Liz Meyers, M.Ed., Certified Family Life Educator,
Certified Child Development Intervention Specialist
I teach parenting. Many ask “isn’t parenting a natural process?” Most people learn how to parent from their own parents. But what if what they learned was what not to do? Knowing what not to do doesn’t mean that you know what works. Educating yourself in anything is a sign of strength; whether learning about health and nutrition, how to repair something in your household, or learning to be a better parent. All parents can learn something to help improve their parenting skills. Searching information to become a better parent is laudable.
Most people parent with a combination of instincts, experience and pure luck. But parenting children in a positive way is so much more.
Once people experience a parenting class, they are amazed that some of the things they did (or didn’t do) are concepts that have been researched, tried and thought about by many in the fields of family relations, parenting, psychology, and public health. So, what exactly do we teach?
We teach typical child development including typical stages that children go through and what behaviors to expect at each stage from birth throughout adolescence and young adulthood. With this new information, parents can re-evaluate why their child is acting the way they are and begin to find useful solutions to the problem at hand, instead of taking potentially harmful disciplinary actions.
For example, if you don’t know that it is expected for a two- year- old child to say “no”, you may think that they are disrespectful, horribly willful and need to be disciplined. Once you understand that at that age, children are beginning to become aware that they are separate from you (i.e. developing autonomy) and that they are on the long road to becoming an independent person, you may see it differently. (Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development Stage 2-Will: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt).
If you have a 2 ½ year old who won’t use the potty, and worry that they are never going to potty train, are costing you a fortune in diapers, and are keeping you from getting into the preschool of your choice because they only accept “potty trained” children; you may think that this is an act of defiance and try to force the training to occur. Once you understand that there is a physiology behind toilet training, that children have to actually ‘feel the urge,’ understand what is happening and then act on it, you may be able to approach this problem in a more productive way. If you know about the research that supports not pushing children before they are ready to avoid potential troubles, including withholding, regression and bedwetting; you may see it differently. (Leiberman 1972, Brazelton 1062, Brazelton and Sparrow 2004)
If you have a school-aged child who can’t seem to hand his/her homework to the teacher (and you know if was completed because you checked it!), you might think that they are willfully disregarding the rules, are lazy, disorganized and are a hopeless cause. Once you understand that one of the challenges of the middle years is teaching your children planning and organizing skills, and that it is often a slow process for them to get it, that it often requires parental guidance in developing a routine, helping them organize their tasks and letting them experience the consequences of their actions; you may see it differently.
If you have a teenager that starts to avoid you, doesn’t want to be seen with you in public, or wants to be with their friends more than you, you might evaluate this behavior as rude, disrespectful and think your child needs to be disciplined swiftly and severely to avoid them taking the wrong path. Once you understand that in teen development, children need to separate from you (funny- sounds very similar to the two- year- old!) and that it is normal and necessary for teens to need some privacy and space to separate from you, and that they need to reject some of the things that you stand for or believe in to test what they believe in; you may be able to see it differently. (Jane Nelson, Ed. D, and Lynn Lott, March 2007)
Thoughtful, positive parenting creates an environment for happier, healthier children. Parents who seek out education are often pleasantly surprised at how much they learn and how much easier their job is now that they understand the principles of child development, the reasons behind behavior and the tools to communicate more effectively. Our changing perceptions and increased understanding of children will change our reactions to their behaviors, which will in turn change their behaviors. Raising children is an exciting (and sometimes frightening) journey; having the science to back up what we’ve instinctually done for centuries can offer parents comfort and security knowing that there is intention in what we are doing.
Mental Health America of Southeast Florida is a 501(c)(3) organization that provides education, prevention, research, advocacy and empowerment services. For more information, visit our website at www.mhasefl.org or call 954-746-2055.