Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Best Parenting Advice That We Rarely Ever Follow

I spend a lot of time giving advice about parenting. And there’s good reason for that – I have a PhD in psychology, I’ve written a book about parenting, and my income is derived from the quality of the parenting advice I give.

But every now and again I hear some advice that I think is invaluable. The last time this happened, the advice came from an 83 year-old woman who only went to school until she was 12 years old. That lady was my grandmother.

We had been visiting Nan for about thirty minutes. We talked about our memories – mainly our times together as a family. We talked about her belief that she won’t be with us much longer. Nan’s life is slowly drawing to a close.

Nan had been watching Kylie and I with our five kids. She saw that we adore them. And she saw that we worry about them, we stress about them, we get frustrated at our own inability to always be great parents for them.

As we prepared to leave, Nan looked at me and told me she had some advice to give me about the kids. I steeled myself. As the one who gives the advice, it can be hard to take it sometimes. And some of that ‘old-school’ advice can really grate. I was expecting Nan to tell me not to spoil them too much, or perhaps she might give me a reminder that ‘a good beltin’ never did any real harm.’ I’ve heard those lines more than once.

Instead, Nan simply said,
“Enjoy them. They’re so beautiful, and they grow up so fast. Just enjoy them.”
In some ways, the advice is trite. Enjoy the journey. Time flies. All that stuff. Blah, blah, blah.

But as I have reflected on that advice I have realised just how hard it is to do – to really, truly enjoy them.

It’s almost impossible to really enjoy it. There’s too much going on. Work, dinner, cleaning, commitments, extra-curricular activities, and more.

Taking the time to savour the moments we have with them – to really enjoy our kids – is something that can only happen when we really, truly pay attention. It happens when we focus less on the doing and more on simply being.

"Enjoy them."

It’s hard-won wisdom from someone who is preparing to say goodbye, and who has watched her own children, and now her grandchildren experience the amazing experience of raising a family… and what wonderful, meaningful, sage wisdom it is.

What's the best parenting advice you've ever heard? And do you find it easy, or hard, to implement it?

Friday, 25 January 2013

If you could go back, would you still have kids?

Source: Tim Coulson

One of the most striking and counter-intuitive findings from psychology and sociology studies in the past thirty years is that having children does not make us happy. Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you have a child you will be miserable. Millions of us can attest to the fact that children can and do bring joy to our lives.

But, based on averages, study after study has indicated, quite clearly, that there is a meaningful difference in happiness between people with children and those without – and the childless among us are happier.

What do the researchers actually say?

This recent news article reports on more data indicating that parents are less happy than non-parents. One of the researchers stated:
"I'm absolutely confident in saying that across these large data sets, parents do not enjoy better mental and physical health than non-parents. In fact, the evidence clearly points in the opposite direction: Parents report lower levels of happiness, higher levels of depressive symptoms and assess their physical health as poorer than persons who never had children.
"The stress of parenthood is enormous. Parents do not do better than non-parents. Parents do worse."
It’s all pretty bleak isn’t it.

Does parenting really suck that much?

As with most questions, it’s a little more complicated than this general quote suggests. Research indicates that happiness differs for different groups of parents.

Dads seem to be happier than mums. Dads are also generally happier than people without kids. Mums are generally about as happy as people without kids, but they’re not quite as happy as dads. But single mums and young mums appear to drag the average down considerably. These two groups of parents are, on average, much less happy than dads, mums who are partnered, and people without kids. So when samples of parents have single mums and young mums in them, they bring down the overall average happiness of the whole group. It ends up well under the happiness of non-parents.

I believe that there are a few reasons (fairly obvious, perhaps), that this might be:
  1. Lets start by dealing with the young mums and single mums who are least happy:

    Mums in these two groups are often sacrificing everything to care for children, and are doing so with fewer financial resources and less social support. And if they’re not sacrificing everything, they’re trying to do everything! Life is exhausting, stressful, and less stable in these conditions.

    It’s no wonder these two groups report being comparatively unhappy on average.
  2. When relationships are intact, there are some reasons mums might still be less happy than dads (and roughly as happy as non-parents):
    • Some fathers are simply unsupportive. They don’t collaborate with their wives. They say how it is and that’s it.
    • Some fathers are never home. They’re always working or pursuing their own interests.
    • Mums often lose touch with their own interests. The demands of running a household, chasing kids, doing the extra-curricular activities things, and often working at least part-time as well can crowd out the ‘nice things’.
    • Mums have more pressure (self-imposed and from society) to be great mums. This pressure makes parenting less, rather than more, enjoyable.
With that data (and those assumptions) in mind, let’s imagine someone asked you to have kids. What would you say?
“Go for it”

“You’re crazy! Why would you ruin a perfectly good life with that?”
Or something in between?

