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Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. Headshot

In Defense of Parents: A Child Therapist's Dissent

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KIDS BIRTHDAY PARTY
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Perhaps it has always been this way, but recently, it seems that parents are under attack. The criticisms come from all sides. We are over-involved or overly permissive. We fail to teach traditions and values. We over-diagnose, over-medicate and over-accommodate our kids, often to excuse our own poor parenting.

Especially, the critics believe, our children are indulged. We are so concerned that they not feel any disappointment and with their self-esteem that we no longer insist that they learn to master challenges -- experiences of mastery that lead to the strengthening of character and real, earned, self-esteem. Like curling athletes, we try to smooth their path through life, eliminating any friction. We are afraid of their tantrums, afraid to let them fail (and then learn from their mistakes) and afraid to say, "No."

My clinical experience suggests a different diagnosis. Yes, we may be too indulgent. More fundamentally, we are too stressed -- more burdened and more alone. Both children and parents now have fewer places to turn when they are in need of practical and emotional support.

In three decades of working with children and families, I have, of course, met some indulgent parents. Far more often, I meet thoughtful parents, struggling to find the right balance, in their own lives and in the lives of their children. Most parents want more for their children than individual achievement. They also want them to be "good kids" -- children who act with kindness and generosity toward their families, their friends, and their communities.

Too often, however, families get stuck. Concerned and caring parents become, against their best intentions, angry and critical. And children, in turn, become argumentative and stubborn, or secretive and withdrawn. These vicious cycles of criticism and defiance then undermine children's initiative, confidence and sense of responsibility.

There are answers to these problems. The answer is not less parenting or Tiger parenting, but highly involved, positive, supportive parenting, informed by advances in clinical and developmental research.

In parenting debates, it is easy to lose sight of what is most important. We do not stop often enough, I believe, to consider how our children look up to us and how we remain for them, throughout their lives, sources of affirmation and emotional support. On this point, developmental research is clear: From kindergarten until they are young adults, children who are doing well in their lives have the benefit of emotional and practical support from their parents, mentors and friends.

Here are the essential elements of a balanced, supportive approach to raising successful and caring children. It is not either/or. We can encourage our children's self-expression and also teach them self-restraint.

  • We support our children with our warm and enthusiastic encouragement of their interests and talents. Great teachers intuitively understand this, and they should be our role models as parents.
  • We offer support to children when we listen patiently and sympathetically to their concerns and their grievances, and when we are willing to repair the conflicts that occur, inevitably, in our relationships. Children learn invaluable lessons from moments of repair. They learn that, although it is not always easy, moments of anger and misunderstanding are moments and can be repaired.
  • We provide emotional support for our children when we accept and value their feelings -- and then talk with them about the needs and feelings of others.
  • We support children when we play and work with them often. Essential social skills are learned in the course of playful interactions. They are not learned in front of a screen, or from lectures and admonishments. When parents play and work with their children, children come to understand and accept, deeply and for the right reasons, the limitations imposed by adult authority. Even five minutes a day of interactive play between parents and children is helpful in strengthening parent-child relationships and promoting cooperative behavior in young children.

    In many ways, interactive play is to children's social development what talking with children is to their vocabulary development and what exercise is to their physical development.

  • Then, we help them solve problems. When we engage children in the solution of a problem, they become less stuck in making demands or continuing the argument. They begin to think, if just for that minute, less about how to get their way and, instead, about how to solve a problem -- about how their needs and the needs of others can be reconciled, an important life lesson, for sure.
  • And we should let them know that we are proud of them, for their effort and for the good things they do for others. A child's confident expectation that her parents are proud of her is an essential good feeling, and an anchor that sustains her in moments of discouragement, temptation, and self-doubt.

In these ways, we strengthen our children's inner resources and we become an inner presence - a voice of encouragement and moral guidance. Our children will then be more successful in all aspects of their lives. They will have better peer relationships. At home, we will see less argument, less defiance, and less withdrawal. They will also work harder and achieve more in school. And we will have prepared them, as best we can, for coping with the challenges and responsibilities they will face as adults.