Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Parenting Practices that Influence Brain Development – For Better or Worse

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The Parenting Practices that Influence Brain Development - For Better or Worse

Most parents have the best of intentions, but it can be difficult to know which way to step when it comes to doing the very best we can for our children. Science is making it a little easier, with technology making it easier to study the developing brain. 

Parenting, like all things, has gone through its phases, but modern beliefs and practices might be hindering healthy brain and emotional development in children. 

One modern parenting practice that has attracted a rethink by experts is that of time-out, the practice of isolating children in a room or a secluded area when they misbehave. Another is the belief that leaving babies to cry for periods of time is good for them. Intuitively, these practices might have made sense to many but science has now found that they might not be as helpful to a young child as initially thought.

‘ …Responsiveness to crying, almost constant touch and having multiple adult caregivers are some of the nurturing ancestral parenting practices that are shown to positively impact the developing brain, which not only shapes personality, but also helps physical health and moral development,’ explains Notre Dame professor of psychology, Darcia Narvaez.

Research from the University of Notre Dame suggests that there are a number of parenting practices that will nurture social development and brain development in children:

  • responding to a crying baby influences the development of conscience; 
  • touching a baby in a positive, nurturing way – cuddling, holding, carrying (and definitely no spanking) affects the reactivity to stress, impulse control and empathy;
  • playing freely outdoors with other children improves social-emotional intelligence;
  • having a group of supportive caregivers (beyond the mother) influences IQ, resilience and empathy.

‘The right brain, which governs much of our self-regulation, creativity and empathy, can grow throughout life. The right brain grows though full-body experience like rough-and-tumble play, dancing or freelance artistic creation. So at any point, a parent can take up a creative activity with a child and they can grow together,’ says Narvaez.

Recently, research from NYU Langone Medical Centre found that a mother’s presence has a wonderful effect on a crying baby. Not only can it help to soothe pain, but early evidence suggests that it might also positively influence brain development by altering gene activity in the part of the brain involved in emotions’.

‘Our study shows that a mother comforting her infant in pain does not just elicit a behavioral response, but also the comforting itself modifies — for better or worse — critical neural circuitry during early brain development,’ explained senior study investigator and neurobiologist Regina Sullivan, PhD.

Science is always evolving, and as it does, so too do our ideas on parenting. It can be easy to fall into the parent-guilt pit and question what  we’re doing as parents or what we’ve done, but let’s not – it’s crowded down there and difficult to breathe. We’re building humans – great ones – and that’s not easy. There’s plenty of advice, and the research is important to open our minds to the influence we’re having on the wild tiny people in our care, but no research is infallible or 100% certain.

Amidst the noise of what we should and shouldn’t do, remember that children will rarely be broken by parents or carers who love and respect them (and let them know), hold them when they want to be held, engage with them and respond to them with warmth, curiosity and boundaries that are thoughtfully placed and enforced. 

 

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36 Comments

Susan crawford

Was curiously drawn to the brain development article: I am the mother of a young man with autism and deep in my self conscious I order was there anything else I could have done when he was an infant to have stopped this condition emerge?!

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Hey Sigmund

Absolutely not – there is nothing else you could have done. There’s still no definitive explanation for what causes autism and there are a few theories that are being explored. What we do know is that autism has nothing at all to do with what the parents do or did. It’s possibly a combination of things, or perhaps an interaction, but there is nothing at all that you could have done to stop your son’s autism. I understand why you might wonder though – it’s a very ‘mother’ (or father) thing to do to wonder if you could have done something differently as a parent, but I assure you, there really isn’t.

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Jo

Reading articles such as this reinforces my beliefs about no smacking, no time out or naughty corner and no bribing. Parents expect so much from young children who are still learning to regulate their emotions. I am not perfect but help my child identify with their emotions instead of shutting them down or isolating them for expressing a need. Thank you

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. I’m pleased the article was able to reinforce the great things you are already doing in relation to your children and their emotions.

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Elizabeth Butler

I agree that some parents expect an awful lot from very young children. Many adults have difficulty remaining in control of emotions such as anger, fear or sadness.

