As a parent, it is often hard to know what to do when our kids are having a problem. And the books, opinions, lectures and advice all seem to all say something different! The good news is that when all of the details and specifics of the parenting manuals and "expert" opinions are put aside, certain general principles emerge that help us to understand which parenting strategies are likely to work best with kids. In this article, three of the most important general principles are presented and discussed.
Rule #1: It is important to praise children for the behaviors we want to see repeated.
People might be thinking--this is obvious!--of course parents would want to praise the behaviors they want to see repeated! But parents might be surprised to learn that even the most patient, calm, and engaged parents may not actually be praising their children for the behaviors they want to see repeated. While most parents quite naturally praise their children, they are often praising them for behaviors or attributes that they are not concerned about. In the meantime, they are ignoring the behaviors that they would most like to see repeated.
For example, parents may praise a child for running fast and say, "Look how fast you are!" but then fail to praise a child for sitting still. Or parents may be exceedingly complimentary of a child who learns the alphabet and say, "You are so smart!", but then neglect to praise the child for working carefully on their schoolwork. And parents, grandparents and even total strangers may remark on how cute a child is or say, "What a nice smile!". Imagine how powerful the impact would be if suddenly everyone was praising the child for being quiet in the grocery store instead of praising them for their cuteness? As you can see, this rule is exceedingly simple, and yet, it is fundamental and critically important.
Rule #1 is such a basic principle that nearly every parenting manual and expert would likely agree on it. So why don't more parents do this? Our experience is that parents today are overwhelmed by the huge amount of advice and information they receive. They are inundated with "expert" opinions. The messages and opinions about parenting come at us as on social media, they are sent home as newsletters, and they are advertised on the radio, tv and internet. We see pictures of happy children captioned with little tidbits of information that generally make us feel just terrible about ourselves as parents--like we aren't doing a very good job. But as we try to read the parenting books and apply different strategies, it is easy to get bogged down. We become overwhelmed with sticker charts, we struggle to keep consistent consequences, we wrestle with children's compliance with doing chores, and we end up barking orders at our kids and then feel guilty because everyone says that we should be giving our children choices. It is no wonder that the most basic principles often slip right by us! So ask yourself, are you praising your kids for the behaviors that you want to see repeated?
Rule #2: Parents are the most powerful behavior models for children.
Again, this seems so obvious! And it is likely that if we asked 100 experts, they'd probably all agree with this concept. Since we know that children model the behavior of their parents, we must all be stellar role models, right? Well, unfortunately, it is often just not that easy. In fact, it is often exceedingly difficult. The reasons for why it is so hard are far too numerous to list, but most parents will have some ideas about why it is hard for them. One frequent issue that derails our efforts at being role models is the conflicts that may exist between the parents. Couples who are engaged in frequent emotionally charged arguments are likely to have a difficult time with modeling good behavior for their kids. Parents in conflict might yell, name call, interrupt each other, slam doors and not listen (or even worse).
In these situations, parents may find that it is nearly impossible to get their kids to follow directions, talk quietly, disagree appropriately, or cope with frustration. As such, it may not be that the child needs treatment or even that the parents need help with parenting. It may be that the best way to help the child with their behavior is for the parents to learn how to manage their conflicts differently. Parents in conflict might consider whether couple's therapy might be an important step in improving their child's behavior. A well trained couple's therapist can help the couple to identify stressors and issues that may be preventing parents from acting as the role models they would like to be.
This is but one example of the many reasons why it might be hard for us to model appropriate behavior for our children. Parents who are reading this article might ask themselves if any of their own behaviors might be sending their kids the wrong message. While it is sometimes not easy for us to examine our own flaws and weaknesses, it is often a critical step in helping our children to behave better. So, ask yourself, are you modeling good behavior for your children? If the answer is no, or if you are concerned that your behavior might be negatively influencing your child, you may consider seeking out the help of a therapist.
Two places to locate a well trained therapist near you are listed below:
-Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies (ACBT)
-American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP)
Both of the organizations listed above offer certification programs that ensure competency in specialized clinical areas.
Rule #3: Understanding children's developmental level helps parents set their expectations appropriately.
There is a wide range of what is considered "normal" development at any given age. Parents often get frustrated with kids when they see other children of the same age behaving differently. But the truth of the matter is that, irrespective of parenting style, children are born with their own temperaments and their own unique strengths and weaknesses. The timing at which a child reaches a particular developmental milestone is frequently not within the parent's control. While there are some things that parents can do to encourage a child's development, many children will have areas of development that come at a slower pace, irrespective of parental involvement. Parents often have the mistaken belief that if their child is intelligent then he or she will reach developmental milestones more quickly. But in fact, it is not at all uncommon for extremely bright children to have areas of their development that seem immature! Helping parents to understand their child's developmental level sometimes makes all of the difference in improving the parent-child interaction.
As an example, parents are often concerned that there is something wrong with their child if their child does not stay seated and still during a performance. Parents of a squirmy and rambunctious 4-year-old may find their child nearly impossible to manage when they take the child to a play. They see other 4-year-olds sitting quietly and they become frustrated and worry that something is wrong with their child. But this sort of squirmy behavior is not at all uncommon for a 4 year old! While we as adults may be able to pay attention to what is happening on the stage, a 4-year-old is often curious and attentive to other things. They may be interested in the people around them, curious about the way the theater seat folds, excited about sitting in the dark, or thinking about the snacks that Mom has in her purse. And while the parents may feel frustrated to have to wrangle their child during the play, if they understand that the behavior is completely normal, it helps to reduce some of the angst and allows them to consider different strategies for handling the situation.
So how can parents learn what are reasonable expectations to have for children of all ages? Where can parents turn to educate themselves on their child's developmental level? Well, thankfully, most parents have access to the best resource in the world for this! Their child's pediatrician! If your child's pediatrician is board certified in pediatrics, you can be sure that you will get accurate information about what to expect from your child at any given age. So whether you are wondering if your 3 year old should know the alphabet or if you don't know if its normal that your 12 year old wants to start dating, your child's pediatrician can be a wonderful source of information. To find out if your pediatrician is board certified you can search the American Board of Pediatrics verification page (link: https://wwwww.abp.org/content/verification-certification).
Being a good parent is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. But at the end of the day, it does not have to be as complicated as many make it out to be. When we strip away all of the details, good parenting really does come down to some very basic and common sense principles. But just because the principles are simple, that does not mean that the putting them into action is simple. It is most certainly not. Being a parent is the most difficult, frustrating, demanding, heartbreaking ... but yet the most rewarding job in the world.