Hitting the Sweet Spot of Parenting
Last summer, when most parents are maybe not reading the paper, I found an op-ed piece by Madeline Levine, Ph.D, a psychologist with 30 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. I have used some of that article and imagined Levine in a conversation with a parent. I hope you find this as helpful as I do.
Parent: I have been told that praising my child makes him feel better about himself.
Levine: This may seem counterintuitive, but praising children’s talents and abilities seems to rattle their confidence. …children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult [in this case] puzzles. They also exhibit higher levels of confidence and show greater overall progress in problem-solving.*
Parent: Wow. Okay, but I have thought that telling my kid he is smart would make him work harder, be more productive.
Levine: Tackling more difficult [work] carries the risk of losing one’s status as “smart” and deprives kids of the thrill of choosing to work simply for its own sake, regardless of outcome.
Parent: So I think I can resist praising him all the time, but I can’t stand to see my child unhappy.
Levine: If you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business. The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn’t bring you running) presents the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges, is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.
Parent: So I shouldn’t do things for him? I shouldn’t help him to do well and be successful? I want him to do well.
Levine: While doing things for your child unnecessarily or prematurely can reduce motivation and increase dependency, it is the inability to maintain parental boundaries that most damages child development. When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.
Parent: So how can I help him?
Levine: Hanging back and allowing children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting. It’s easier when they’re young – tolerating a stumbling toddler is far different from allowing a preteenager to meet her friends at the mall. The potential mistakes carry greater risks, and part of being a parent is minimizing risk for our children…Mastery of the world is an expanding geography for our kids; for toddlers, it’s the backyard; for preteens, the neighborhood, for teens, the wider world. But it is in the small daily risks – the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation to a new classmate – that growth takes place. In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.
Parent: So what do you suggest for me as a parent as I navigate this difficult job of parenting?
Levine: Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child’s job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn’t get in the way of his reasonable moves toward autonomy.
Parent: I am not sure I can do that --
Levine: Decades of studies…have found that the optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects her child’s autonomy. These “authoritative parents” appear to hit the sweet spot of parental involvement and generally raise children who do better academically, psychologically and socially than children whose parents are either permissive and less involved, or controlling and more involved.
Parents also have to make sure their own lives are fulfilling. There is no parent more vulnerable to the excesses of overparenting than an unhappy parent. One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.
*Based on research by Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist at Stanford University.