Friday, March 25, 2016

Ten Tips for Power Parenting

In 20 years as a family psychologist, I noticed what usually works and what doesn't. These tips are the best I know.

 The reason they work so well is that almost any approach succeeds if it's grounded in consistent love and common sense.  Kids are hard-wired to develop, and will so if we make things safe, then get out of their way.  The vast majority of parents are alreadly more than good enough.  These hints provide ideas for moms and ads when they are distracted or troubled or want to  fine tune their approach.

        1. Stay in charge, not in control.  It can be a fine line, but the difference is big. If your focus is control of your children, you may be getting in the way of their development. To grow up, kids need to face and conquer challenge after challenge, and some of those challenges can be a little risky. If you over-control, you limit the challenges, and the children's developoment may lag. In contrast, if you are in charge, you’ll provide a structure of safety within which your children can experience failure and success on their  own terms.

           2. Parent with emotion.   Our   feelings are part of our identity.  Our kids need to see that emotions aren’t dangerous and that they can be beautiful.  Emotions do not cause and can’t excuse bad behavior.  If your own parents’ anger was associated with violence or withdrawal, you may be giving your children the message that their anger is “bad” and that a “good” kids sit inexpressively or smile sweetly, all the time. Emotions are information, and kids need to learn to express emotions  in ways that don’t scare others and don’t lead to harm.  If you let you children see you angry or sad, and allow them to see you deal with it competently, you’ll he give them a far greater gift than teaching them to hide or suppress their feelings.

 3. Consult your own parents. 
Even if your biological mom and dad aren’t available, there are plenty of willing older adults who’d be glad to give advice and support. Expand and extend your family and your kids will benefit. It can also ease your stress.  When I try to explain my work as a child custody evaluator to friends in Thailand, they invariably say “but where are the grandparents?”

            4. Be an intentional parent.  A parent is a kind of manager.  Effective managers create an environment, and then and set up systems, and make adjustments so everything works smoothly. They don’t expect perfection, but they have a plan.  Let your kids know what the plan is, and let them participate in making it.  If you just react when there are problems, you’ve created an environment of management by crisis.

             5. Pay attention.  All children lie all the time, and all children tell the truth all the time. It just depends on what you pay attention to.  If you just listen to their words, you’ll rarely get it right. If you respond only to body language, you’ll do better, but still misunderstand. Kids’ communication is a package. You need context, history, words, and the non-verbals. 

             6.  Don’t ask questions. When you ask a child a question, unless you’re teaching him or her or working together on something,  you put the child in charge. You’re saying “please give me some information I want and need.”  Your children  can give or withhold or distort information any way they like. This often leaves you frustrated and wanting more. If you have an open relationship with your children, you won’t need to ask a lot of questions. If you know your children, you’ll be aware of context, history, and body language anyway, which will usually tell you what you need to know.  Questions don’t put you in charge, and the answers, if you get them, don’t give you control. Parents who take a vacation from questions often report feeling closer to their kids.

            7.  Be a teacher of right and wrong. This seems obvious, but we often fail by teaching at the wrong level. The right level is just a little above the child’s current developmental stage.  Imagine a child teasing a cat. For a very young child you might warn “Oh, don’t tease, kitty might bite you.” An older child could be reminded “I think that’s really bothering the cat.”  A still older child could learn from a discussion of kindness to animals in general, and a teen or young adult could see the value of not causing suffering to any living thing.  The progression is from avoiding pain (for the very young child) to living by principles.  Of course, while explanations are important, you example of right moral behavior is the most important.

             8. Play for no reason.  People have paid me lots of money to sit on the floor and play with their kids.  It’s called “play therapy” and it’s not a big secret. Kids are wired to learn and to work through problems with their play. If we create an environment and get out of the kid’s way, acting more as a cheerleader and less as a guide, children will often be able to deal with something they are not equipped to discuss or hear advice about.  Schedule regular play sessions with kids and let them take the lead.  Just your presence is often enough. One boy healed a relationship with his somewhat insensitive father by having the dad simply sit with him and watch him play video games.  All Dad had to do was say “hmmm”, or “wow” from time to time. The play was regularly scheduled for 20 minutes after supper, and nothing was allowed to interfere. I’m no fan of video games, but this was a happy exception.

                                   9. If you hit your child, do it in anger. 
            Don’t ever hit your kids. It doesn’t work and it sends the wrong message. But if you do ever slip and strike your child, let it be in the heat of the moment. Later, when you apologize, you can use the moment to teach about how to manage feelings, and how to express anger with words instead of fists.  If you cause a child physical pain in a cold, calculated and deliberate way, there’s no way to create a teachable moment. Scheduled and ritualized infliction of pain on a child is never good parenting.

            10.  Remember, you are good enough. Even if you overcontrol, misread feelings, badger your children with questions, and have no time to play you're good enough. Even if you are overstressed and yell or hit at times, you're good enough. If your consistent message is love and it’s usually delivered with common sense and kindness, your children will likely grow strong and develop well.

11. Bonus tip: Co-parent with patience and deep respect. Whether are still married to your children's other parents and still madly in love, or long divorced and cordial but distant, they way to treat that other parent is your prime way to teaching your children about healthy adult relationships.

David McPhee, Ph.D.

This is an update of an article I wrote in 2012