Reader Beware – What to Look for in a Parenting Article

Reader Beware - What to Look for in a Parenting Article

Recently I was browsing Pinterest, and I noticed a litany of “how-to” parenting articles throughout my feed. Since that day I’ve consistently observed the same pattern each time I visit the website. Article after article, I find tips about how to make our children stop doing something we don’t like or teach our children how to be or do something we do like.

Examples just from today, all of which have been re-pinned thousands of times, include:

  • “How to Teach Your Child to Have Self-Control Over Their Thoughts”
  • “How to Teach Your Child to be Humble and Kind”
  • “How to Teach Your Child Self-Control”
  • “How to Teach Your Children to Play By Themselves”
  • “Teaching Your Toddler to Count to 100: Our Top 7 Ways”
  • “How to Stop the Whining and Crying”

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with wanting to raise a child who is humble and kind. However, this pattern seems to suggest we ought to have an agenda for who our kids will be. Rather than focusing on ways to support our children in being the best version of themselves, we’re led to believe we must intentionally shape every aspect of their personalities.

It also seems to encourage parents to change things about their children which they find uncomfortable or disagreeable. To be clear, screaming and whining can be annoying. I won’t begin to argue that point. But when an article focuses on how to stop a behavior simply because we find it obnoxious, I wonder if the intent is misplaced. Are we attempting to address a behavior because it will benefit our kids or because we think it will make our lives easier? 

Some of these articles could be a recipe for failure. For example, self-control requires a certain amount of cognitive and emotional development. Teaching it before a child is capable of controlling impulses won’t be effective. Our time would be better spent acting as our child’s “upstairs brain” while their immature prefrontal cortex develops (for more on brain development, I recommend The Whole-Brain Child).

I also wonder if these “how-to’s” are always a good use of our time. What’s the purpose of teaching a toddler to count to 100? Does that guarantee he’ll be in Mensa? Is the point to give me something to brag about at playdates? Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s worth doing or that it’s the best way to spend my son’s precious childhood.

Lastly, research suggests there is great fallacy in attempting to suppress  our children’s emotions. It’s important to assist our children in developing a healthy expression of emotions, but attempting to squash them all together has negative, long-term consequences.

The following are some questions to ask yourself as you search for wisdom in parenting blogs and articles:

Who is writing this article?

There are loads of great articles written by parents for parents, and I don’t mean to diminish the beauty of parents supporting one another. However, we should also recognize that other parents are speaking from experience with what worked for their specific children. Their suggestions are not necessarily based in empirical research or years of education. You may find helpful suggestions, but be sure to remember these are not authorities on the topics of development, education, or child psychology.

Does it address development?

Expectations vary widely depending on age and stage of development. What may be appropriate for an eight-year-old won’t necessarily apply to a five-year-old. When you’re reading an article about how to teach your child something, look for information in the article about development. If the writer doesn’t address this, don’t assume it’s appropriate for your child.

Does it represent my values?

Any article which encourages the use of media to teach my young child academics is incongruent with my value of play-based learning for small children. Sometimes as parents we can feel like we are failing our children when we read how our peers are parenting. Keeping our own personal values in mind will allow us to make intentional decisions in which we can feel confident.

What’s the motivation? 

Here’s what I’ve learned in my short four years as a mother: most of parenting is dealing with my own stuff. There’s a big difference between an article which focuses on how we can support our children and one intended to stop a behavior we just don’t like. The former is child-centered, the latter is parent-centered. Rather than attempting to stop our kids from crying or “causing drama,” our time might be better spent addressing how we can manage our own reactions while asking, “is there an unmet need behind this behavior?”

We all have high hopes for our children, but it’s important to remember they are whole, complete beings separate from us. They reserve the right to become who they want to be, and facilitating their development without focusing on our own egos is admirable indeed.

If we want to raise intelligent, kind people with self-control, the best thing we can do is work on ourselves, not our kids. Allow them to learn through exploration, model kindness and self-control, and work on your own ability to remain calm and compassionate with your children. This paradigm shift can deepen your connection with your children, and it doesn’t even require flash cards.

[irp posts=”2308″ name=”7 Things You Should Never Say to the Parent of a Highly Sensitive Child (by Megan Stonelake)”]


About the Author: Megan Stonelake

Megan StonelakeMegan Stonelake is a therapist, blogger, and mama to a sweet four year old. Most recently she has written for Scary Mommy, Huffpost Blog, Sammiches & Psych Meds, and Parent.co. Her fascinations include child development, empathy, and all things parenting. Head over to her blog, Empathic Parenting, where you can sign up for her newsletter to receive tips and musings on peaceful parenting. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

2 Comments

Naima

This is a different type of a good areticle. Parents will be aware by this article. Most appreciable…..!

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Ellen L. Buikema

This is a lovely article. I completely agree. I am pleased to know that you are out there sharing some sanity. We write about similar things! I have a series that teaches empathy to children using humor.

Bravo for you.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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