The correct answer is probably, ‘It depends.” If you are doing it alone or feeling unsupported, or are very young, chances are that kids will only make things tougher. Of course, circumstances can change, and what was once great may not be so nice any more. And this is still based on averages. Someone will always come along and show that the research doesn’t apply to them.

But if you have good support, a stable income, and a bit of ‘margin’ built into your life to give you space when you need it, then chances are that kids will make you happy. Not all the time, but

So should people simply stop having children if they want to be happy?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Why Having Children is Hard

To start running my “Happy Families” business with momentum for 2013, my thoughtful wife suggested that she should take our five children on a four-day holiday while I stayed home and got on with work. It would ‘free me up’ to get through my mountainous list of business-building priorities, and reduce the interruptions that are so frequent with five children home during summer school holidays. I wanted to go with them, but realised it was probably a good suggestion.

I admit it. The past four days have been bliss. I have worked uninterrupted for hour after hour. I’ve started early. I’ve worked well past dinner. I’ve had all the time I needed to think, plan, converse, skype, counsel, have meetings, develop proposals and programs, and much more.

But the peace and quiet triggered some other thoughts too. I’ve realised that having children – especially young children – is much harder than not having them. Life is actually incredibly simple and easy without kids. Here are just a few reasons why having young kids is so tough:
  • They need someone to get them out of bed
  • They need someone to help them dress
  • They need someone to help them have breakfast, and help brush teeth, do hair, tidy bedrooms, and… well, pretty much everything
  • They don’t amuse themselves for long. In fact, the younger they are, the more attention they demand… constantly
  • It means that if you want to go somewhere you have to give yourself at least an extra five to ten minutes to deal with their arguing about not wanting to go, grab anything they might need while you’re out for four minutes to get some milk and bread, actually get them in the car, fight with the seatbelt, and finally get moving.
  • It generally takes twice as long to do anything, and once it’s done, they undo it in five seconds
  • It requires never-ending vigilance, so your concentration on the task you want to focus on is always diluted
  • Personal needs are always secondary
  • It requires moment-to-moment teaching of social skills, language skills, manners, hygiene, tidiness, safety, and creativity. And that is just the information we volunteer to teach them. They also ask, endlessly, why this or that happens, and how.
Since the family has been gone, I’ve gotten a great deal of work done. With a list like that, it’s probably no surprise. However, they return home to me this afternoon, and I’m dying for them to be here. I don’t really miss the interruptions and the challenges – they make life much tougher than it would otherwise be. But they also make it more delightful than words can express. Here are just a few reasons why having children is a joy:
  • The hugs – there’s nothing like the purity of a young child’s hug
  • The smiles. Seeing my children happy fills me with a glow that lasts all day (or until they’re no longer smiling, but fighting instead)
  • Watching their independence develop
  • Hearing their laughter as they play together
  • Answering their questions and feeding their curiosity
  • Working with them as they create pictures, or cakes, or a castle in the living room with blankets and boxes
  • Tucking them in at night, reading their stories to them, and talking about the best parts of their day
  • Hearing their plans about growing up and owning horses, puppies, or farms
  • They give life meaning and purpose that can’t be created with anything else
But for me, the number one reason having children is a joy is the sense of belonging together that we feel as a family.

Research has consistently shown that our wellbeing seems to diminish with children. In many ways that makes sense. It’s tough when they’re around. But research also tells us that life is profoundly meaningful because of our children. And that meaningfulness they bring to us makes every one of those challenges and all of that hard work more than worthwhile.

Travel safe, family. I can’t wait for you to come home.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Over-parenting: Getting the balance right

Source: Time Magazine

A recent news article (one of many) described how college student, Aubrey Ireland, took her ‘helicopter parents’ to court and successfully obtained a restraining order against them because of their consistent over-parenting. From snooping through her computer history to showing up unannounced at her college dorm and making accusations about how she lived her life , these parents were judged to be way over the top.

Other parents get too involved in their children’s sports contests, easter egg hunts, and school activities. One parent I know refuses to allow her 16 year-old son to visit the local shopping centre on his own, get a job, or ride his bike more than about 2kms from home! He’s 16 for goodness sake! In two years he’ll be an adult.

I even heard of a four year-old child being squeezed into the baby swing at the local park, and instead of ‘swinging’, his mother walked him backwards and forwards, holding the swing the entire time.
So when do we go from being concerned parents to being intrusive, overbearing, over-involved parents, causing our children anxiety because of our over-protective tendencies?

Parental motivations

Our children are born needy. They need us to touch them, respond to them, guide them, and provide for them. For the most part, the majority of concerned parents relish the opportunity to satisfy these needs. And that’s a good thing.

Additionally, parenting experts consistently remind us that inadequate care of our children can be associated with psychological and physiological challenges. Kids with parents who aren’t ‘there’ are more likely to have ADHD, depression, or act out. They’re more likely to drink or use drugs or be promiscuous (and at younger ages too). And so we invest our time and money in our children.
But more than that, we invest our hearts.

