Parenting

Giving Kids a Heads Up, Not a Heads Down, When Parenting

How to foster determination rather than shame in children.

Posted Sep 10, 2020

“Don’t wanna know who you really are

Don’t wanna know what you want, what you’re begging for”

From “The Easy Way” by Code Orange

So, it turns out parenting isn’t that easy. I had all of these wonderful fantasies of the type of parent I would be: strict but open-minded, hard-working but available, energetic but relaxed. Now that I am a parent, those superlatives make me roll my eyes. My pretentious parenting plan proceeded to be perfectly kaput. At times I feel like I’d settle for awake and coherent.

Jimmy Fontaine, used with permission
Source: Jimmy Fontaine, used with permission

That being said, I would like to be a better parent if I could be. My children are ages 11 and 13 and I find that one of the toughest challenges in parenting is giving feedback to kids in a way that inspires rather than shames them. In theory, the goal of our feedback is to give them a “heads up.” That is, we want to alert the kids to when they may be doing something that is or could be harmful in some way. Or to teach them to do something that could be more helpful to them or those around them. But what I don’t want is something that causes a “head down,” or a shaming experience. I don’t want them to think that making mistakes is something about which they should be embarrassed or ashamed.

I have been thinking a lot more about this issue since I interviewed Reba Meyers of the band Code Orange for the Hardcore Humanism with Dr. Mike Podcast. Meyers talked about being criticized for being too intense and too angry and that she felt a great deal of pressure to succeed in a conventional context while growing up. The overall process may have intended to be “heads up,” but seemed to have landed as a “heads down” experience with Meyers. To be clear, Meyers does not implicate her parents or any particular person as the source of the feedback and pressure, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I’ve behaved with my children in some of the ways she described. And I’ve decided that I want to do better.

After much thought, I’ve put together some “heads up” parenting goals that I think would be a good start.

First and foremost, one very important thing that I feel I need to do is lead by example. I have these big notions of success. But am I living those notions? Based on what I’m hearing from Meyers, it has a lot to do with being my authentic self. Needless to say, I am a work in progress, so this should take a substantial amount of time and maintenance. Evidence shows that parental modeling behavior is very powerful, particularly for young children. And it requires no direct exchange of expectations or judgment.

Second, what emerges from the work that goes into being our authentic self is the realization that this process is not easy. That path naturally breeds empathy and understanding rather than judgment. There’s a high risk of slipping out of this mode when interacting with our children and feeling that we know best. But being empathic can be a critical factor in avoiding a “heads down” shaming experience for children – the sense that mistakes reflect their character rather than the situation. Simply put – any path that truly helps us discover and develop our authentic self has to be littered with mistakes. How can we figure anything out otherwise? We must see that path in our children, especially if we ourselves are working through a similar process.

Next, we must accept that our journey is not necessarily the best journey for our children. Taking Meyers as an example, I do not get the sense that she was surrounded by adults telling her that the definition of success was to be a “punk/metal star.” And yet here she is. This will be super-difficult for me as I like to think I know everything. But I think that in the circumstances in which I’ve tried to model rather than dictate behavior, I recognize that the key to that path is heading for a goal but realizing that there are many places it could take me. I would hopefully recognize that in our kids.

What would naturally flow from these changes is a different type of conversation with our kids. What I enjoy talking about most with adult friends and family is their hopes, their dreams and their struggles. I derive a great deal from those conversations. A “heads down” model involves a lot of micromanaging and comparing our kids’ behavior to an arbitrary standard. But what if I focused more on those same types of “hopes and dreams” conversations? Inviting them in to think about who they are and how they can achieve things rather than judging them for not doing things a certain way? Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we as parents need to manage – even micromanage  – but maybe not as much.

Finally, we can consider what has been labeled “transformational parenting.” This concept refers to the notion that parenting is a bi-directional learning experience. We are not just helping and teaching our children – rather we are learning from our children as well about how to be better parents. Meyers modeled this behavior for me in her openness to receive feedback from others. I think that type of exchange would feed my drive to be more authentic and hopefully spark that in our kids.

In a sense this is the more open-minded and authentic path, that we start with teaching and nurturing rather than embarrassing and shaming. I have no idea if I am going to be able to do all of this. But I’m definitely going to try. Because I want our kids to feel like we have a “heads up” rather than a “heads down” type of family.

Listen to Dr. Mike's conversation with Reba Meyers on the Hardcore Humanism with Dr. Mike Podcast on HardcoreHumanism.com, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app.