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Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. Headshot

What Science Can Teach Us About Being Better Parents -- And What It Can't

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Bruce Feiler has written an excellent new book, The Secrets of Happy Families. Dissatisfied with much of the advice offered to parents by therapists and family counselors, Feiler turns, instead, to contemporary research in a variety of fields. He consults experts on successful organizations -- in business, sports and the military -- in search of the "ingredients" of family harmony and resilience.

From these sources, Feiler discovers a gold mine of helpful insights on how to reduce the frequent conflict and argument that are so disheartening to many caring parents. Along the way, he describes some of my favorite parenting advice: research by Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush on the benefits of family story-telling; Alan Kazdin's behavioral methods for treating oppositional and defiant children; Jim Thompson's program of Positive Coaching and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's ideas on the importance of grandparents in human evolution. Feiler's experts also remind us, as they should, to celebrate moments of joy and of the importance of forgiveness in all successful relationships.

The research is sound and the advice is wise, invaluable to many over-stressed modern parents. But has science really discovered the secrets of happy families?

My own experience -- as a father, a son and a child therapist for over three decades -- tells me that there is something more, an intangible quality of parent-child relationships that goes to the heart of successful family life but is difficult to capture, even in the best scientific research. When we think about the health and happiness of our families, we need to keep in mind how our children look up to us -- and how they look to us, throughout their lives, for affirmation and emotional support.

A young child's idealization of his or her parents (and of older children) is one of the most readily-observable facts of childhood. Young children regard our accomplishments, large and small, with a kind of awe we seldom experience in adult life.

We all know this, of course. We can observe it, every day, in the admiring statements of young children: When first-grade boys and girls tell their teacher, "I want to be a fireman like my daddy," or "I want to be a doctor and help people, like my mom." (Recall the looks on the faces of Scout and Gem when Atticus talks to them or when he delivers his summation to the jury in To Kill a Mockingbird.)

This is the deepest source of our authority and guidance, and our silent (but much needed) ally when there are difficult problems to be solved.

It is easy to overlook this essential aspect of childhood when children are acting badly. Our children look up to us, however, even when they are angry and defiant, or when they are defensive or withdrawn, and even when, as adolescents (or before), they challenge our ideas and rebel against our rules.

Here is a moving and instructive example. In Wisdom of Our Fathers, Tim Russert's collection of the correspondence he received following the publication of his memoir of his relationship with his own father, Russert includes a letter from Beth Hackett, daughter of Roger Hackett. Mr. Hackett worked two jobs to support his family. In order to create more time with his daughter, he woke her up at 4:00 a.m., so that they could sit together for morning "coffee" before he left for work.

Ms. Hackett writes:

Dad would tell me about his day and ask about mine. When the cups were empty, he would tuck me back into bed and kiss me good night... It was our special time together, and we never missed... He died in 1995, and I still miss him. Every morning I make a pot of coffee and sit at the kitchen table... When I raise my mug, I see my dad sitting across from me, a smile on his face and a cup of coffee in his hands... It's always special. I'm having coffee with my dad.

I found, in this wonderful story, something of the essence of being a parent. Mr. Hackett's parenting was not based on a skill or a technique that can be taught or trained. It was a creative, generous expression of empathy and love. And Mr. Hackett's love, in return, evoked in his daughter a lifelong feeling of love and gratitude. Ms. Hackett has learned from her father, in a profound way, how to care about the needs and feelings of others, a life lesson certainly as important as any other. When she misbehaves, as all children do, and her father needs to assert his authority, he will be a respected authority (even if she does not always listen). And she will have with her, in moments of sadness and loneliness, in childhood and in her adult life, a deep and indelible feeling of inner support.

As parents, there is much that we can -- and should -- learn from contemporary research. But among the many secrets of happy families, there are still some that are simple and timeless. When a child looks up to us -- and, in return, feels our genuine interest, warmth and pride -- we have strengthened an essential pathway of healthy emotional development, a pathway that leads toward commitment and ideals, and becomes a foundation for a child's sense of purpose in life.