There’s no doubt that navigating the world of parenting, especially for new parents, can be an overwhelming process.
For every adage you’re told by someone more experienced, there is an equally compelling, yet totally conflicting story just waiting in the wings.
Compound that with the fact that the parenting decisions you make actually can have an effect on another person (your kid), so does it come as a surprise that so many parents today are feeling stressed?
Here, I want to share with you some science based strategies and the latest interesting research on parenting right now. In each of these, we’ll look at some current studies that highlight a few new or updated trends in parenting.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s plenty of information and research in this field, and ideas that were once thought to be the “preferred” way of parenting, are now being found to actually have the opposite effect.
Let’s break it all down.
The Myth of the “Perfect Mom”
Technology has brought a lot of wonderful things our way since the growth of the internet. All in all, we’re more informed and we have vast amounts of information right at our fingertips.
But, there is a dark side to that as well: social media.
As fun as social media is, and how amazing of a job it does allowing us to connect with anyone and highlight what’s happening in our lives, research has found it’s one of the biggest stressors in our lives…especially for parents.
While parenting has been around, well forever, the idea of the perfect parent is something that’s only recently been pushed on society.
You’ve heard the phrases, in fact, you’ve probably said a few of them too:
- “I can have it all.”
- “I don’t need any help.”
- “I can be the perfect spouse and the perfect parent.”
A new study by Professor of Human Sciences and Psychology at Ohio State University, Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan ties in parenting and the new found stress brought about by social media.
In her study, Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan has been following approximately 200 dual income families who had their first child between 2008-2009. She looked at how the pressure to be the perfect mother (as typically mothers both feel the most pressure to be perfect and generally are responsible for the brunt of parenting duties) was actually exacerbated by social media.
The quest to be a “perfect” mother may actually harm a mother’s parenting. In my lab’s research on new parents, we found that mothers showed less confidence in their parenting abilities when they were more worried about what other people thought about their parenting.Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan:
Whereas the dads in the study actually felt more confident in their parenting skills after using social media, the opposite effect happened with the mothers. They were nervous and worried because not only did they see the “perfect” posts of other mothers pop up in their feeds, but because they feared the comments they would get from others when they posted something.
That fear of other people watching, judging and commenting, led directly to increased stress and less confidence, which translated into a different behavior around their kids. These moms weren’t as excited about parenting and tended to give up more easily.
In their case, social media not only pressured them to compare their own idea of perfection with that of others, but almost always set themselves up for disaster, leading to disappointment, even if they were very good parents.
Now, before you get too disheartened, realize that if you feel like you’re suffering from the pressure to be perfect, you’re not alone. Moreover, there are things you can do to lessen the pressure of perfectionism in your own life:
- Realize that social media is not an accurate portrayal of our lives, or the lives of others, it’s only what we want to show. That incredibly cute photo from the mom in your playgroup was probably the 7th shot and the 2nd outfit change.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff, keep focused on the fact that the best way to be a great parent is to be active, warm and engaged with your child.
The Great Parenting Style Debate
If you’re one of the “millennial” generation, those born approximately between 1980 and 2000 who were raised by “baby boomer” parents, then there’s no doubt you’ve heard the term “helicopter parenting” before.
That’s where the phrase was first coined, but just because it grew up with the millennial generation doesn’t mean that it ended once those kids started having kids of their own.
Helicopter parents are those who seemingly hover over every aspect of their child’s lives, and actively participate in their upbringing, helping to pave the path.
Doesn’t sound so bad, right?
Well, the results are mixed. Taken to the extreme, helicopter parenting is something to behold:
Studies are showing that the children of helicopter parents suffer, an ironic unintended consequence of incredibly attentive parenting. The children of helicopter parents tend to be less resilient, more anxious, and less willing to try new things, all of which lead to struggles and stunted development later in life.
Of course, technology can play a role here too, and while it’s great to be able to communicate more easily, there is ample proof that the rise in tech has enabled parents to become more involved and overbearing as their kids age.
Now parents can constantly be connected, they can monitor social media streams, email college professors who gave their kid a “C” on a term paper, text a coach to see why their son is riding the bench in games.
The below image is from an infographic that highlights some of the main issues related to helicopter parenting:
One place where helicopter style parenting tends to rear its ugly head is with college students. A study done at the University of Montana found that the approximately 300 students who did have helicopter parents suffered a number of negative effects.
Students who reported having over-controlling parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction with life. Furthermore, the negative effects of helicopter parenting on college students’ well-being were largely explained by the perceived violation of students’ basic psychological needs for autonomy and competence.
So what’s the solution?
The new trend pulls in another piece of heavy machinery for a moniker. Instead of being a helicopter parent, now trends are leaning towards being a submarine parent.
That is a parent who lurks just below the surface, they keep an eye on what’s going on in their kids lives, but rather than swoop in and rescue them at the first sight of trouble, they let their children see and understand common struggles. But, when trouble occurs, a submarine parent can pop up from under the surface and help out.
Many refer to this as “parenting with intention.”
It helps to bolster some of the things child psychologists find most important for development in later life: being able to advocate for themselves, being able to overcome adversity and being able to have a more realistic view of the ups and downs of life.
It also means that parents take a step back from their kids, they don’t monitor everything, email the Dean about admissions issues or call their child every morning in college to make sure they are awake.
So, how can you modify the helicopter parenting style to the submarine style? Consider this advice from Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success:
- Try to avoid “checklisted childhoods” setting and scheduling your child’s life so they will hit the arbitrary list of things they are “supposed to do” in order to get into a good school or career path.
- Teach by stopping when it comes to actually doing the work. Children never learn if the “work” is done for them, if you feel the urge to finish homework, put it on hold, your child will learn much more practicing it themselves.
In the past, there wasn’t many places for a parent to go for advice. Many had a small circle of friends, their own parents and their pediatrician. That was it.
It wasn’t until the groundbreaking book by Dr. Benjamin Spock The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was published in the late 1940s that parents realized they could find outside sources for advice.
The book became so popular during the 20th century, it became one of the best selling books of all time.
Now, parents have more sources for information than they could possibly need, and most parents are more well informed than ever before. However, it can be incredibly difficult to sift through all those sites and blogs to determine what is actually helpful and what is clickbait.
Yet, once again, it’s books that have been gaining quite a bit of attention from parents who are looking to dive deeply into the science behind common parenting choices. And the rise of the internet has quite a bit to do with it.
Both books The Informed Parent: A Science-Based Resource for Your Child’s First Four Years, written by two scientific journalists, Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham and The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year by Alice Green Callahan take a scientific approach to parenting.
When I say scientific approach, I mean it.
They actually provide today’s crop of parents, many of whom want to actually read and dive into research and studies (thanks internet!) tips and advice not just on parenting, but how to research, read and digest scientific studies around many of the parenting myths that are out there.
So, unlike many parenting books, these highlight not necessarily the “right” way to raise a child, instead they both discuss peer researched studies on a number of topics. They teach parents how to remove their own biases, find the information they need and make the decisions that are right for their families.
We have access to the Internet, which is full of parenting advice and information. It’s a tremendous benefit, but it’s really overwhelming, especially when you are finding so much conflicting information. But parents are starting to understand that science is a tool that can help you cut through that.Green Callahan:
Dubbed “parenting with science” or “evidence based parenting” the parents who want to be more aware of the science behind everything from breastfeeding to co-sleeping to organic foods will be able to learn how to research and make well informed decisions for their kids.
Are you interested in getting your own PhD in parenting but aren’t sure where to start? Consider the approaches that the authors of these books took to their own parenting:
- The best sources for information on studies related to everything parenting should come from trusted sources like sites that are associated with universities and children’s hospitals. So start there with your research.
- As good as it might be to take a deep dive into research, also remember that parenting is an inherently emotional act, for many what “feels right” is right, so balancing the two is an important skill.
The Vocabulary of Parenting
There can’t be anything wrong with over praising your kids to get them motivated, right?
Well, not so fast. There has actually been quite a bit of research centered around over-praise, and not all of it is good. Before you give up, hang on, the key to successfully praising your kids is to just slightly tweak your vocabulary.
Two books (with a number of accompanying studies) NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman and Mindset: The Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck both take a deep dive into the words that matter when it comes to offering praise vs offering feedback.
For example, it’s very common to say things like “you are so smart!” when a child succeeds at an exam or does something clever. Most of us think saying something like this is pretty harmless, after all they did do well on the exam.
