Most parents parent the same way as their parents, or if they disliked it, do the opposite. What comes naturally is the familiarity of what was modeled. Parenting isn’t taught as part of school curriculum and we just don’t learn it by osmosis. Developing a sound parenting strategy can be daunting. There are some 40,000 parenting books on Amazon.com, many giving contradictory advice. The good news is parents can learn new ideas and concepts. Research shows that parents who take parenting classes produce better outcomes with their children. The more training, the better the results.
A growing body of research over the past 50 years demonstrates that certain parenting practices produce better results than others. Many independent scientific studies have identified the most effective skill sets or competencies associated with better parent-child relationships, leading to a stronger bond and healthier, happier, and better functioning children (Epstein, 2010).
Recent research submitted at the Annual Conference of the American Psychological Association, and presented in the Scientific American Mind, compared the effectiveness of 10 studied, recognized and accepted parenting strategies. The parenting skills of 2,000 parents were evaluated. The study also examined how a group of independent parenting experts rated these strategies. They compared what experts advise, what really seems to work and what parents actually do.
Here are the top 10 competencies, in order, that the research demonstrated to be predictors of a strong parent-child bond, children’s happiness, health and success (Fox, 2O11)
- Love and Affection: Giving love and affection tops the list as the parenting skill associated with the most happiness in children. The best thing we can do for our children is to give them lots of physical affection, quality time, support, love and acceptance.
- Stress Management: Interestingly, it was found that the parents’ ability to manage stress was second only to love and affection as a predictor of the quality of their relationship with their kids and how happy their children were. This includes employing regular stress reduction techniques for yourself and your children, and by modeling a positive outlook on life. When parents are under stress, the brain redirects resources from the prefrontal cortex to the more primitive brain systems. These over reactive limbic stress responses keep parents locked into less rational, defensive, and less empathic reactions and limits reactions needed for self-reflection and calm emotional regulation.(Levy, and Orlans (2006)
- Relationship Skills: Another top, yet indirect, prediction of good outcomes for children is a parent maintaining a good relationship with the other parent – how you treat your partner, significant other, or co-parent. Maintaining a healthy relationship with an ex is particularly helpful. Children inherently want their parents to get along and suffer when they don’t. Children are uncomfortable with conflict, especially when it involves parents. Modeling effective relationship skills is also very helpful. It is important not to argue in front of children and to apologize and forgive in front of them. Also, speak kindly of the co-parent. This is particularly crucial for children who have a tendency to triangulate or split one parent against the other. How you treat your spouse, or ex, is being observed and filed away. This becomes their model for operating in intimate relationships in the future.
- Autonomy and Independence: Our relationship with our parents provides the solid foundation in which to discover our independence. Mature and loving parents create a safe environment in which children can freely express themselves. Stable families can handle the stress of “letting go” and can tolerate their child’s autonomy. They encourage exploration of the environment, allow mistakes, and permit disagreement. Healthy family systems promote both connection and individuality, accountability and independence. Unhealthy family systems discourage individuality and promote dependence. They interpret individual differences as an attack on their authority. They undermine healthy development by reinforcing dependency and helplessness. Because of the parents’ high levels of anxiety, stress, and need for control, individual expression is discouraged. Children are taught to conform to their parents’ wishes and desires. Personal boundaries (where I stop and you start) are vague. These children are needy or “pseudo independent.” They act independent on the surface, but are deeply dependent underneath.
- Education and Learning: Research has found that neither race nor ethnicity seems to be a major factor contributing to parenting competency. Women appear only a fraction better at parenting than men. Gays and heterosexuals are also about equal in their parenting ability. One characteristic that does appear to make a difference is education. Generally, the more education, the better the parenting. This might be attributed to the fact that better educated people work harder to improve their parenting skills through parent education programs.
- Life Skills: You provide for you child, have a steady income and have a plan for the future. Model responsibility, self-motivation, communication and anger management skills.
- Behavior Management: Popular behavior management techniques, such as those advocated by pioneering behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, use positive reinforcement for good behavior and punish negative behavior when other methods of managing behavior fail. New research has shown that behavior management techniques ranked low and were a poor predictor of good outcomes with children. Parents scored relatively poorly in this skill area. In the world consequences are natural results, outcomes that occur predictably, as a consequence of what has occurred. Retribution or punishment are not natural occurrences in nature. When parents are under stress they are more likely to over react in a punitive manner, which further alienates their children. Punishment has not proven to be an effective method for managing children. Positive reinforcement can also fail with children with negative self-esteem who feel that they don’t deserve rewards and sabotage success. They believe that they deserve to be punished which just reinforces their negative beliefs. (Orlans and Levy, 2011)
- Health: Parents want to model a healthy life style and good habits such as regular exercise and proper nutrition.
- Religion: Support spiritual or religious development. Participate in traditions and activities that promote ethical convictions, responding to the needs of others and encourage respect, tolerance, fairness and honesty. Model acting in right and honorable ways and instill a belief in something greater than ourselves.
- Safety: Take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness and interests in their friends and activities.
This blog item was written by Michael Orlans who runs Evergreen Psychotherapy Center, along with Dr. Terry Levy. They are known together as the Attachment Experts who specialize in attachment treatment for attachment disorder and trauma.