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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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