow older. Below, I share what I have found to be the most relevant research and ideas that have informed my parenting, with the hope that it could help others navigate the murky waters of parenting as well.
The Relational Context
Perhaps what is most clear to me about the psychology of parenting is that much of parenting boils down to the importance of close relationships. This includes the importance of relationships between the parents and child, between the parents, and within a more extended community surrounding the family.
Considerable research suggests that the early relationship between a child and parents may set the stage for later development. For instance, infants who are securely attached with a primary caregiver are significantly more likely to be emotionally healthy 30 years later. Generally speaking, parents who are available to their kids during the first year are most likely to encourage this attachment. Perhaps more importantly, parents who are responsive to their infant’s needs, especially in the first year, tend to promote secure attachment. For instance, then, when a baby cries, parents who respond quickly and effectively are most likely to have children with a secure attachment style. Parents who are not sensitive to their baby’s cries are more likely to encourage an insecure attachment. As many prenatal classes teach, “you can’t spoil a baby.” (Obviously, you can spoil an older child.)
To help promote secure attachment with our young children, my wife and I intentionally decided not to try to accomplish too much when our kids were very little. Rather, we tried to focus more on taking care of our kids. My wife worked part-time when until our eldest was 2. When our youngest was born, she stayed home. Of course, there were financial consequences to these decisions, but we decided it was more important for one of us to be home than to make the extra money. Obviously, this not always is possible. However, there probably always are ways to minimize the amount of time parents are away from their kids, particularly in the first year of life.
As our kids have gotten older, we have continued to prioritize spending time with them. It is a priority for us to share a home-cooked family dinner almost every night, for example. In general, we encourage involvement with extracurricular activities, but only to a point, so that we can spend time together. For instance, we have avoided travelling sports, favoring recreational and lifestyle sports to a greater extent, so that our lifestyles are more balanced. We budget money every year to take a family vacation. We also have made an effort to have monthly one-on-one dates with each of our kids, doing something that they enjoy. Finally, we have made a point to have occasional “family game nights,” “family movie nights,” “family reading nights,” and “family art nights” as a way to connect in a specific activity.
Parents who have a close relationship with each other also generally are better able to help nurture their kids. For example, they role model for their kids how to have an effective close relationship. Perhaps this helps to account for why children tend to have better outcomes when their parents are happily married. Even for those parents who split, however, being able to have a working relationship with a co-parent is correlated with kids’ outcomes. To paraphrase an often quoted sentiment, “if you want to love your child, love your partner first.” My wife and I take this advice seriously in many ways. For instance, we try to spend at least 15 minutes in deep communication every day, and go on a date night at least once per month. Part of this time is the essential communication that allow us to be “on the same page” with our parenting strategies.
There are limitations to the nuclear family, however. At some point, children are going to need a broader community. There will be a time when kids need adults besides their parents. As the African proverb states, “it takes a village.” In order to encourage this kind of community, I passed up job opportunities out of graduate school so that we could live near family. This kind of intergenerational influence would seem very helpful and meaningful. Moreover, we intentionally seek to create a kind of “second family” around us by pursuing relationships with friends who have small kids. When our kids were little, we intentionally developed relationships with families that we could trade babysitting with (for free, and also which allowed for my wife and I go to on dates). We also have tried to become friends with older kids who we believe will be good mentors for our kids. One of the ideas that guides us in this is to think about who we can have around that our kids can get to know and trust so that, when the time comes, they have someone around that we trust who can provide good counsel. Of course, my wife and I also are willing to provide this kind of mentorship to the kids who are in these family relationships with us. Sometimes, this can be difficult, such as when one of the moms in our small group starting having seizures, leaving them in need of care of sick children in the middle of the night. We have found, however, that being in an interdependent community is one of the most rewarding aspects of our lives, and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
One of the classic areas of parenting research concerns parenting styles, originally pioneered by Diana Baumrind. Overly permissive parents and overly authoritarian parents tend to have kids with poorer life outcomes than parents who blend sensitivity and strictness. Foster Cline and Jim Fay appear to translate these ideas in their book “Parenting with Love and Logic.” In their framework, “helicopter parents” often rescue their kids from making difficult decisions and experiencing negative consequences of dysfunctional behaviors or failure. “Drill sergeant parents” often make decisions for their kids because they seemingly know best; they typically fail to provide an atmosphere of openness or emotional support. Ultimately, both of these parenting strategies seem problematic because kids do not learn to make wise choices. This causes poor decision-making and lack of independence later in life. In contrast, “consultant parents” enable their children to make choices, within age-appropriate limits, and empathically allow them to experience the consequences, good or bad.
There are many “love and logic” principles that I have found to be helpful in my parenting. These include:
• Set firm, loving limits using enforceable statements that you’re willing to follow through on (e.g., “You can join us for ice cream after you finish your homework.”).
• Do not add to problematic situations by showing excessive anger or using threats.
• Ask the child questions that allow them to reach their own conclusions, rather than “lecturing” them.
• When a child causes a problem, show empathy through sadness and then lovingly hand the problem and its consequences back to the child. The child should spend more time thinking about their problems than the parents.
