Dr. Wendy Mogul, child psychologist and author of “Blessings of a B-” thinks that it is. At her well-attended “Heard in Rye” talk to parents earlier this fall, she spoke about how good parenting requires less coddling and control, and more authentic communication and connection.
By Sara Braun, LCSW
Dr. Wendy Mogul, child psychologist and author of “Blessings of a B-” thinks that it is. At her well-attended “Heard in Rye” talk to parents earlier this fall, she spoke about how good parenting requires less coddling and control, and more authentic communication and connection. It was not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by an expert on parenting. At his September “Heard in Rye” workshop, Ron Taffel, author of “Childhood Unbound: Confident Parenting in a World of Change”, also suggested that the things our children need most — our undivided attention, a good night’s sleep, and opportunities to learn how to creatively amuse themselves — fly in the face of the ways we live our lives now.
For those of you who were not able to attend the talks (perhaps because you were home with your children on those nights), here are some of the themes about what constitutes good parenting and some of the challenges of carrying out good parenting practices today.Undivided Adult Attention
According to Ron Taffel, even five minutes a day of uninterrupted attention can create the positive feelings of attachment children desperately need to thrive. Sadly, in our increasingly stressful world of texts, e-mails, tweets, phone calls, and heaped on responsibilities, it is not hard for us to admit that undivided attention — to anything — is rare. I hear middle school kids I work with comment on this fact all the time.
Perhaps the most integral part of ‘undivided attention’ is listening. Both experts made the point that parents talk way too much. Maybe it’s because we are bombarded with sounds and messages and noise all of the time ourselves. Or maybe it’s because we are pervasively anxious about our children’s well-being and have this false sense we can fix whatever is wrong by advising them. Regardless, our culture has become one of many competing sounds and voices, and fewer thoughtful exchanges between people based on listening and genuine connection. Dr. Mogul suggests a cute way for parents to remember to listen. She calls it W.A.I.T. (Why Am I Talking?)
Studies have proven, time after time, that dinner together on a regular basis is critical to healthy child and adolescent development. There are many benefits gained by eating together (without television or video games). First, it is a chance for parents to listen to whatever it is kids have to say. It is also a rare opportunity for parents to share parts of themselves with their children. Experts suggest trying to avoid grilling kids about school or other stressful subjects. Instead, the advice is to try telling your kids something about your own day. Note: if you have adolescents, they will probably roll their eyes and moan at any parental self-disclosure. So pick and choose your stories, but tell some anyway. It is good for kids to feel connected to you and to learn about what you think and value through your stories. On a very practical level, Mr. Taffel pointed out that most kids get into trouble between the hours of 3 and 7 p.m. If dinnertime with family is regular, that automatically reduces the opportunities to get in trouble.
Sacred Family Rituals
Because our society is increasingly fractured, there are not many common events or practices that give us a sense of belonging and wholeness. Ron Taffel stressed that peers have such a large influence on our kids making rituals at home critical to anchor kids within their families. The message to kids is: there are things that really matter about being together as a family. Mr. Taffel suggested that it is not as important what the ritual is — for some it could be church, for others it could be movie-night — but that parents work to protect it and to communicate to children that this thing we do is important. Our kids come to rely on these rituals and they create an important sense of belonging.
Meaningful Discipline and Praise
Ron Taffel identified ‘enforceable’ as the most important feature of discipline. There were many laughs of recognition in the audience when he asked parents to think of some of the punishments they give out without thinking about their enforceability. For kids to learn that no means no, it is critical they get a meaningful consequence when they break rules. Dr. Mogul stresses the importance of modeling saying no —and meaning it — to teenagers, which will help them say no to peer pressure.
Praise needs to be just as authentic as discipline. Mr. Taffel talked about the damage of empty praise. He stressed the point that not everything is good or wonderful. He encouraged parents to praise kids when they actually take a risk that is difficult for them. Praise them less and mean it more.
A Good Night’s Sleep
This is perhaps the most counter-cultural of all the recommended practices. We are bombarded all day long by technology. Our children are even more so because technology appeals to their social nature. It takes vision and strong will to turn off, un-plug, and decompress in time to really let one’s body and mind relax and recharge. It is extremely difficult for kids to unwind at night, without technology and without social contact. They feel bored and under-stimulated. They need to feel this. It is critical that they have the experience of being quiet with their own thoughts — even if it is for an hour a day before bed. Mr. Taffel suggests reading to children — even to adolescents if they will allow it. Or parents can tell stories about themselves.
It is painfully clear that, as parents, we have our work cut out for us. Providing our children with what they need most often requires that we struggle against the indomitable technology and the consumer-driven, fast-paced, over-the-top indulgent culture that we exist in. The good news is that although good parenting may be counter-cultural, it is not counter-intuitive. We know what the experts and the studies tell us reflects our own common sense: the best parenting practices don’t really change with the times.
It always comes back to the basics.
The author is the Middle School Youth Advocate for the Rye Youth Council and is on the Heard In Rye Committee.