A protected life or a whole life

As our children grow, their independence naturally develops too, and we begin to be conflicted. We want them to experience life and spread their wings – but when we’re ready rather than when they’re ready. We want to help them avoid the bumps and scratches that life dishes up (literally and metaphorically). We want to save them from disappointment and sadness, fear, and anger. We try to protect them from loneliness and failure. And we forget that a whole life requires that our kids experience a wide range of emotion and experience – not just the ‘good’ stuff.

This suggests that most parents have the very best of intentions. We simply get caught up on keeping our kids safe, making sure they don’t miss out, and trying to ensure their successes. But just as under-parenting can have negative outcomes, so too can over-parenting. Our kids can become ‘entitled’, develop an inflated sense of self, become overly ‘precious’, and fail to develop independence.

Where should we act like helicopter parents

Within reason, we should stick close to our children and watch them closely when:
  • we’re in a public, crowded place
  • we’re at the beach, at a pool, or near water
  • we’re anywhere that physical danger may be present
We should gauge our level of involvement on our children’s age and competence. Obviously young children require our presence and observation much more than our older children.

Where we get into trouble

Because we care so much about our children and their development and success, we often get involved (or over-involved) and cross boundaries we shouldn’t. This is particularly so when we want to see them succeed at something we feel is important or we want them to demonstrate their ability and competence at something, whether it’s social skills, sports, academics, arts, or something else..

We can hover too much when:
  • it’s playtime
  • it’s sports time
  • they’re learning
  • they’re eating
  • they’re creating
  • they’re playing with friends
And like the parents of the college student in the story I mentioned at the start of this post, we can also cross the ‘helicopter parenting boundary’ when we:
  • observe our children, not to guide them but to ‘catch’ them
  • are not trying to understand them, but to accuse them.
Getting the balancing act right

Science can tell us a great deal about what kids need, and how parents should behave. But what we should do can be nearly impossible when we care so much and have a sense that so much is at stake in the way we raise our children.

Free-range parenting and helicopter parenting are extremes when they are our pervasive parenting styles. Balanced parents will typically find themselves somewhere between the two poles depending on context (the age of their child, the child’s maturity, the child’s previous experience and responsibility, etc).

One thing is certain though. We need to be in our children’s lives. And they really do want us to be in their lives. If we can offer support and guidance and then be confident enough to step back and watch our children succeed or fail, and then be there to congratulate them or encourage them as they pick up the pieces, then the kids (and us) will more than likely be ok.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Is humiliation an effective way to discipline your kids?


Public humiliation as a disciplinary strategy is not new. A few years ago a Townsville mother forced her son to wear a sign saying “Do not trust me. I am a thief” while he sat in the centre of town. And a quick google search provides millions of hits exposing parents who think it’s a great idea to make their children a public example of wrongdoing so that they can ‘teach them a lesson’.

Now parents are turning to social media in the name of ‘discipline’. And, in keeping with social media standard protocol other parents are both praising and ripping on those parents for their creativity in disciplinary strategy. For example, a father recently posted a photo to photo-sharing site, Reddit, showing his three year-old (yes, 3!) wearing a sign around her neck admitting that she pooped in the shower. Then there was the couple who hijacked their daughter’s facebook page and posted embarrassing photos of themselves in a bid to make their daughter look silly. Plus, don’t forget the father who blasted his daughter’s laptop with a shotgun and posted in on facebook.

At a superficial level, some of these might (and I emphasise the ‘might’ part of this sentence) be considered funny. But taking even a moment to contemplate the ramifications of publicly humiliating our children exposes the violation of trust that it really is.

Is Public Humiliation Effective Discipline?

Discipline is about teaching our children good ways to act.

Research indicates that children whose parents use humiliation and shame as ‘teaching’ tools are more likely to use similar strategies with other children. So when parents launch viral online social media attacks on their children, what is being taught? Are kids learning good ways to act? Are they seeing their embarrassing photos, videos, text messages, and signs online and thinking,

Gee Mum, thanks for persuading me that I need to behave more appropriately or things could get embarrassing for me.

Of course not. Instead, kids learn that the big person has the power to make me do anything. So might is right.

Public humiliation and shame do not teach anything that we want our children to learn, so why do we do it?

Humiliation and Shame Have Serious Consequences

A lot of parents will claim,

Hey, it works. There’s no harm in it. It’s even a bit funny. And I get a result. The kid stops doing it.

