How do you raise a happy, confident and successful person?
According to Brain Rules for Baby, a study on families who raised terrific children revealed that there were six common practices amongst these families. Here they are:
1. Authoritative Parents
If you have read enough parenting books, you probably would have come across Baumrind’s four styles of parenting. It looked at the way parents interacted with their children on two scales – how demanding/undemanding they were of their children, and how responsive/unresponsive they were with their children. The parents who raised the best children were the ones who were both demanding and responsive. These parents were labeled authoritative parents. The parents who raised the worst children were the ones who were undemanding and unresponsive. These parents were labeled neglectful. In between these two extremes were the authoritarian parents (demanding and unresponsive) and the indulgent parents (undemanding and responsive).
Authoritarian: Too hard
- Unresponsive plus demanding. Exerting power over their kids is very important to these parents, and their kids are often afraid of them. They do not try to explain their rules and do not project any warmth.
Indulgent: Too soft
- Responsive plus undemanding. These parents truly love their kids but have little ability to make and enforce rules. They subsequently avoid confrontation and seldom demand compliance with family rules. These parents are often bewildered by the task of raising kids.
Neglectful: Too aloof
- Unresponsive plus undemanding. Probably the worst of the lot. These parents care little about their children and are uninvolved in their day-to-day interactions, providing only the most basic care.
Authoritative: Just right
- Responsive plus demanding. Probably the best of the lot. These parents are demanding, but they care a great deal about their kids. They explain their rules and encourage their children to state their reactions to them. They encourage high levels of independence, yet see that children comply with family values. These parents tend to have terrific communication skills with their children.
I think we all understand the need to be responsive to our children. What is often misunderstood is how demanding we should be. In the Complete Secrets of Happy Children, Steve Biddulph highlighted the importance of setting firm boundaries for children because boundaries helped children feel secure. Conversely, parents who were permissive (indulgent parents) who were completely undemanding, did not set boundaries. Children are aware of their inability to control themselves at times and they look up to their parents to provide that control. If their parents fail to provide that control, they feel insecure.
2. Be Comfortable with Your Own Emotions
You know the saying, “Monkey see, monkey do”? We all know how well it applies when it comes to parenting. Our children are watching us all the time and they imitate whatever behaviours we express, and how we handle our emotions is one of the behaviours they will mimic. Most adults generally handle positive emotions well, like joy and happiness, but it is the negative emotions, like anger, sadness and fear that we usually struggle with. If we cannot handle our emotions, our children will not learn how to handle their emotions.
Medina provides a great example in his book:
Imagine your best friend is over for a chat, and her 4-year-old fraternal twins, Brandon and Madison, are playing in the basement. Suddenly, you’re interrupted by shouting. The twins have gotten into an argument: One wants to play “army men” with some figurines; the other wants to play house with them. “Gimme those! you hear Brandon shout, trying to corral the figurines for himself. “No fair!” shouts Madison, grabbing some from Brandon’s stash. “I want some, too!” Your friend wants you to think she has little angels, not devils, and she marches downstairs. “You brats!” she bellows. “Why can’t you play nice? Can’t you see you’re embarrassing me?” Brandon begins to cry, and Madison sulks, glaring at the floor. “I am raising a bunch of wimps”, she mutters, marching back upstairs.
I’m sure there are plenty of variations of this scenario which are familiar. We need to learn to be comfortable with our emotions, even the negative ones, and be consistent with our reactions to those emotions. I find I am usually comfortable with the negative emotions when we are in private, but a public scenario is when things get a little hairy. I’m sure my contrary behaviour is a source of confusion for the boys – something for me to work on.
3. Track Your Child’s Emotions
It is important for parents to be attentive to the emotional cues from their child and to be able to respond appropriately. Here is another example from Brain Rules for Baby:
“The infant abruptly turns away from his mother as the game reaches its peak of intensity and begins to suck on his thumb and stare into space with a dull facial expression. The mother stops playing and sits back, watching… . After a few seconds, the infant turns back to her with an inviting expression. The mother moves closer, smiles, and says in a high-pitched, exaggerated voice, “Oh, now you’re back!” He smiles in response and vocalizes. As they finish crowing together, the infant reinserts his thumb and looks away. The mother again waits … the infant turns … to her, and they greet each other with big smiles.”
In this example, the mother is attentive to her son’s emotional cues. She knows when to engage and when to withdraw in order to give her son space. It is important to provide balance and to back off when your child is feeling crowded. I’m sure we are all familiar with the stifling relationship when we feel we have had too much of a particular person and just need some time away. Likewise, children can also feel stifled if parents are overly attentive to their every gurgle, burp and cough. Stifling can lead to children who are less emotionally attached. So watch your child’s cues and respect his need for space.
4. Label Emotions
Toddlers often experience many big emotions that they don’t understand. The experience can be frightening because young children feel out of control. Being able to label the emotion (verbalising the feeling) has been shown to have a neurologically calming effect for adults and children alike. Children who learn how to label their emotions become better at self-soothing and are better able to focus on tasks and have more successful peer relationships.
5. Face Your Child’s Emotions and Do Not Judge Them
Parents of terrific children know that behaviours are choices, but emotions are not. They accept all the emotions that their children express. For them, there is no such thing as a bad emotion. They don’t discourage the expression of emotions and they don’t ignore them. What they do is teach which actions are okay and which are not.
For example, a little girl might hit her baby sister because she feels threatened. Her parents don’t try to make her brush away the feeling of being threatened as if it doesn’t exist, but they do teach her that hitting her baby sister is not the way to go. It is important to accept all emotions – even the ones we normally look upon as negative reactions. Like it or not, we feel all sorts of emotions – anger, fear, sadness – whether we think it is appropriate or not. Expecting our children not to feel those emotions is like expecting them to be a robot. What we can teach them is an appropriate way to handle that emotion. For instance, that little girl who feels threatened by her baby sister should be encouraged to talk to a parent about her feelings rather than lash out at her sister.
That said, I thought it was interesting to learn that releasing emotions to make everything better is actually a myth. For example, blowing off your top to defuse your anger doesn’t really work. It doesn’t calm you down, it just adds to your aggression. The only time when that works is if it is immediately accompanied by constructive problem solving.
This reminds me of Harvey Karp’s fast food rule – when your child is in distress, the first thing you should do is repeat what he is feeling because it tells your child you understand what he’s feeling. In other words, you are empathising with him. In Brain Rules for Baby, Medina takes a look at why empathy works. It works because:
- Emotions are contagious. Take a look at a mob scenario – a group of angry, violent protesters spread the feeling of anger and violence which is why such gatherings can rapidly get out of hand.
- Empathy is calming – biological findings show that empathy triggers the vagus nerve to calm the body.
The more empathic you are with your child, the more empathic he will learn to be.
This is a brief explanation of the six keys to raising a terrific child. I highly recommend reading Brain Rules for Baby because there is really nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth.