Every child-parent relationship has it’s own unique dynamic. Parenting is a fluid thing, but what unites parents universally is that all children are born with the need for a loving and secure attachment to their primary caregivers. This attachment is essential to the core of their emotional and physical well-being because human beings are hard-wired for connection and belonging. We simply must have it for healthy growth and development.
Attachment is simply an emotional bond with another person. Attachment theory suggests that nurturance and responsiveness (connection) are the primary determinants of attachment. Children learn as early as 6 weeks that their parents keep them safe and respond to their needs. As they grow, they learn that they have limits, and their sense of security is reinforced. When parents or primary caregivers respond quickly and consistently, children learn that they can depend on the people who are responsible for their care, which is the essential foundation for attachment.
Research indicates that early attachments have a serious impact later in life. For example, those who are securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong friendships, and the ability to self-disclose to others. As adults, they tend to have healthy, happy, and lasting relationships. Researchers have also found that attachment patterns established early in life can lead to a number of outcomes. For example, children who are securely attached as infants tend to develop better self-reliance and a stronger sense of self as they grow older. These children also tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships, and experience less depression and anxiety.
Fostering connection through compassion
The primary way children attach with their parents or caregivers is through connection. The parenting style I hold to be the best way to fostering and maintaining connection with our children is that of a compassionately authoritative approach. This parenting style combines the high expectations held by an authoritative style (not to be confused with authoritarian) along with the tenderness and empathy readily found in compassion-based parenting. My approach to family life is primarily about routinely empathizing with our children by actively placing ourselves in their position and responding to their needs with sensitivity, love and firm limits rather than reacting harshly to their ill-behavior or dismissing their feelings. A compassionately authoritative approach maintains high parental expectations while also providing the dynamic relational support children need to meet those expectations.
Maintaining connection with our child requires gentleness, empathy, affection, and support during the countless times when our children are struggling to follow directions, accomplish a goal, develop new skills, or interact with others in appropriate ways. It’s being motivated to bring a measured response to our children with a view to assisting them in expressing themselves. It is about reminding ourselves that misbehavior and emotional outbursts are a normal part of childhood, and holding age-appropriate expectations.
I also place an emphasis in my practice on the distinction between who a child is, vs. what a child does. We ALL make poor choices, and encouraging parents to see the difference between who their children ARE compared to what their children DO helps parents to avoid the misappropriation of “approval.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s always nice when we feel approving of our kids. The difficulty arises when they confuse their self-worth with their performance, when they don’t discover that they are valuable unless they are doing what they ought. It’s vital that kids know that their value is grounded in their identity, and this is distinct from the choices they make.
As parents, we are the first tutor our children have. When we approach our parental challenges using compassion, we ourselves are far more emotionally stable and able to readily understand what our children need and how to meet those needs. When we view ill-behavior as opportunities for them to learn, the paradigm changes. We become their primary source to help them become self-aware and learn self-control.
A compassion-based approach allows us to see immediately past the those difficult behaviors that we might otherwise find hard to tolerate. (This is usually because our own parents had these intolerance issues, and passed them on.) When we become more adept at demonstrating empathy with our children’s weaknesses and failures, we are better able to model the character we want them to embrace and display themselves. Ultimately, it frees us to see our children as they truly are – a valuable and precious gift, worthy of our best.
What about Punishment?
Many parents ask me about punishment. My response is always what do you mean by that? Everyone’s idea of punishment is different depending on how severely we were treated in our own families of origin. Personally, I make a distinction between punishment and consequences. “Let life teach and help it a bit” is my motto. If my child forgets their homework, they experience poor scores in school. If they don’t eat dinner, they chose to go to bed hungry. Natural consequences can be set up and explained in advance, and I like to put a positive twist on this, i.e., “if you choose to finish your work, you choose to have 30 minutes of (insert fun activity here).” Or I give a choice with limits, “You get to serve our family by being part of the team and cleaning out the dishwasher. Would you like to do that now, or after breakfast?” If said child whines about this, I usually reply with empathy, “Yes, I understand that you really are not looking forward to that. I know how that feels. I do not look forward to (insert some mothering duty here). Would you like to do dishes now or after breakfast?” If there is more resistance, I train for this activity (see my bit on Playful Active Habit Training) – And then I set up the consequence. “You can chose when you clean out the dishwasher, or you can chose to have no clean dishes to eat on.” And I will literally serve my child breakfast on a “less than clean” dish if it works out that way. Here’s the key. We must realize that we cannot control another human being and that attempts to coerce compliance through punishment break the connection that is so coveted by our children. They are hardwired for it, they need it and retribution is a poor teacher.
Not only this, but punitive retribution on our children is very damaging. Multinational longitudinal studies in child development report that that disconnected parenting styles i.e., parenting styles that use both blame and shame (which is what punitive behavior is meant to do) into gaining compliance have pernicious consequences for them later in life. In other words, anger, yelling, hitting, restriction, connection withdrawal (time out), privilege suspensions, threats, shaming, disrespectful tones and words, hurtful facial expressions, disapproval, and other forms of punitive action have been categorically shown to have negative consequences on a child’s psyche and effect dysfunctionality in them as adults. But don’t take my word for it. A simple Dr. Google search of peer-reviewed literature in child development will provide substantial support for this assertion.
At the risk of being misunderstood, let me say that I believe it vitally important for children to have limits, and to learn that their choices have consequences, (life is full of them). However, the kind of retribution that comes from a punitive approach does not exact the motivation from our children to want to become better human beings for the good of their families and society, nor does it allow them to learn the way to make their own age appropriate choices throughout their development that they are designed to learn how to make. Rather, it trains them to be angry, sneaky, withdrawn, dishonest, emotionally closed or defiant as they grow older. It repels them from those who they are supposed to trust the most, and can even cause them to develop physical problems over time. At what cost? Compliance??
On my view, all human beings must have room to make mistakes, to assert their wills and have the freedom to fail so that they can learn to navigate life in a safe environment before going out into the world. Therefore, my approach to misbehavior doesn’t simply include punishment when children fail. Rather, it is formative, positive and encouraging of mistakes as opportunities to learn. It incorporates training rather that lecture, and I teach parents how to allow their children to repeatedly try again so the child can actually learn what is being expected. This maintains a solid connection to the child with the goal of their feeling seen and heard as they recognize their limits.
Parenting’s Effect on Physiology
I am strongly committed to parenting from a holistic perspective, i.e. I realize I am parenting all aspects of my child, including their mind, emotions, and their physiology. I believe there is some naivete amongst parents regarding this. The impact our parenting has on our children’s body, and especially their brain is tremendous. There is a considerable body of research in Interpersonal Neurobiology that supports the idea that the way we parent our children directly affects their brain development, and how they perform in school and beyond. Understanding how our parenting style affects our children’s physiology gives us insight and motivation to want to make better parenting choices. It’s exciting to me to know that when my children experience the robust support they need to meet my expectations, they better develop the neuropathways they must have to continue to do so. In a nutshell, a healthy neurobiology is key for healthy kids.
I think most parents would agree that a healthy diet and lifestyle supports healthy physical development and provides kids a good sense of their own well-being. Therefore, I advocate healthy sleep habits, moderately low-sugar and empty carbohydrate intake, lots of plant based nutrition and a good amount of daily physical activity. Regarding this, sleep is the first thing I look at as research shows that when we sleep, our brain cleanses itself of toxins, and enters a state of growth (neurogenesis) and repair. So SLEEP is vital. Children between 6-12 years old need NINE TO TWELVE hours per night. Next, diet and physical health are inseparable, and the food children eat (or don’t) greatly affects their mood, ability to self-regulate, and physically develop. The microbiome (the second brain) regulates gene expression (epigenetics), and understanding the nutritive requirements to keep it healthy is our privilege and duty. Finally, all kids must move their bodies to engage their brains (especially boys) to learn. Some hyperactive or inattentive children simply need to really get their blood pumping; up to three hours of physical activity per day has been shown to greatly decrease signs of “sedimentary distress.”
One of my favorite parenting guru’s, Dr. Laura Markham, wisely summarized that when our children are at their worst is when they absolutely need us the most. A compassionately authoritative approach embodies the core principles of peace in the home, kindness for one another and respect and caring for children as equal human beings. It is this approach that I believe encourages our children to develop the Emotional Intelligence that research demonstrates they vitally need and in the most robust way. This is the essence of what I call Praiseworthy Parenting™.