But there is harm. Here’s why:

  1. In an online world, content is forever. An image can be copied and go viral in minutes, whether globally or just within your child’s circle of friends. Significant damage can be done to a reputation with just a couple of clicks. The ramifications are significant and can last a lifetime.
  2. For a child to grow up healthy and happy, they need to trust their parents. Trust is the foundation of psychological security. To shame and publicly humiliate (or even privately humiliate) a child is a gross breach of trust and undeniably undermines the relationship you share with your child.
  3. Psychological effects of shame and humiliation include a decreased level of self-esteem and sense of worthiness, diminished self-efficacy (the belief that a person is competent and can do things), and can even lead to depression, anxiety, and elevated stress.

So what should I do instead?

The real problem with using shame and humiliation as disciplinary techniques is that only two things are really taught, and both are damaging. Those two things are that the child is unworthy, and that the person with the power is always right.

Shame and humiliation are tools of power-based parenting. The emphasis here is on making things happen to the child in the hope that those things (which are external to the child) will make the child change.

Research tells us, pretty clearly, that power-based parenting doesn’t work particularly well beyond the immediate context.

Instead, parents and children will both do better if they adopt a team-based approach where they work together on a problem. The parents should consider the development of the child and whether their expectations are appropriate. And then they can discuss, together with their child, what the limits to behaviour should be and why.

I often recommend to parents that they imagine their child were an adult guest in their home. How would they deal with the issue then?


Ultimately children still need limits, and they need parents to enforce those limits. But the way that we, as parents do that ‘enforcing’ makes all the difference. Humiliation and shaming are tactics that bullies use. They are built on intimidation and fear. Children not only deserve better, but they require better so that they can thrive and flourish.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

When is Parental Control an Invasion of Privacy?


A mum-blogger from the USA has become the first viral sensation of 2013 after giving her son an i-phone for Christmas – with strings attached. This news article highlights 18 conditions Gregory’s mum placed on her son as a condition of receiving the Christmas gift, including:
  • Giving mum the password
  • Always answering calls from mum or dad
  • Returning the phone to mum or dad at 7.30 each evening
  • Recognising that mum actually owns the phone and pays the contract
  • Ensuring no ‘private parts’ are photographed, received, or sent.
and many more.

Yesterday I was interviewed on 3AW Melbourne and the interviewer asked me if it was an ‘invasion of privacy’ that a mum would require this of her son. The interviewer suggested that the measures were ‘draconian.’ The interviewer said that surely when a gift is given, it should be unconditional.

What a load of rubbish!

Here’s what the research tells us

Kids whose parents set limits with their kids, AND who are warm and loving towards them do better in life by pretty much any and every measure. If you’re warm and loving but don’t set limits, there’ll almost certainly be problems. Likewise, kids whose parents are hard-core on setting limits but lack warmth don’t do so well either. The parenting style most strongly associated with positive outcomes for kids is the one where limits and warmth are both present.

Is the letter ok or not?
This mum’s letter is bang on. She’s fun, she’s warm, she’s excited for her son to enjoy his new phone. She’s looking forward to being able to text him and be in touch with him as he increases his independence. So that ticks the ‘warmth’ box.

Next, the letter identifies 18 issues that a parent should be concerned about in terms of a 13 year-olds use of a mobile phone. That’s what limit setting is all about. The letter is clear. It leaves no question as to what expectations are.

Is it going too far?
Parents are responsible for rearing their children, keeping them safe, and teaching them right from wrong. Limits should – no, limits MUST be set. They should be age appropriate. They should change as children get older. But as far as I can see, there is nothing draconian here. Nor is it an invasion of privacy. Parents need to know what is going on in their children’s lives, what is influencing them, and what they are being exposed to. They then need to work with their children to guide them with appropriate limits, just like this mum.

It could still be better
The young man’s response, when quizzed about his mum’s ‘conditional gift’ on national US television, was what we might expect from a typical early-teenaged boy. He didn’t like it, thought it was over the top, and was kind of embarrassed by it. Here’s where I think this mum might have improved what she had done to reduce his resistance to her guidelines:

Greg’s mum might have made this an even better idea by having a discussion with him about the conditions to be agreed upon rather than using the top-down dictatorial approach she went with. By having an ongoing discussion they can understand one another and the reasons why certain conditions need to be agreed to. This increases the likelihood that Greg will willingly agree to and go along with the relevant conditions. In fact, Greg might even develop some of the rules and conditions himself rather than having his mum tell him how it has to be.

With the exception of an initial (and then ongoing) discussions between parent and child, this mum-blogger has nailed what it is to set appropriate limits in a warm and effective way with her children.

Too many parents make the mistake of giving their children unrestricted access to mobile phones, computers and the internet, the x-box, the car (!), and any number of other privileges without any limits or even discussion. Alternatively, some flimsy agreements might be made but parents don’t keep their kids accountable because there is just so much to stay on top of.

A written agreement about the ‘big things’ matters. It makes it concrete. It ensures that there are no misunderstandings. And when we do it in a consultative and democratic way, our kids are generally going to be more than willing to stick by the rules and keep our families happy.