The vaccination/anti-vaccination debate highlights the challenge parents today face in determining what is best for their children. Parents on both sides of the vaccination debate hold strong feelings because they are trying their best to provide a good life for their children. Through history, every generation has faced a parenting challenge whether it was providing food for the table, immigrating to a new country, or finding a way to pay for college.
Parents today are blessed, and cursed, with the wealth of information available on the Internet and everyone’s opinion (including ours) about how to best parent. Young parents I know struggle with guilt feelings about food (non-GMO, sugar, organic) and many other issues that I had no idea about as a young parent. The public nature of parenting and the social media exposure places these young parents on display and they experience considerable peer pressure to conform to an increasing number of dictums of “good parenting.” My own daughters, now ages 20 and 25, seem to have survived my parenting, despite their fair share of mac-and-cheese in a box and chicken nuggets. In my work as a psychologist, I have come to some principles of parenting that I have tried to apply in my own family.
Teamwork Among the Adults in a Child’s Life
Families today are often complex; many children have step parents and other adults living in the home who participate in child rearing. When children are viewed as disruptive or noncompliant, we often find that there is a hidden conflict among the adults in the home. One parent may be dominant and attempting to dictate parenting rules while other adults agree to the rules on paper but then proceed to covertly follow their own ideas. Some parents typically find themselves in the role of “bad cop” as they attempt to establish routines, only to have their partners or spouses make exceptions when they are out of sight.
Children pick up on the inconsistency and will play it to their advantage. But children also crave security and it makes kids anxious and insecure when they also detect a hidden conflict among family members. Some children feel the need to constantly test limits to get a firm grounding, however negative or unpleasant.
It is important to come to a shared agenda among the adults in the home—rules and standards that everyone can get behind. Developing a shared agenda is not one parent’s view triumphing over another’s, however. A successful parenting plan requires that all adults in the home be given respect for their points of view and that the shared understanding is something that all value and are willing to put their best effort behind. Compromise is necessary for a successful adult team.
Set Your Family Priorities
I often read parenting advice from psychologists and I confess that my family did not follow many of the accepted prescriptions. We did not “teach our children to sleep through the night” but lay down with them if they woke in the night or wanted us by them as they fell asleep. We did not require chores and let our daughters watch movies as much as they wanted (no TV). We valued creativity and they could make a mess with their projects and we usually cleaned up after them. We chose to accommodate to their wishes on things that seemed to smooth the course of family life.
We did, however, have a set of firm expectations for our daughters based on what we value and believe would chart the best course for their lives. They were expected to speak in a respectful manner no matter how angry they were. They had to finish what they started. We encouraged them to try hard things and if something failed, they had to come up with something else to try. For example, we were understanding if they failed a test, but we expected a detailed plan for improved performance next time. Family goals may differ from mine but having clear priorities can help parents sort out what parenting choices to make.
Put What You Know About Your Child First
One of the things I enjoy about being a child psychologist is the incredible diversity in kids. When you get below the surface, each child is a combination of typicality and quirkiness. Successful parents are good observers of their children and base decisions on how their child responds, rather than what others tell them they should be doing as parents. If your child is calm, happy and pursuing interests with enthusiasm, you are probably doing the right things, so trust your own judgment. For parents with children with learning challenges and special needs, this task can be particularly challenging when the quirkiness makes the child stand out from the crowd. It can be helpful to remember that some quirks have a positive side that can sometimes lead your child to be an innovator in later life.
Remember to Have Fun
Now that my children are young adults, I realize the brevity of childhood. What seemed like an endless parade of homework, last-minute trips to buy poster board, and staying up to bake cupcakes “needed tomorrow but I forgot” actually passed quickly. What we all remember best were the fun times we shared, whether it was a silly family joke or a family trip. Fun with your children can happen on any day if you are looking for it.
Image Credit: Stephan Hochhaus