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Claire

Eventually, back to common sense. The most useful thing I learnt to do as a mother who had no experience of looking after children previously is to ignore unsolicited advice from professionals and accomplished mothers . Lacking experience with my first baby who cried when not held, I was frightened by comments from so-called professionals who hit me (figure of speech) with statistics to convince me my baby would have development difficulties if I didn’t manage to make her sleep (since when can one “make ” a child sleep anyway…?) I resorted to attending a sleep clinic with my baby, where for nearly $1000 I spent the day watching my baby cry hour after hour in a cot, and I was not to touch her or pick her up except at feeding times. I was then sent home to continue this until she learned to self-soothe. For 3 days and nights she screamed and screamed, falling asleep from exhaustion for 20-40 minutes at a time. By the 3rd day she was still not sleeping and was a changed baby. The sparkling expression in her eyes had gone, and she didn’t interact with me any more even at feeding times. I stopped this stupid nonsense. She took some days to become herself again.
From then on I decided that my gut feelings were better than any professional ‘s advice. This served me when I was trying a crack down on my second child ‘s toddler behaviour by systematically enforcing the 123 magic time-out policy. He became not only a very angry child, but lost his cheeky adorable way of being. Where he had previously been cheeky but sweet with an incredibly positive sense of himself, the sparkle in his eyes was gone and his self esteem plummeted. Again I stopped with the supposedly best method in theory. What DID work wonders was the “Time-In” advised by a psych: instead of sending the child on time out, the adult stays with the child and with gentle touch (back rubbing for us) helps the child bring their emotions back down to a level where they can regain control. Then talk about those “big emotions “, name them and talk about what helps bring them down (big slow breaths, cuddle with someone loved…). This method enabled to rebuild a strong relationship so that when there are issues I am sufficiently tuned in to my child to be able to figure out what he needs to regain control over himself.
Thank you for bringing common sense back home!
Claire

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Hey Sigmund

Yes! Thank you for sharing this. Most people would know exactly the right thing to do if they were given the opportunity to connect to their own inner wisdom and hush the outside noise that comes from well-meaning advice. I’m so pleased you were able to do this.

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Noosh

I loved reading both the article and your comment and learning from it!

I am a mom of a 17 month old, and most of the time I still don’t know how to handle situations when she gets angry.

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Elizabeth Butler

Claire, thank you so much for that second part you did with your second child to stay with them and positively assist them with their emotions. Firstly by giving gentle physical comfort them naming and giving techniques for regaining control. As an adult I have found that really helpful. As a child I somehow got the idea I wasn’t supposed to have emotions, that they were somehow, ‘bd’ or ‘wrong’. Many thanks.

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Viera Stark

I am pleased to read that there is a rethink on time-out as punishment. I think it has a place for older children who benefit from being removed from situations that trigger strong emotions such as a competing sibling or not getting what they want. Time out allows them to calm down or think about what they have done.
Preschoolers do not have the cognitive awareness or emotional regulation to repair or learn from their behaviour without the help of a supportive adult.

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Jennifer

Extremely validating article! I often find myself, a single mother of a very strong willed 4 year old, being criticized for “babying her” or being too “soft” with her. As a mental health therapist myself, it’s comforting and validating to know I’m not “spoiling” her with cuddles and compromising. Hooray!

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Laura

I understand what this article is saying, but I find it, and some of the comments frustrating. My daughter is 10 and has had prolonged (sometimes hours) and often violent tantrums since the age of 2. She is having some professional help with these issues. I always comforted her when she cried as a baby (she was actually a very easy baby), and never left her to cry.
For my husband and I ‘time out’ has always been invaluable, at the point where we are no longer getting anywhere ‘talking about her emotions’, and we all just need time to cool down. It often really helps. Also, I can’t ‘sit and rub the back’ of a child that is trying to hit and bite me, neither do I want to. If anyone would like to come and help my daughter ‘identify with her emotions’ when she’s in the middle of a massive, uncontrollable tantrum – be my guest.
As another commentator said, I have learnt to trust my instincts. Every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another – you can’t generalise.
Don’t think that I’m some sort of old fashioned unsympathetic uncaring parent who doesn’t care about the cause of my daughter’s tantrums, and just wants to shut down her emotions – nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that sometimes ‘time out’ has been a godsend for our family, and sweeping criticism of the technique annoys the hell out of me (can you tell;-) ). I can only assume that those who find it useless have not had to deal with a 90 minute tantrum, during which a door is ripped off it’s hinges.

