The Best Parenting Tip Isn't in Most Parenting Books
There are no shortcuts to good parenting, but this simple step goes a long way.
Posted April 1, 2018
There's simply not enough time to go through the mountains of parenting books that have been written, and many of them offer contradictory advice (e.g., pick up your baby when she cries vs. don't pick up your baby when she cries). Add to these resources all of the blogs and websites that offer parenting tips (including this one) and one can see why many parents feel overwhelmed. Though I'm not sure anyone has bothered to collect data on the matter, I suspect that today's parents of young children are exposed to far more parenting educational resources than past generations, though the parenting outcomes don't seem to be any better.
As a professor and psychologist, I have the opportunity to review a lot of the parenting books that are published and observe the themes that emerge. Some offer a behaviorist approach that's driven largely by rewards and punishments, whereas others offer a nurturing approach that focuses on relating to the child's emotional world. In my experience, parents often seek out the books that align with their own philosophical orientation. After all, most of us enjoy reading that which matches our world view.
What stands out to me as a unique and powerful departure from the typical parenting books is found near the end of Kenneth Barish's Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems (Oxford University Press, 2012). Barish shares his own personal philosophy, stating that, "what matters most in our children's emotional development...is not how strict or permissive we are, but our children's inner certainty of our interest, encouragement, and support." This kind of parenting advice certainly for those who are looking for a quick fix for behavioral challenges, or for those who want to have a new kid by Friday (yes, there's a book called Have a New Kid by Friday). Rather, Barish is advocating for something that takes time to cultivate, as well as authenticity. One can't pretend to be supportive and interested, at least not in a way that will ring true with kids. One must be deeply interested and invested such that a child is certain of it.
The what is always easier than the how. In other words, it's much easier to tell parents what they should do rather than telling them how to do it. In the case of communicating interest and support, parent-child relationships are most effective when we avoid criticism, sarcasm, negativity, punitive language, and scolding. Our relationships are enriched when we allow our genuine curiosity to drive authentic questions about our children's lives and experiences, and when we acknowledge and validate their perspectives.
From my perspective, this parenting tip is hiding in plain sight, and perhaps that's why it's overlooked by so many parenting experts. Ultimately, it suggests that we treat children like people, which is to say that we honor their unique experiences, feelings, and values. We support them best when we hear them, see them and seek to understand them. Note that this approach isn't about praise, rewards, or consequences. It's all about connection.
Barish, K. (2012) Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems. New York: Oxford.