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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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