The Ultimate Parenting Question

S As I’ve sat in my office counseling parents, had heart-to-hearts with friends in the preschool parking lot, and muddled through my own share of perplexing parenting moments, it has struck me that an important parenting question – perhaps the ultimate parenting question – is how do we balance discipline and acceptance in our child-rearing? Where do we draw the line between limit-setting and tolerance with our kids, and when?

Clearly, we need to intervene in some way when our kids engage in behaviors which are dangerous or interfere with functioning. But what about those thousands of ambiguous little instances that we face every day, when we need to make split-second decisions about how to respond to potentially questionable actions of our dear little ones?

Emmy declares at the dinner table that she “can’t stand cauliflower, and why did you make it again!” Do you chide her for being impolite and insist she suffer her way through the hated dish anyway, or do you consider that she actually is entitled not to like cauliflower, and validate her heart-felt self-expression?

Melodramatic Maxwell often handles his upset feelings by running upstairs and slamming his door super-hard. Does he lose minutes of i-Pad time for his diva-esque behavior, or do you follow him and soothingly note that he has “very big, strong feelings that can be so hard to calm down”? When do we insist on stretching our children, and when do we accept and embrace?

Of course, the answer to this kind of all-encompassing question is: it depends on a multitude of factors – primarily who your child is, your child’s age and developmental stage, and who you are as a person and parent. Here are several essential concepts to bear in mind for those (many) moments when we need to think on our toes and quickly generate an optimal parental response. So often, parenting our children feels like riding a bucking bronco, requiring us to hang on and automatically and urgently respond to each twist and turn. It’s worthwhile taking a calm moment to consider the underlying forces which shape our own parenting behaviors.

First, know your customer! How much of your child’s undesirable behavior is within his or her volitional control? This one’s a toughie, and probably the primary source of any parental uncertainty about how strict or permissive to be. Intense little Maxwell cannot merely switch off his theatrical door-slamming behaviors; sweet, worry-wart Lilly can’t magically cease her cowering and whining behaviors at gymnastics birthday parties. It’s important to recognize the contours of your child’s pesonality and his or her inherent strengths and weaknesses when you decide whether to intervene – or in some instances, to accept ostensibly “bad” behaviors.

In counseling parents, I’ve found it useful, in the calm of my office and away from the front-lines of parenting, to help parents generate a personality profile of sorts for their children. We discuss and anticipate the kinds of behavioral challenges likely to arise from the core traits they’ve identified, and select which ones are worth addressing, and how. For instance, a temperamentally strong-willed child, along with strengths such as charisma and passion, is likely to present challenging behaviors such as being stubborn and having temper tantrums, and, to an extent, that’s simply part of how he or she is put together.

Yet, these kinds of children do need firm limits to be set in place, particularly around managing their anger and not hurting others. Mom and Dad will have greater success with fewer rules about more trivial matters with these types of children, lest they find themselves facing parental burnout and child tune-out! Also, intense children tend to need a good deal of validation for their strong feelings and urgent ideas, so finding ample opportunities to supply supportive feedback is an important counterbalance to the inevitable disciplinary moments.

Basic knowledge of child development is also invaluable in deciding when to expend energy fighting the good fight with an unruly little one, when it’s wisest to let it go, or when to even support (with modification) the direction your little one is trying to head. Certain misbehaviors are practically the hallmark of particular stages of development. The short and rough version: toddlers are renowned for experimenting with non-compliance and tantruming; preschoolers are legend for their trouble sharing toys; school-age children tend to struggle with self-control around their mounting responsibilities; and adolescents distinguish themselves by arguing and asserting independence.

Thus, no matter how beautifully you phrase your displeasure or how perfectly you set up the naughty seat for two-year-old Sammy, he’s just not going to stop saying “No” to you when the spirit moves him! Try to familiarize yourself with the expectable developmental agendas that come along with each stage: instead of merely trying to thwart, say, an independence-asserting behavior, try to re-frame it for your child in a way which is more manageable. The classic example of this, of course, is trying to give Sammy choices (“Do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue shirt?”) rather than setting him and yourself up for his next opportunity to shout “no” at you.