• Communicate in ways that cause the child to think (e.g., “You sound upset. I’ll be glad to listen when your voice is as soft as mine.),” rather than escalate the problem (e.g., “Don’t you talk to me in that tone of voice!”).
• Encourage the child to have age-appropriate, reasonable choices (e.g., “Would you like to do your homework now and watch television with us later or would you like to continue playing now and do your homework while we watch television later?”).
• You can’t really control a child’s behavior (e.g., when they have a tantrum), but you often can control where they behave (e.g., in their bedroom or downstairs, their choice).
• The only time to reason with a child is when both the child and the parent are calm.
• Rely on natural consequences as much as possible, but use logical consequences that follow from the behavior otherwise.
• When supplying logical consequences, take time (and maybe seek input) on what is reasonable. There is no rush.
• Empathy for your child’s problems should be sincere. Do not merely “play a parenting game” with them; see if you can really understand what they’re feeling and why. Often times, emotion lies at the root of problematic behavior.
• Realize that the biggest influence you have on your child is in the role modeling you provide in your own actions and attitude.
• The older the child, the more you should loosen your limits to allow them to make mistakes and experience the adverse consequences.
Focusing on the Positive
Researchers such as Barbara Fredrickson have found that happiness is most likely to occur when there is a 3 to 1 positive to negative behavior ratio. For instance, this means that families generally do best when there are about 3 positive behaviors (e.g., smiles, hugs, words of encouragement) to 1 negative behavior (e.g., correction) in the home. This doesn’t mean that there should be no negative behaviors – effective families actively address problems, kids need to learn how to deal with difficulties, and too much praise can be harmful as well – but it does mean that there is a generally positive tone present in happy families.
One of the ways in which I personally apply this concept is to try to encourage intrinsic motivation in my kids. In general, whereas extrinsic motivation refers to when someone acts in order to gain some secondary benefit (e.g., rewards, because they feel that they “have” to do so, because it’s something they feel they “should” do), intrinsic motivation occurs when an individual engages in an activity for its’ own sake (e.g., for fun, because they “want” to do so, because it’s important, because they choose it). I discuss the differences between these motives with my kids and try to help them to see the benefits of a more intrinsic mindset. I encourage them to engage in activities that interest them, and I point out to them when it seems that they’re enjoying something that seems healthy and beneficial in the long run (e.g., “It seems like you’re really enjoying reading historical fiction.”). I also try to role model an intrinsic mindset (e.g., by talking about how I believe my work is important and satisfying, rather than something I ‘have to” do to make money). We allow our children to buy basically anything they want, as long as they pay for it with the money they earn from their own jobs. Finally, following Johnny Tauer’s excellent advice for sports parents, when there is an activity I wish my kids were more interested in, but they’re not, I seek to apply the ARC model of motivation (autonomy, relatedness, and competence) by giving them options, encouraging relational connectedness in the activity, and encouraging them for times when they have built their competence through hard work, effective strategy, and strong effort.
Of course, there are times in which society wisely expects children to engage in certain behaviors (e.g., learning math), and there are times when parents wisely may decide to push activities onto their children because they believe they are valuable (e.g., doing chores, learning a musical instrument). Although kids may find such activities difficult in the short-term, they often build skills that adults realize that kids would do well to develop and, in the process, also help them to develop character traits such as resilience, diligence, and grit. Parents would do well to explain why these kinds of activities are important and to intentionally role model a personal involvement and enjoyment in them, if possible. Kids also are more likely to do well in these kinds of tasks if they are given some control over when and how they are done (e.g., doing chores with or without music or before or after dinner). Finally, as William Damon noted in his book “Greater Expectations,” combining a small amount of external rewards or praise – no more than necessary, and not so much that the rewards become what children remember about the activity – often may make the difference in motivating kids to engage in these behaviors long enough to benefit in the long-term and potentially develop an intrinsic interest or appreciation for them. For instance, then, during the summer, my wife and I set goals for our kids to do summer activity books (to keep them from forgetting everything they learned in school the previous year). Once they complete X number of pages, they get a special treat. If they finish the entire book, they get to choose a special dinner location anywhere in the area.
I hope what I’ve written is helpful and not overwhelming. If you’re interested in improving your parenting at some point, it may be helpful to focus on one idea above to try. If these suggestions seem difficult to implement, it may be helpful to reflect on why. For instance, when a parent is stressed out by other concerns, it becomes more difficult to be effective. In this event, the best thing to do may be to determine how to better manage the personal stress being experienced.
At the same time, it is important, particularly in our culture, not to try to be perfect. No parent is or can be perfect. We’re all fallible, and kids will learn from how we deal with mistakes as well. In many ways, it may be essential to determine what constitutes being a “good enough parent.” Being stressed out about being an ideal parent isn’t going to help anyone.
My husband is a therapist. I think it’s harder for him to parent sometimes because he knows what can go wrong if it is done badly. I, however, work in a zoo, and the whole connection with chimps resonates with me. And our smallest totally lives up to it.