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Challenge: Expert Advice

How to Make Your Hopes a Reality

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My four-year-old son became hysterical kicking and screaming in the store’s checkout line when I said “no” to buying candy. What was I supposed to do when we were in the middle of a crowded public place and my child was having a major meltdown?

My sons were arguing and just wouldn’t stop. They were mean to one another and nothing I did seemed to help. Eventually, I led each to bed to end it. But how could I have helped them resolve their problem and stop their meanness to one another?

My twelve-year-old lied to me and when I confronted him with it, he didn’t seem to understand why lying was wrong. He thought all his friends did it and it was perfectly fine. How could I help him understand the severity of what he’d done?

For all parents, these situations are familiar and challenging. Those of us who work in child development aren’t immune to these situations either. We are all faced with daily dilemmas where we have to consider how to stop an undesirable behavior, teach an important life lesson, and be responsive to our kids’ changes. We know what we hope our children will be and become, but in those daily tough moments, it’s difficult to figure out what we can do to achieve those hopes. Our melting down child isn’t showing kindness or confidence in that moment. But can our reactions help him manage the emotions he is struggling with and move him any closer to those qualities we hope for?

Recently, my colleagues and I surveyed nearly one hundred educators, who also happened to be parents, about their own parenting experiences. We wanted to see if their hopes for their children and their hopes for themselves could match up with skills that can be built through small, teachable moments. Parents shared that they wanted to raise children who were happy and fulfilled, confident, empathetic, kind, loving and responsible. Similarly, when we asked parents what they wanted to be like as parents, they said they wanted to be happy, patient, encouraging, loving, and kind. The good news? All of these traits can be built through practicing certain skills.

Let’s look at what educators and researchers claim are critical ingredients for a child’s success. Although the terms are different from what we heard from parents, the ideas are similar. They are social and emotional skills like;

  • Self-awareness (identifying feelings, strengths and limitations)
  • Self-management (managing big feelings in ways that don’t harm ourselves or others)
  • Social awareness (empathy and perspective-taking)
  • Relationship skills (like listening, asserting needs, and working through arguments without harming others)
  • Responsible decision-making (thinking through consequences of choices)

Teachers in schools around the nation are learning that investing in these social and emotional skills in the way they teach, and as goals for their students, lead to both academic and life success for our children. But what about at home?

Parents remain our children’s first and most influential teachers. Our research shows that parents can achieve both their hopes for themselves and their hopes for their children by using and cultivating social and emotional development skills. Here are some simple ways to get started.

Follow your hopes. What hopes do you have for your child? If it’s confidence, then check out the skill that directly supports that hope (self-management). You might consider what skill-building activities you can add to your daily experiences with your child to build his self-management skills. For example, when your child is melting down in the store checkout line, how can you manage your own embarrassment and anger by taking some deep breaths before responding? When you do this you not only help yourself move toward a more constructive response, you also model the skill you are attempting to promote. And then, how can you guide your child to a safe, non-public space to calm down before trying to do anything more? More ideas for helping your child to build self-management skills can be found here: One More Cupcake? Promoting Self-Control through the Ages.

Plan ahead for tough times. Families fight. Parents get mad. Kids cry. It’s just the reality of family life. So why not plan ahead for those moments so that you can manage your feelings in ways that keep all family members emotionally and physically safe? The skills that underlie love and kindness are relationship skills. Learning how to relate to each other, even when times are tough, takes practice and intentionality. Have a family meeting and ask, “When we’re upset, how can we remember to take a moment to calm down?” “What can we say?” “What can we do?” Discussing the inevitable tough moments ahead of time and generating your families’ ideas for coping will ensure that family members don’t have to face regrets after a fight. More ideas for helping your family with relationship skills can be found here.

Learn alternatives to punishment. Parents often turn to punishment because they wish their children had made more responsible decisions. Five decades of research, however, shows that punishment works in opposition to our hopes for our kids and does not build skills. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics just came out with a new policy about spanking that encourages parents to use "healthy forms of discipline" — such as positive reinforcement, setting limits and expectations — and not using spanking, hitting, slapping, threatening, insulting, humiliating or shaming. Mr. Rogers used to say that we should think of discipline as a way to continually help our children learn the skills that will help them to make more responsible choices. How can you offer reflective opportunities when poor choices occur so that children consider the impact of their decisions? Try this. Or this for ideas about shifting your thinking from punishments to building responsible decision-making skills.

Give the gift of understanding. During the holiday season, we face the challenge and opportunity of gift-giving for our children. Consider giving the gift of your empathy and understanding this year, using the skill of social awareness. Give a children’s book with a theme focused on social and emotional skill building you can read and reflect on together (here are a number of suggestions). Give a symbol (an ornament, a handmade bracelet, or a framed photograph) to express your commitment to learning about your child’s development and your own parenting. Or give the gift of compassion and exercise social awareness and relationship skills by volunteering to serve as a family together in your local community.

This piece was co-authored with Shannon Wanless.

Shannon B. Wanless, Ph.D. is an applied developmental psychologist who serves as an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology in Education at the University of Pittsburgh and also, as Associate Director of Research in the Office of Child Development, School of Education.

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