Born ArtistAkin to knowing and understanding your child’s strengths and weaknesses, try to be honest with yourself about your own personality and values. What are your most important goals in shaping your child? While most moms would agree that they are trying to raise decent and caring members of society, the particulars of how we conceive of this varies greatly. How much do manners and propriety matter to you? Neatness? How much do you value self-expression? How important is it to you that your children spend time learning a musical instrument, playing sports, reading, or having unstructured playtime with their siblings and friends?

These are questions which truly don’t have right or wrong answers – they are about your priorities and values. Ideally, you will nudge, guide, reward and discipline most assertively around those areas which are priorities for you. I’ve marveled at my friend Rebecca’s ability to shape a creative, artistic kind of home environment for her children, yet she’s praised me for the way my children seem to be able to express and identify their feelings. No big surprise – Rebecca’s an artist, and I’m a shrink! We’ve inevitably shaped our children’s behaviors along the lines of who we are.

Also essential is to try to come to an understanding of your own limits and flashpoints as a person and parent. There’s a very wide range of what different parents will or won’t tolerate, none of which objectively makes them a good or bad parent. In my own family, I’m more comfortable with high-spiritedness (read: chaos!) than my husband is. That doesn’t make me better or worse than he is – just a little different. I can tolerate and enjoy a level of rambunctiousness that stresses my husband out. By now, my three exuberant boys know this, and they’ve learned to tone it down a little more when Daddy’s around.

Intervene with your children if their behavior is making you uncomfortable. However, I would suggest that, even if you aren’t a big rules-and-regulations kind of mom, it’s wise to set up a good baseline structure and set of ongoing rules and expectations which you will reliably reinforce. Like a business owner who can calmly point out the “business policy” to disgruntled customers, let your policies and underlying tenets do the dirty work so that you don’t always end up butting heads. By consistently clarifying your expectations, you are also setting your children up to behave in the ways you want.

Finally, above and beyond considering any particular parenting strategy, try to maintain an ongoing awareness of the most instrumental asset you possess in raising your child: your positive relationship and sense of deep alliance with him/her. Yes – the right relationship is the bedrock of everything when it comes to our children. If the essence of your relationship with your child is kind, respectful and loving, your child will ultimately want to behave in ways which please you.

Too much correction or criticism from you can weaken the parent-child relationship, which, paradoxically, undermines your ability to influence and guide your child. Concretizing this idea, parenting expert Sarah Chana Radcliffe suggests in her wise book “Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice” that 8 out of 10 parenting behaviors should feel good to your child. The feel-good communications consist of unconditional expressions of love and support (“Mommy adores you!”) as well as conditional expressions of pleasure or reward for desirable behavior (“Great job using a fork!”).

Moms, that leaves us with only 20% of our interactions left over for corrections, criticisms, and reprimands, so choose wisely and carefully! The old adage of winning the battle but losing the war applies aptly…  you may elicit desired behaviors through endless scolding and disapproving, but consider the steep cost to the parent-child bond. On the flip side, make as many feel-good deposits as you can! Convey affection, make eye contact, listen attentively, play, help, support, praise, hug, kiss – on the house! Go ahead and be absolutely extravagant with these love-investments.

In conclusion: when Emmy’s venting her disgust with the cauliflower, or when Maxwell runs upstairs to slam his door again, there really is no objectively perfect parental response. Take some time – when not in the heat of the moment – to reflect on who your child is: his or her unique and poignant combination of strengths and weaknesses. And on who you are: your priorities and values in raising your children, and your own human limits. Then try to establish a strong baseline of household rules. And way above all, during the more frustrating moments, remember that the most precious tool you have in raising your child is your loving relationship with him or her – guard this well!

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Dr. Shulie Rubin, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice for 13 years in Englewood, New Jersey, and the mother of three children. Dr. Rubin works with children, adolescents and adults on issues including anxiety, depression and relationships. Dr. Rubin has a special clinical focus working with and emotionally supporting mothers at all stages of parenthood. Her professional style has been described as a combination of “deep listening and practical problem solving.” Dr. Rubin can be reached at (201) 503-1446 or [email protected].

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

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