When we as parents see unwanted behavior in children, one of our first unspoken reactions may be "How can I use my authority to stop this behavior?" But is the authority card always the most effective one in the parenting deck?
Following on from that question, if parents don't play that card in a given instance, does it mean they're giving up their authority in an attempt to become their child's "best friend"?
The answer to both questions, of course, is no. There are many more than two alternatives available to parents. Sometimes there's no scepter on the most powerful trump card, and "heart cards" can often be our best friend without undermining our position as parent. In fact, we can opt to use the unique bond we form with our children to help them make a number of important adjustments in attitude and behavior even when—or perhaps especially when—it's clear that the authority card isn't working.
One of the most important things for parents to keep in mind is that kids pick up the attitudes and behaviors they see in us, and not only the good ones. To a great degree, you might say, we've dealt them their hand. Have they seen us pout, or even melt down, when we don't get our way? Do we express disrespect for other people, whether in our face-to-face interactions or behind a friend’s back when we're alone with our children?
If we stop to wonder why kids pick up our attitudes so easily, we might come to the conclusion that they admire us—that they want to be like us. But whether they admire us or not, they have a deep-seated need for our love and approval. If we don't express positive messages in equal measure to the negative feedback we tend to offer with excessive generosity, that missing dimension in their lives will have a detrimental effect on their ability to function in relationships and in society.
On the other hand, a child's intense need to bond with us can actually be our parenting ace in the hole. If we remember to give them positive attention and approval when their behavior is appropriate—or, in some cases, when it has simply improved (for instance, if the behavior we're trying to change was deeply entrenched)—we can help them make swift and permanent changes even in behavior that has resisted the most consistent use of our authority card.
Unfortunately, most of us tend to ignore behavior until we see something we don't like, and of course, by then it's too late in the game to have much hope of easily changing its course.
What's a good winning strategy? Shape good behavior by identifying the positive behaviors you want to see, setting the stage for them with the right cues, and then responding quickly to reinforce positive behaviors as soon as you see them by offering the affection and approval your child craves. Appropriate punishment, used sparingly, has its place; but if punishment is your primary childrearing strategy, you're only playing with half the deck.
What if your child is an adolescent? Is it too late to change a reactive approach and begin laying the groundwork for better behavior?
If the whole family commits to making some changes, it's almost never too late. But some families have become so entrenched in negative cycles of interaction that finding the way out can be very difficult. It's rarely enough to send the "problem child" to a boot camp for an attitude adjustment. While we're all responsible for our own behavior, we are also deeply affected by others in our relationship network. People within family systems don't just act, they interact; we decide which card to play based to some degree on what others have played.
Authentic, long-term change requires that parents engage in some honest introspection, taking as keen an interest in their own behavior as they do in their teen's. Your adolescent may be playing badly, but he or she is not playing solitaire.
As a plethora of research tells us, the bond between parents and children from birth all the way through adolescence is crucial to their brain development and to the quality of their mental and physical health as they mature. Considering that our children are our legacy to the future, it's clear that this is a high-stakes game, and when we teach our children well, everyone wins. Parents, are you in? It's time to ante up.
Parenting the Challenging Child
Difficult. Headstrong. Stubborn. If any of these describe your child or teen, an innovative set of parenting ABCs can help toward solving the problem.
Parents who want to encourage good decision making in their children must also encourage one of the skill's important components: individual autonomy. But how? By pushing them to succeed in the supposed tradition of a "Tiger Mom?" By stepping back as a "Wise French Parent" might do to let their children "live their lives"? By shielding them from every possible hurt as some have characterized current American trends?
If anything, it seems the recent flurry of parenting books has clouded the question rather than clarifying it. Of course, you can't really blame the authors. To sell a book, authors have to convince publishers that they have something unique and important to offer, which means they need to stand out from the competition. They do this by emphasizing their differences—even exaggerating them if necessary. As readers identify with one author or another, friends and family can become polarized, especially if they cling to the conviction that one or another approach is the only "right" one. Views on parenting, in particular, can become very emotionally charged, which can create rifts in family relationships.
But let's consider parenting from a more fundamental perspective. Digging deeper than culture and opinion, what are the basic elements that the human brain needs to develop the capacity for autonomy and good decision making?
These capacities, say researchers, stem from secure attachment with early caregivers. Perhaps ironically, our ability to act responsibly and autonomously is rooted in the security of our relationship with someone who was attuned and responsive to our needs when we were utterly dependent.
Of course, there are genetic factors involved in our ability to develop these healthy skills. As UCLA researcher Daniel J. Siegel puts it in The Developing Mind, “Although it is important to be aware of the significant and very real contributions of genetic and constitutional factors to the outcome of development, it is equally crucial that we examine what in fact is known about how experience shapes development. Such a balanced view enables us as parents, for example, to have a sense of responsibility for the experiences we provide without the unnecessary burden of guilt generated by the belief that our actions are solely responsible for the outcome of our children’s development.”
If we're concerned enough about our success as parents to care whether we are tiger moms, French moms, American moms, or any other kind of mom (or dad, for that matter), we are likely to have cared for and responded to our children as infants. If we have slightly different parenting approaches, the common denominator would have to be that each child has the assurance of the parent's love, presence, and concern for their well-being, or these approaches wouldn't work.
This is not to say that variations in parenting approaches might not produce certain differences among our children, and we may perceive these differences as more or less preferable, depending on our culture. For instance, some cultures may encourage lesser or greater degrees of individual assertiveness or other traits. But as a baseline for mental health, we all need the ability to connect with other human beings and to form healthy relationships: a capacity that stems from secure attachment.
Even further, say researchers, there are certain core "competencies" that support lifelong psychological resilience and protect children from risky behavior. These include good decision-making skills, a positive sense of self, self-control, a moral system of belief, and outgoing concern and empathy for others (prosocial skills).
It's entirely conceivable that tiger moms, French mothers and granola moms alike want these skills for their children in abundance. Sure, it's interesting, even amusing, to ponder the cultural differences between us as we go about teaching these competencies to our children. But there are human needs that transcend culture. The need for secure attachment (which encompasses love, understanding, attunement and connection) is one of them: and it's as real as the need for food and water.
If not, what can parents do to teach their children right from wrong?
The UK's online Telegraph last week cited a new Yale study suggesting that babies as young as six months old can tell the difference between people who are likely to help them and people who are not. This prompted the author to ask, "Are babies born with morals?"
If it seems a huge leap from "babies can tell who is likely to help them" to "babies are born with morals," it's only because it is rather. One has only to take a cursory look inside oneself to understand that our standards of right and wrong when it comes to how others treat us are much more intuitive than our standards of right and wrong when it comes to our treatment of others.
Unfortunately, it doesn't appear likely that this study means we can wind up our kids and let them loose into the world without any kind of guidance, and to be fair, I don't think that's what Roger Highfield meant to imply in the least. He merely intended it to spark conversation, and I am happy to take the bait. It offers the opportunity to ask another question while we're on the subject. "What can parents do to instill a sense of right and wrong in their children?"
While child development gurus have all kinds of advice to offer on the topic, parents who try to apply it all may find themselves and their children reeling from the contradictions and overstimulation.
Two books that get to the heart of the matter in straightforward, practical terms include Michael Gurion's Nurture the Nature and Michele Borba's Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing.