Parenting from the Heart--and the Head

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Monday, October 31, 2011

Parenting from the Heart--and the Head

I've spent the last week as the "guest expert" on a large national website for moms called "Cafe Mom." Now, I have some issues with the word "expert", since I don't actually believe there's any such thing as a "parenting expert." (I was sort of an expert on my own son when he was younger, but he would be the first to tell you that I didn't know as much as I thought I did!) Still, I've spent 20 years studying how children grow and learn, and what parents can do to nurture capable, resilient, solid young people, so I thought perhaps I could make a contribution. The process was to log in to "Ask the Expert", read the questions, and then post an answer. It turned out to be quite an experience.

In the first 24 hours of my "experthood", there were more than 50 questions posted, most of them by parents of children five and younger. And to be honest, most of those questions broke my heart. If the challenges and issues faced by these 50 moms are a representative sample of parenting in the United States today, here's what we're looking at:

* Parents appear to have little or no idea of typical development, especially in early childhood; they seem to think two-year-olds should be able to think, respond, and behave just like 32-year-olds.

* Every toddler appears to have learned that the way to get what you want is to scream, kick, bite, throw things, and generally pitch a fit, at home and in public. 

* Parents respond to the above behavior by giving in, which leads to more of the above behavior.

* The most popular parenting tools for parents of the preschool set appear to be taking everything away (including the DVD player and TV that were in the four-year-old's room--which never should have been there in the first place), giving things back in an unpredictable fashion, and then taking them away again when undesireable behavior returns; counting to three and then putting a child in "time out"; and yelling. (Yelling is big; everyone says they hate doing it but it doesn't seem to slow them down any.)

Yes, I am being a bit tongue-in-cheek here. Some of the questions dealt with difficult issues, such as domestic violence, divorce, and special needs. But the vast majority of the questions posted were almost word-for-word the same: they asked about "bad" children who just "don't listen", who are disrespectful and difficult to get along with, who are selfish and demanding. All of these parents love their children--and all of them are tearing their hair out.

I certainly had my moments as the mother of a young son, especially since mine was a whole lot smarter than I am. But eventually I discovered the many resources available to parents and I took the time to learn what I didn't know. I took a parenting class and read parenting books; eventually I began teaching parenting classes because it helped me remember what I needed to know myself. Later on, I returned to school to pursue a career in marriage and family therapy and parent coaching. It's been incredibly rewarding work, but most important, it gave me the tools and resources to deal with my own son in a more effective way than I would otherwise have had.

The good news is that Cafe Mom and all the other parenting forums are giving parents a place to go and ask these questions. Our communities have changed and many young parents don't have the support network around them that I did; the computer is their lifeline. As far as I can tell, though, many parents are trying to do their best with limited skills, or by doing more of things that don't work, like punishment, bribery, and yelling. So here are some gentle suggestions:

* Take a parenting class. Or sign up for parent coaching. Really. It doesn't mean you're a bad parent: it means you care enough about being a good parent that you're willing to look for answers. Read a lot. And then think carefully about what fits for you and your child.

* Remember that parenting is a long-term arrangement. Yes, you can "discipline" your child by taking away everything he values--but what will he be deciding, thinking, and feeling? Most parents simply react to irritating behavior by doing whatever pops into their head--and sometimes that just doesn't teach children what they really need to know for the future. Children need connection with you and they need skills. Punishment and yelling simply don't teach anything useful (except that adults think anger and loud noises work).

* Children are not miniature adults. They are different in many developmental ways; their brains simply don't process the world the way adult brains do. Educate yourself about what your two-year-old or six-year-old or 12-year-old is like, and then make thoughtful choices about parenting that work with the person your child really is. A child's developmental needs always speak with a louder "voice" than you do.

* Children need your time and attention. You may believe they should be seen and not heard, but that isn't the way it works. The stronger the bond you have with your child, the easier it will be to manage their behavior as they learn and explore their world. It takes time and patience--lots of it. 

* Make sure you're doing something to care for yourself and keep the joy in parenting. Go out with your partner; have coffee with friends. Get some exercise; get enough sleep. If you're stressed and irritable, your parenting will reflect that--and your children will feel stressed and irritable, too.

Parenting requires limitless amounts of love, but love alone is not enough. Parenting also requires thought and planning. It requires education and patience. It requires determination. And it's the most important thing you will ever do. There are a wealth of resources available out there; you can find answers and coaching right here on this website. If you're struggling, find skills and support. It may be the most worthwhile investment you can make in the future of your family.

| Posted by cheryl | Monday, October 31, 2011|


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