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Hey Sigmund

It sounds as though you’re feeling judged, and this wasn’t the intention of the article, nor the comments. You sound like a sympathetic and loving mother. It also sounds as though you are dealing with a difficult set of circumstances. You’re doing the right thing in getting some professional help and making sure there are no underlying issues.

Babies don’t come with a guidebook, and it doesn’t get easier as they get older. The research is there to guide behaviour, not to prescribe it. Knowledge is powerful, and the more information that’s available, the greater the opportunity to make informed, empowered decisions that work – one way or another, whether in line with the research or not. In the end, you have to take the knowledge and combine it with your own experience of your child and your own circumstances and nobody, including in the comments, is suggesting otherwise.

The caution against time out isn’t because it’s considered useless, but because from what we’ve learnt about the developing brain, the isolation of time-out causes a critical need for connection to go unmet. There has been decades of work done around attachment and from that, it seems that when kids are in distress, their main need at that time is to feel close and connected to someone they love and care about – even though they don’t go about showing it very well. When they are isolated, the need goes unmet and from brain scans, it looks as though it’s experienced as rejection and activates the same part of the brain that is activated during physical pain. It’s probably the same as with adults when we’re fighting with someone we love (often to get them to notice or hear something) and they turn their back and walk away. It might calm things down, because there’s nobody there to fight with, but it feels awful.

Now, having said this, I really want to point out that this is in average circumstances, and it sounds as though what you’re dealing with isn’t an average set of circumstances, which I expect is one of the reasons why, to your enormous credit, you’ve sought professional help. The tantrums you’re describing sound incredibly distressing for all of you and I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to – or be physically able to – sit with a 10 year old child who is trying to hit and bite you. When your daughter was little though, you did exactly what the research suggests is the best thing to do – when she was distressed you comforted her, attended to her, noticed her – you gave her what she needed and you built that strong attachment.

Now that she’s older, the tantrums are uncontrollable and cool down time is the only thing that helps – I hear that. It sounds as though your options in that space are very limited, particularly if the tantrums are violent and you have done really well to find what works for your family. There are other issues you’re dealing with that make time-out a better option for you. I completely understand that. As well as this, you’ve sought professional help which is really important. You’re doing everything you can and I hope you feel supported and validated in that. Being a parent is tough enough without feeling judged and undermined when you find something that works.

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Jo

Hi Laura, I’m sorry if my comment offended as it wasn’t intended to. My child is 4 and I don’t use time out, if her behaviour is frustrating me at 10 I will do whatever I believe is the best for her at that point in time.
Recently I overheard a mother saying she put her 1 year old in time out for melting down when she wanted the clothes pegs that were being used to hang clothes out, this is one situation where I think helping the 1 year old identify with their emotions would be pertinent.
I’m sure you’re a loving parent who is doing the best that they can for your family 🙂

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Jenny

I find people criticise you for not being seen to discipline your child if you don’t spank or do time out etc. And on top of that argue what a disservice you are doing your child. I would love to read more about the research done in this area. Do you have any particular good references? Thank you!

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CindyGL

wondering about how children respond to high turnover rate of daycare givers. Many places have this problem of caregivers coming for a while then leaving .What about multiple nannies leaving every 6 or so months. Grandparents, family and close friends stick around the longest of course.

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Hey Sigmund

According to the research, the ideal thing for infants is to have one primary caregiver for the first six months of their lives. Of course everyone in their lives who loves and cares for them is important, but the more constant the caregiving is and the more that caregiving can come primarily from one person who is there most of the time, the more secure the attachment. It’s mainly that first six months that seems crucial.

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Average Man

Personally I find parenting advice very false first question. Advice changes every month according to which person or university has done the most recent study. Do you have kids to give such advice? I doubt that many of the researchers do.

I have two young children and personally find time-outs to be very useful and effective. They allow the child to truly understand when they have done something unacceptable having had previous warning. They change habit quickly and teach the child respect and discipline.

A big problem we face today is that we have a young generation that frankly have no respect because more and more parents are unwilling to teach any sort or respect or discipline for elders. Articles like this do not help.

They way I was brought up by my parents has not apparently influenced my life in terrible ways and as such I chose to bring my children up in a similar way

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Hey Sigmund

One of the reasons the advice has changed is because our knowledge of the brain has changed. Brain imaging technology has allowed us to see how certain structures and functioning of the brain are influenced by certain behaviours, such as the exclusion that comes with time-out.

In response to your question about whether or not I have children, yes – I have two, 17 and 13, and two step children, 24 and 22. I haven’t used time-out, nor have have I smacked. This is what has felt right for me and it seems to have worked for my children – they are respectful and kind and understand the difference between right and wrong. That doesn’t mean they always get it right – they don’t, neither do I. I certainly don’t judge the way other parents choose to raise their children (provided, of course, the decisions are made with the child’s best interests at heart).

Aside from what the research is telling us about the effect of certain strategies on children, there are some other things that I think are worth considering.

It’s through the mistakes kids make when they are younger that we have the opportunity to teach them the values we want them to have and to talk to them about a better way to do things. It happens through dialogue and modelling. Time out might modify behaviour, but it won’t necessarily teach them the values that drive good behaviour, or the reasons their decisions weren’t good ones.

It’s important that as kids grow older, particularly during adolescence, they feel safe enough to come to us as parents for guidance or to talk things through when they’ve made a decision that hasn’t worked out so well. They’re going to make mistakes – sometimes they’ll be big ones – but they need our wisdom and insight to understand a better way to do things, and that will only come if they feel as though they can come to us even when they’ve done something wrong, and trust that we won’t come down too hard if they’ve made a mistake.

Kids and teens don’t deliberately do the wrong thing. They make stupid decisions sometimes, and they’ll do the wrong thing, but even when they’re misbehaving, it’s because of poor judgement, a lack of information or because they want us to know something – their behaviour is a form of communication (e.g. that their stressed, tired, scared, anxious, insecure). I’m not sure that time-out responds effectively to any of these. Children will learn respect and the right way to behave by the way we as parents treat them, listen to them, engage with them and by watching the way we treat other people. Discipline isn’t just about modifying behaviour in the short term, but about teaching and empowering them to make the right choices when they are older, particularly in adolescence which is when they’ll find themselves in risky situations and having to make decisions that have significant consequences. The risk with things like time out and other forms of punitive discipline is that it’s teaching them to avoid obvious consequences, but the consequences of what they do won’t always be obvious. That’s when they’ll need to draw on their values to guide their behaviour – respect, tolerance, honesty. Having children behave in a certain way to avoid a consequence is different to having them behave in a certain way because of the inherent values they’ve taken on by talking to you, and by watching you, and the way you relate to the world, them, and the people around them.

I agree with you that there are many children and young adults who behave disrespectfully, though that is not something that is confined to the younger generation – there are plenty of rude, disrespectful, toxic adults. I believe strongly that the problems you have identified with the younger generations arise because of a lack of connection with parents or other important adults in their lives. I’ve seen a statistic recently that 25% of UK 16-25 year olds say they didn’t have anyone to talk to about their problems while they were growing up. That’s the heart of the problem, I believe, not the lack of punitive discipline.