Both Bronson and Merryman as well as Dweck say not so fast. Both have found from their research that praising a child for their intelligence can actually have the opposite effect, they become less motivated over time and worse, they can get easily discouraged if they don’t achieve the same results.
You can see more about it in this video:
So what can you do?
Don’t throw praise out the window, in fact, simply tweak your own vocabulary and focus more on feedback. Highlight the effort and strategies that were put into studying, doing that has shown to give kids more motivation in the future, and less of a fear of failure if things don’t always work out.
Think about the idea of overpraise vs. feedback. We all think our kids are great, but focus in on really praising the skills they are building that will suit them well in life:
- Back to that exam example, if your kid comes home with that A on the exam instead of saying “you’re so smart” try “you worked really hard to get that grade.”
- Understand that motivation and effort matters. Try explaining that practice and study are key to getting better at anything, the brain is also a muscle that needs exercise.
To Time Out or Not Time Out
As wonderful as children are, there will come a moment in time (alright more than a few moments) where they misbehave, have a meltdown or become unruly.
Sometimes, this can just be due to being overtired or hungry, but as a child grows, they are likely pushing the boundaries to see just how far they can go before they have to face any consequences.
Yet another parental dilemma, how to punish kids. There are a number of schools of thought on this, and in the last few decades general guidance has been to take a softer approach, no doubt you’ve heard moms and dads discuss a “time out” with their child (you might have even done it yourself).
This was thought to be a better approach than the more harsh or even corporal punishment route (spanking for example) of other generations. But, researchers, namely Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University has discovered a compromise that has worked in his studies.
What was it? Reasoning and compromise.
Larzelere conducted a study with over 100 mothers that focused on how they disciplined their child over a number of different behaviors (things like hitting and whining) and their reactions to a number of different types of discipline.
There emerged two clear winners over both the long term and the short term. For more mild mannered kids, the most effective immediate positive result came from offering some small compromise, “yes, you can stay up for two extra minutes before bed.” Larzelere found that offering small select compromises here and there helped to improve behavior over the long run.
For harder to manage children, compromise also worked immediately, but there’s a clear caveat here– the fix didn’t last long. Instead, he found that the better long term solution is to reason with them, let them understand why the behavior is not acceptable.
So what about the time out?
Well, Larzelere found that the time out should not be used as the most common form of punishment, and in fact, recommended it not be used at all for kids that are generally more easy to manage.
Another study by Ennio Cipani called “Punishment on Trial” took a look at the idea of the time out as well. Like Larzelere he also found through his studies with children that time outs were generally not the most effective way to punish children.
However, he does think that there is an effective way to use a time out (when used sparingly) and that is when parents have determined and communicated ahead of time what it will be a punishment for.
For example, parents might decide that a time out is appropriate if their child hits another. Cipani found that rather than springing a time out on a child, if the parents communicated that this would be the punishment and then followed through, the child not only would comply, but would also understand why hitting another was not acceptable behavior.
Both these studies offer some great insight into the most effective ways parents can punish their children. Consider the following approaches:
- Let your child know what behaviors are unacceptable and will end up in a time out and follow through on those.
- Open lines of communication, small compromises in the short term can calm kids down, and explaining why a behavior isn’t something they should do is effective over the long term in helping kids understand their own actions.
While there is no fully “right” or “wrong” way to parent, the science we see around parenting right now can really help us make informed decisions throughout the lives of our children.
Keep in mind that while technology has increasingly made our lives better and easier, when it comes to parenting, it can be a double edged sword. We’re bombarded with information, connectivity and social pressures that can be a lot to handle.
The key is to figure out some ways to find the signal through the noise, when you’re able to do that you’ll likely find that you will be able to be more present and engaged with your child in a way that still leaves them with room to embrace their own independence.
1 reply on “How to Be a Better Parent (using Science)”
Very inspiring to learn about parenting and your works. In African setting, especially in Uganda this is still a myth. Being a parent with my children in their youths, I am facing a big challenge with them. We seem not to agree st many points irrespective of both of us having been in teaching for the past 30 years modelling and shaping children of others.
Our own have given us hard times to tame them to our expectations. Thank you.
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