As both a mother and a psychologist who works mostly with children and their families, I spend a lot of time thinking about (and engaging in) parenting. Generally, the families who present to my clinic for services have young children who are having acting out difficulties. Often, these families also express that they would like help with their parenting as well. After all, parenting is no easy task. Further, each parent-child pair is different. As a result, the emphasis in parenting should be on finding a goodness of fit (a term used by psychologists and others to refer to the numerous adaptations that parents make to meet the needs of each of their children; e.g., Thomas, Chess, & Birch, 1968).
As part of this goodness of fit, parents have to find a way to meet their children where they are. Some children are quite mild-mannered, whereas others come with a more difficult temperament, one which requires greater adaptations than one might expect. Such difficult temperaments often are related to later problems for these children, particularly if goodness of fit is not achieved and positive, appropriate caregiving has not been provided (Bowlby, 1982; Van den Boom & Hoeksma, 1994). No matter what kind of children parents have, though, there are a couple of pieces of parenting information that I hope all parents gain (and that I try to keep in mind myself as I parent my own sons).
First, it is wise for parents to add predictability and routine to their children’s lives. Seminal works in understanding parent-child relationships suggest that predictability and stability in parents’ behaviors can contribute to young children’s development of secure attachment. In contrast, parents who are unpredictable in their behaviors are more likely to have young children who are attached insecurely (e.g., Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1982). And, importantly, research suggests that strong, secure attachments in early childhood are related to individuals’ later adaptive functioning as well as to the manner in which they parent their own children (e.g., Cassidy & Berlin, 1994). Predictability and routine also help older children as well. When the environment is predictable and there is a typical routine in place, children know what to expect in the usual situations that they encounter on a daily basis and what expectations that their parents have in these situations. Such predictability and consistency allow for children to achieve a level of comfort that they may not have otherwise.
Second, parents should think carefully about the kinds of messages that their discipline choices send to their children. Discipline is reactive in many cases, as most parents do not resort to discipline until their children have done something inappropriate. Nonetheless, it often pays for parents to be proactive and to make some decisions about what form(s) of discipline that they will use and for which offenses. Certainly, spanking has received some of the most controversial commentary when it comes to messages sent to children. Most parents use spanking. For example, Straus and Paschall (2009) indicate that 93 percent of 2- to 4-year olds are hit at least once in a two-week period. However, studies also suggest that children can experience negative outcomes from spanking, such as exhibiting an increase in aggressive behavior (Taylor, Manganello, Lee, & Rice, 2010). Other alternate forms of discipline are also available and may more readily teach children important lessons. For example, time out is a technique that is often taught to parents as part of different parenting programs that are available currently (e.g., Barkley, 1997). Time out also may offer some sound lessons to children, such as teaching them to remove themselves from difficult situations so that they may calm down and then return to make the situation right. Other discipline programs even go a step further and include an emotional intelligence and problem solving approach to foster children’s development in different way (e.g., Conscious Discipline; Bailey, 2001). Thus, parents have many discipline options available to them and should select the forms of discipline that match their chosen parenting philosophy most closely.
Third, parents need to be able to forgive themselves when they feel that they have made poor parenting choices during the course of difficult situations. After all, no parent is perfect. And, every parent has those moments where their own life stress gets the best of them and they do not parent as effectively as possible. Parents need to keep in mind, though, that, as parenting stress increases, children’s behavior problems increase as well (e.g., Puff & Renk, In preparation). Given such findings, parents need to emphasize the building of a positive relationship over time, as positive interactions over time is what builds a strong, secure attachment between parents and their children (Bowlby, 1982). If such a relationship is already in place, then those difficult times will not have such an impairing effect on either parents or their children. Parents will have a chance to try again and make things right.
Fourth, parents need to be able to apologize to their children when they were wrong. Apologizing is actually a really difficult thing for some parents to do, as they feel really vulnerable when they are in this position. But, parents can use such difficult times as teachable moments for their children. Not every decision will be the best one every time, and children should be able to learn how to handle their own mistakes in an environment that offers strong role models and a caring environment. Who better to provide such a role model than mothers and fathers themselves.
Finally, and most importantly, parents need to enjoy the small, positive moments that they experience both when they are alone and when they are with their children. Parents need time to rejuvenate and develop interests of their own. These breaks in the parenting action actually foster better parenting when mothers and fathers do spend time with their children. And, of course, there is nothing like those priceless moments that parents have with their children as they grow and develop. Although parenting is the toughest job around, children grow up entirely too quickly. Parents should enjoy their children while they can!
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S., (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Bailey, B. (2001). Conscious discipline: 7 basic skills for brain smart classroom management. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance, Inc.
Barkley, R. A. (1997). Defiant children: A clinician’s manual for assessment and parent training: Second edition. New York: The Guilford Press.
Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (Second edition). New York: Basic Books.
Cassidy, J., & Berlin, L. (1994). The insecure/ambivalent pattern of attachment: Theory and research. Child Development, 65, 971-991.
Puff & Renk (In preparation). Relationships among parents’ economic and parenting stress, parenting behaviors, and ratings of young children’s emotional and behavioral functioning. Manuscript in preparation.
Straus, M. A., & Paschall, M. J. (2009). Corporal punishment by mothers and development of children’s cognitive ability: A longitudinal study of two nationally representative age cohorts. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, & Trauma, 18, 1-25.
Taylor, C. A., Manganello, J. A., Lee, S. J., & Rice, J. C. (2010). Mothers’ spanking of 3-year-old children and subsequent risk of children’s aggressive behavior. Pediatrics, 125, 1057-1065.
Thomas, A., Chess, S., & Birch, H. G. (1968). Temperament and behavior disorders in children. New York: New York University Press.
Van den Boom, D. C., & Hoeksma, J. B. (1994). The effect of infant irritability on mother-infant interaction: A growth-curve analysis. Developmental Psychology, 30, 581-590.