There are common themes that emerge as best practices to raise competent, confident children that I have found in the vast amount of reading, writing, and speaking that I have conducted as a Parent Coach. Mindfulness, active listening, empathy, boundaries with restorative justice and self-care are the hallmark qualities of flourishing families. In his new book, What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family, researcher and parenting expert Justin Coulson discusses the golden nuggets that add a rich layer of connectedness to your family system. Justin and I share the opinion that flourishing families grow from the two people who created the system in the first place: the parents. I am happy to include his guest post below and I look forward to posting my review of his book in the coming weeks.
What Does Your Child Need From You?
by Justin Coulson
Parenting can be confusing. There are so many experts telling parents so many things! And because most parents really want the very best for their children, we can be easily overwhelmed by all of the things we should or shouldn’t do to raise healthy, resilient, balanced, and happy children. In spite of all the expert ‘talk’ that surrounds parenting and the impossible number of things that we might do for our children, there are really only three things that we must do. If we can get those ‘must-do’s’ right, family life will be happier, and children will be far more likely to experience the optimal outcomes we all hope for. So what do we really need to do, more than anything, to raise flourishing families?
Be Emotionally Available
How often are you in the same physical space as your children, but your head and your heart are anywhere and everywhere else? Being emotionally available requires us to pay attention – close attention – to the emotional world of our children, and to respond compassionately. In fact, just as dollars are the currency of our economy, attention is the currency of our relationships.
My eight year old daughter drove this point home to my wife and me during a recent conversation. We were conducting a parenting performance appraisal (which you can read more about on my blog). My wife asked Ella, age 8, “Do mummy and daddy make you feel important?” She answered, “When you are busy you don't listen to me properly. Like when Dad's on the computer or you (mum) are doing a craft you're not available to me. It feels like those things are more important than me.” She added, “Even when you say you’re listening to me, you’re not, because you’re not focused on me. You keep doing what you were doing.”
Ouch. Those were her words, not mine. Our kids notice when we are not available, even when we’re ‘there’. This idea seems so simple that it might be easy to nod our heads in agreement, shrug our shoulders, and move on. But to do so may mean we miss the valuable insight that practicing emotional availability provides for our children.
See the world through your child’s eyes
When our children talk to us, or present us with challenging behavior, our natural instinct is to dive in and fix problems – or fix our children. We talk too much, and we become autobiographical. Everything we say is from our own point of view. Our natural reactions are rarely understanding – yet that is what our children need from us. If our children are experiencing emotions that are ‘inconvenient’ to us and that may be challenging, the most effective thing we can do is respond to their distress with emotional first-aid. When we enter a child’s world and empathically reflect their feelings, they regulate their emotions more quickly, they feel safer, and they also understand that what they are experiencing is normal.
Provide discipline and limits
One evening my family was enjoying dinner with friends when our friend’s 2-year-old son determined that he’d had enough chicken satay, so he picked up his fork and stabbed his four year-old brother in the face. The older boy screamed and covered his face with his hands. The younger boy smiled, feeling pleased with himself. The boys’ father leapt from his chair and raced to the boys’ side, picking up the younger of the two and taking him to his room. Moments later the father reappeared, glared at me, and demanded, “You’re the parenting expert. What am I supposed to do now?”
It is ironic that our most commonly practiced disciplinary techniques are often the most cruel. Rather than teaching our children good ways to act, we punish them, inflict pain on them, or withdraw our love and support from them at the time when they need it most. Parents who see discipline as a teaching opportunity raise children who experience much better outcomes in their own lives. They also practice better social behaviors with their peers and other adults. The most effective ways to teach our children are to ask questions, use perspective taking, and provide effective and repetitive, patient induction.
Finding happiness and meaning in parenting
My new book describes how we can be more emotionally available, practice better understanding, and be more influential in teaching our children good ways to act. These three things, done well and done consistently, are the three keys to raising healthy happy children. The other things we might do still matter, but only resting on these basics as a foundation. Parenting is not all about ‘happy moments.’ In fact, much of family life is hard work, plain and simple. To use a gold-panning analogy, there are many more banal moments sifting rocks and sediment through the pan than there are discovering gold nuggets. Yet, the rocks and sediment often have flecks of gold in them. If we patiently, carefully store those tiny flecks of gold, we will find great wealth and joy in our family life. Those flecks of gold come through the steady accumulation of experiences with our children where we choose to be emotionally available, see the world through their eyes, and guide them towards making good decisions.
Justin Coulson PhD and his wife Kylie are the parents of five children. Justin’s new book is called What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family, and is available from www.whatyourchildneedsfromyou.com. You can follow Justin on twitter @justincoulson and visit his blog at www.happyfamilies.com.au.
There’s a great review from a mummy-blogger with 7 kids here.