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Kim

I agree with you, average man. I am a preschool teacher; the lack of respect and the feeling of entitlement from preschool age children is far worse than ever. I attribute this to 2 things: parents want to be their child’s friend (lack of discipline, fear of ‘being judged’, parents reading the ‘parenting article of the day’ on huffington post, or whatever, and going by that); parents over-compensate because of being gone (a lot of 2 parent household incomes, nannys providing inconsistent expectations, etc.). It is a huge cultural problem. Obviously, commen sense should come in to play. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious to too many. Time out is fine, in my opinion… IF it works for your child. Spanking is fine, in my opinion (gasp!)… IF it works for your child. If there is consistency and communication among family members, compassion, respect and overall LOVE, whatever you decide for your child, for your family, IS RIGHT.

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Hey Sigmund

Spanking cultivates fear, not respect, though they can look the same. Physical force will generally make anyone stop what they’re doing (even adults), but it does nothing to engender respect or to teach social skills, the right way to behave, how to deal with conflict, the danger of physical violence, or how to manage relationships and communicate effectively. It does absolutely nothing to help children to internalise the values that will support them in maintaining healthy relationships and a healthy, effective way of responding to the world and the people in it.

Recent research has found that even when parents who spank are otherwise warm and loving, anxiety and aggression remain in the children. The idea that spanking will be okay when it’s done in a warm, loving environment is misinformed. In fact, sometimes the warmth of a parent who smacks can make the anxiety worse. Researchers aren’t sure why, but suspect it may be because it’s too unnerving for a child to be hit and treated warmly in the same environment. The messages are confusing, as they would be for anyone. The more the spanking, the more the anxiety and aggression.

Spanking has been outlawed in 43 countries, and with very good reason – the research against spanking is abundant. Spanking has been found to increase aggressive behaviour in children, slow development of cognitive abilities and reduce grey matter in parts of the brain including those related to addiction, depression, self-control, and the ability to predict and judge the behaviour of others (key to emotional intelligence). There is no reliable evidence to support any positive effect of spanking over any other form of behaviour modification.

In adults, hitting is seen as assault and this is how it’s treated, as it should be. Yet hitting those who are smaller, weaker and more vulnerable is dismissed by many in the name of discipline. Spanking isn’t discipline. The idea of discipline is to teach and the only lessons that are taught by spanking are dangerous ones, including the tolerance of physical violence (as a perpetrator or a victim), and that physical violence is an acceptable way to respond to, change or control someone.

Respect comes from modelling, dialogue and connection, never from spanking. Children are still learning respect – none of us were born knowing everything and nobody has it all figured out. At pre-school children are still learning that their ideas, wants and needs might be different to those of others. They can seem ‘entitled’ (your word) but as the adults in their lives it’s up to us to teach them and flourish their understanding not spank them into conformity. Hitting them shuts down the capacity to educate and inform them – even when it’s ‘done with love’.

We know how important emotional intelligence is to future success, and the only way to build this is through modelling and dialogue. For children to learn, they need the space to be curious, to make mistakes and to experiment, without fear. There are so many reasons children might misbehave, but it’s never because they intentionally want to upset us. When they have an adult who responds to their mistakes or their misbehaviour by modelling respect, restraint, and more effective choices, as well as providing them with an explanation of the consequences of their misbehaviour and a better way to behave, that child will learn something and will have something to add to their behavioural choices next time. That doesn’t mean they’ll learn it straight away – we’re building people, and that takes time. I also acknowledge that this isn’t easy and no parent will get it right every time. However, when an adult consistently responds to misbehaviour with physical force, the modelling and messages have dangerous implications, as the research has clearly demonstrated.

We can’t reasonably expect small children to have it all figured out. Nor can we expect older children and adolescents to have it figured out if nobody has taught them. I would have no respect for anybody who hit me – in fact, I would feel disconnected, angry and confused, particularly when they hurt me and defended it in the name of love. Any explanation or information that came after the hit would be distorted through confusion, disconnection and hurt. Why do we expect it to be any different for children? We have a lot of power in our hands, and it needs to be used wisely. You can knock the spirit out of a child, but you can’t knock it back in.

Most parents who spank their children will have the very best intentions for their children and love their children as much as any other parent, but the research against spanking is prolific. There would be many who might argue that they were spanked and are fine, or that their children are spanked and are fine, but it’s likely that this is despite spanking, not because of it. When spanking has always been there, it’s impossible to know what somebody would be like without it.

