Like most every other parent in the world, I deeply love my kids, and want what is truly best for them. Much of what I want for them is psychological. For example, I hope that my kids become self-sufficient. I hope that they acquire the personal and interpersonal skills to have good emotional health and close relationships. I hope that they have an active intellectual life, filled with curiosity and wonder, and develop the cognitive skills to think critically and creatively.
Unlike most every other parent, however, I am a Professor of Psychology. I have spent approximately 20 years intensively studying what enables some kids to develop well, while many do not. I have led countless discussions about parenting, and once taught an entire parenting course. I have struggled with how to apply psychology to my own parenting.
Given all of this, what I write below is some of my personal philosophy of parenting. I realize that some of what I write may appear to be idealistic, but I have had many years to think this through and to try to figure out how to integrate insights into my life in ways that work. Furthermore, I should note that these generally are ideals. They are challenging (for me, too). In many ways, I fail to live up to these. However, they do provide me with guidelines that I strive toward.
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 20-30 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 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.
Interestingly, the famed scientist, Jane Goodall, observed many of these same relational processes in champanzees. As a result, when Goodall had a child, and even though she had more demands on her time than I can personally imagine, she made it a point to play with her child until he went to school every afternoon for several consecutive hours. She did not travel without her child for the first three years of life.
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. I try to have breakfast with my family as often as possible, and we rarely miss a dinner together. As our kids get older, we enforce limits on the number of extracurricular activities that we allow so that we can spend time together (no more than one at a time). Even if neighbor kids want to play, Friday nights are “family night.” No one else is allowed.
Parents who have a closer relationship with each other also generally are better able to help nurture their kids. They role model skills to nurture close relationships. They can help to buffer much of the stress that comes with parenting. 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.
However, there are limitations to the nuclear family. 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 many job opportunites 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. In particular, we have one small group of friends that we have committed to getting together with once per month. We intentionally have developed relationships with families that we can trade babysitting with (for free, and also which allows for my wife and I go to on dates). One of the ideas that guides us in this is to think about which peers we want to have an influence on our kids and which adults we want our kids to develop a relationship with 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.
Much of the parenting rubber hits the road when children act in ways that are inappropriate for some reason. Given what I mention above, it is vital to consider how to deal with behavior problems while maintaining, or perhaps even strengthening, the quality of relationship between the child and parents. At the very least, it is important to note that discipline is much more likely to be effective when parents have a close relationship with the child. If they don’t, discipline is much more likely to lead to resentment and more behavior problems.
According to John Gottman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, problem behavior has more to do with difficulty in dealing with emotions than it does with the behavior itself. When dealing with a difficult behavior, Gottman recommends the following:
- Be more aware of the child’s emotions than their behavior.
- Empathize, label, and validate the child’s emotions.
- Address inappropriate behavior (if relevant) and problem-solve.
For example, one time after I came home from work, my daughter, Ellie, who normally is very sweet and gentle, started throwing clothes at me from her bedroom. I asked her why, and she started yelling at me that “I hate school, Daddy!” Some parents might think to themselves that the behavior is the primary problem here, and thereby try to do something about the behavior (give the child a time out or spank them, for instance). In a moment of clarity, I thought about Gottman’s idea that problem behavior primarily reflects a problem in emotions, however. Following Gottman’s advice, I let Ellie yell for a while and, when she calmed down, reflected that she appeared very angry and concerned about going to school. This validation softened Ellie’s heart enough that eventually she told me that the real problem was that there was a boy that was picking on her at school. This helped me to understand the real source of the problem, which we then could address. We discussed what she could do about the situation, and then I told her that it wasn’t really okay for her to yell at me and throw her clothes. I asked her to apologize, which she did, and then she had to put away all her clothes, a natural consequence to her behavior. The next day, I asked her what happened with the boy, and she said he again picked on her. However, she stood her ground and said that she didn’t like his behavior and that if he continued, she would tell her teacher. He stopped and the problem was resolved.
What I like about this parenting approach is that it gets at the root cause of problem behavior and teaches kids skills to deal with life. It also connects parents and children as they come together to address problems. It also requires that children deal with the natural consequences of their actions. Although this example obviously is age-dependent (Ellie was 6 at the time this occurred), some version of emotion-coaching can be applied to parenting a child of any age. Also, of course, it doesn’t always work as neatly as the example I have shared, but the notion of emotion-coaching helps me to conceptualize what I intend to do with my kids, particularly when they are upset. It is a way to use behavior problems as a way to connect with my kids.
In general, intellectual development (in all ages) depends on exposure to enriching experiences. The famous Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, once taught that “knowledge is not given to the passive observer; rather, it is discovered and constructed by the activities of the [individual]. Thus, cognitive development depends upon activity, typically performed in relation to meaningful stimuli.
There are many kinds of enriching activities that might encourage development for children. Examples include age-appropriate toys, board games, card games, pretend play, music, language studies (sign language or a foreign language), movement, puzzles of various kinds, sports, nature, arts and crafts, interactions with different children, and reading. The reason why these activities are particularly enriching is that they require engagement.
My wife and I try to make use of this information in our family life. For example, our family plays games together virtually every day. We go to the public library every week to pick out new books to read during the coming week. We have enrolled Ellie, our eldest, in piano lessons. We encourage unstructured, creative, spontaneous play as much as possible. We also often have children from other families over to play. We prioritize some of our income every paycheck to save for travel sometime during the coming year. We also try to go to as many cultural events as possible.
Some of these suggestions may seem to require a lot of time and money, but they really don’t. Most importantly, they require an intentional commitment. For instance, because we believe these kinds of activities are important, we find very little time for passive activities such as watching television (we limit technology use to ½ hour per day). Furthermore, money isn’t really an issue for most of these activities. Typically, we find that a lot is available in the community that is free or inexpensive if we just watch for and take advantage of opportunities that are available.
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. 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 either.