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Practice Parenting: How to Intentionally Raise Good People

Every day, we have the opportunity to evoke change in ourselves and our kids.

Key points

  • Intentionality is a parent's first step in teaching moral behavior, conflict resolution skills, empathy, and creativity.
  • Though popular opinion holds that our creativity, empathy, and self-control levels are fixed, neuroscience tells us they are not.
  • Neuroplasticity means that neuronal pathways get stronger every time they are used, whether the action is initiated by you or your child.

When my goddaughter Olivia was born, she was extremely colicky. She cried for hours at a time, often in the middle of the night, had a hard time feeding, and was in a constant state of agitation.

Her mother and father spent many hours trying to comfort her as their four-year-old, Cameron, began acting out. The parents were sleep-deprived, stressed, and just plain wrung-out. Even so, they continued to look for ways to soothe Olivia. They held her close, rubbed her little back, and kept her in bed with them. Lucky for Olivia, her parents had the wherewithal to push on without snapping or throwing in the towel. And lucky for Cameron that they were understanding and patient.

Olivia and Cameron are now kind, well-adjusted teenagers. But imagine what they would be like if their parents responded differently. What if they ignored Olivia’s cries and were too rattled to comfort her? What if they yelled at Cameron and punished him for acting out? Likely, a much different outcome. We all know that how we behave as parents impacts our children. But there are many things we do or don’t that actually alter their genes and prevent or promote positive and negative character traits.

Neuroscience teaches us that repeated use of a brain circuit will always follow basic principles of neuroplasticity: This means that neuronal pathways get stronger when used, whether the action is initiated by you or by your child. It’s simply practice, and it works by creating completely new brain connections, strengthening synapses that are already there, and allowing unused brain connections to wither and fade.

Nowhere does this matter more than how we parent our children, with repercussions starting from birth and continuing through childhood, adolescence, and even into young adulthood. Babies understand nurturing from the moment they come into this world, and need to be touched, soothed, and comforted to develop healthy stress coping skills.

This isn’t just common sense: A high nurturing or low nurturing parent is actually changing their baby’s epigenome, altering gene expression of glucocorticoid receptors. More nurturing adds epigenetic tags to the genome, which changes how babies respond to stressors in ways that last a lifetime. These epigenetic changes can even be passed down to the next generation.

Things get more complicated when children become toddlers, and we begin building and strengthening pathways that govern things like empathy, creativity, and self-control. Though popular opinion holds that these aspects of our child’s personality are fixed, neuroscience tells us they are not. Even parents of toddlers can start guiding their child toward greater self-control and empathy–character traits that are key to being a well-adjusted adult–and thereby change their child’s gene expression and brain connectivity.

So how does it work? In its simplest form, parenting from a neuroscientific perspective is all about practicing and reinforcing good behaviors while using bad behaviors as learning opportunities. When Cameron gets put in timeout for pinching his baby sister, it might be an effective behavior deterrent, but what has he truly learned? Kids don't really think deeply about how they landed in time out—instead, they kick at the leg of the chair, sulk, count down the seconds, and completely forget why they’re there. They need more than just a break from bad behavior.

Parents can effectively control gene regulation—how loud or quiet genes are—simply by deciding what their children practice. That could mean using timeouts to cultivate what you truly care about. In this case, it’s empathy for little sisters.

Before the timeout, Cameron’s mother clearly and calmly explained why it was necessary for him to sit quietly and think about what he did to his sister. At the end of the mandated timeout, Cameron can own what he did, explain how it made Olivia feel, and say what he could do differently next time.

Even at age four, imagining and talking through these scenarios aloud will change gene expression in neurons. You’re building connectivity in the brain. You’re making those pathways stronger so they’re more likely to be used the next time.

As parents, that first step towards teaching moral behavior, conflict resolution skills, empathy, and creativity—things that may or may not spring up organically in children—is all about intentionality. If you want your children to build effective coping skills, create a nurturing environment. If you want your children to be empathetic, then expose them to different ways of thinking about others.

This is the neuroanatomy of building good habits. Repetition has a strong basis in brain anatomy, and it’s easiest to impact when kids are young. Neuronal connections form at a staggering rate in the first five years of childhood, but dynamic synaptic changes still continue for decades, so there’s no bad age to start working on these skills.

To help children develop academically, artistically, and athletically we partner with teachers, tutors, and coaches to encourage them to practice, practice, practice, so they gain aptitude. But more important than being an A student, an accomplished pianist, or a great soccer player is being a good person. We can and must teach this beginning on day one of our child’s life.

It’s just a matter of being deliberate in how our children practice the social skills that will take them a lot farther and make them far happier adults.

More from Erin Clabough Ph.D.
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