The intention of this article is to inform, not to judge or criticise. People will always do the best with the information that’s available to them, and a lot of this information and research is relatively new, or not yet a part of the shared bank of common knowledge. It’s understandable that many of us parent the way we were parented, because that’s what we know. Hopefully, by sharing the research and by keeping the conversation going – which is something we are all doing and I’m grateful for your voice in that – we can bravely look at the way things have been done and move forward with more effective and nurturing ways to support the children in our care in becoming the adults we know they are capable of being.

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Caroline Weidler

As an early childhood professional, I totally agree with the validity of this article and the scientific research that backs it up. However, as a public school teacher it is very difficult to instill an atmosphere that is able to cater to children’s individual needs when emotional issues need to be addressed. Many teachers are not trained in helping children learn to regulate emotions – rather academic needs overarch everything else, and so “time outs” are the simple solution. Large class sizes are also part of the reason for this! I believe this needs to be an ongoing discussion among early childhood educators and clinicians. Children who learn to self-soothe and regulate and understand their emotions will become more successful, competent, and empathetic adults.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes, I completely understand how difficult this is for teachers, and how it’s not always possible in a big class to look after the individual needs of each child. Teachers generally have the very best intentions and the greatest concern for the children in their care and they do an amazing job. As you say though, there is a limit to what can be done when resources have to be stretched between so many children. Thank you for your insight, and yes, it’s definitely a discussion that we need to keep having, particularly given the importance of emotional intelligence on the capacity for children to be successful, healthy adults.

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Lora T.

Thank you for this article. Very reaffirming to hear that comforting our infants was the right course of action. I have in-laws that support “crying it out” but I learned early on in the parenting journey that a woman has these amazing instincts for a reason! Ugh…the dreaded time-out….they just don’t work for us. When my feisty 3 year old is on the brink of a meltdown I sometimes let him know we’re gonna take a little break. And we work on “Take 5” breathing (together). While the effectiveness of these techniques varies from day to day, hour to hour, mood to mood. I’m a big believer in having MANY tools in the mama tool box!

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Hey Sigmund

Yes – definitely many tools is the way to go! Your ‘Take 5’ technique is a great idea. Breathing triggers the relaxation response, which reverses the surge of fight or flight neurochemicals. You’re giving your little person a wonderful strategy that he can use to self-soothe right through to adulthood. Different things will work on different days and that’s completely normal, so don’t be disheartened if something that worked yesterday doesn’t work today. Most likely it will work again next time, or the time after that. They know how to keep us on our toes don’t they!

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Joanna

I and my husband grew up in households where we were spanked and yelled at and I instinctively did Not want to repeat that with our 3yr old son. He is an cheeky adventuress and independant lil person with such an adorable sweet and chatty personality, we have not really experienced any ‘terrible 2 or 3s’ I do believe because weve allowed him to express his emotions and always comfort n hug things out. We do receive some judgement from older family members or friends that think he should be spanked or reprimanded whenever hes abit cheeky… its difficult coz judgment does make u question urself esp as first time parents ..but I do luv it when I come across these articles and research and it just gives me confidence in my intuition and I luv learning new and effective ways of quality parenting. Its so so important that our kids do have that strong bond with us now and esp later on in their adolescence when life can be real scarey n lonely and we are much more susceptible to peer pressure and external influences. I want my kids to come to me to talk about everything and anything. Thank u for your article and all the sharing comments 🙂 at

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Hey Sigmund

It’s so much more difficult to go against what you have been raised to believe is ‘normal’ but you’re doing this intuitively and you’re spot on. You can knock the spirit out of a child but you can’t knock it back in. Once it’s gone it’s gone. Keep doing what you’re doing to preserve his adventurous spirit, his curiosity and his energy. What you are doing now is setting the foundation for a close, solid, trusting relationship with him he is a teen, which is vital. You and your husband are giving your little man something wonderful!

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