Parenting as Helping

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass
Refugees near Hue | Title: Vietnam War 1972 | Author: Bruno Barbey | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY 2.0
Refugees near Hue | Vietnam War 1972 | Author: Bruno Barbey | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY

I’ve been studying the art of helping for over 50 years. When I enlisted in the Army in 1967, my intention was to help our country win a war in Vietnam. After serving a year in Saigon, I realized that “helping” could be for better or for worse. In this case, the American War was for worse. After dropping millions of tons of bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange on a third world country consisting mostly of Buddhist, peasant farmers, we shipped our planes, weapons, and soldiers back home and declared an end to the fatal folly.

Two million people killed for an outcome that could have been achieved peacefully and diplomatically.

Seeing so many “broken men” as a result of that experience, I decided to do what I could to “build strong children.”

But this is not a post about Vietnam. It’s about parenting. I want to make the point in the most dramatic fashion I know that “helping” can be for better or for worse and that our work as parents starts with the acknowledgement that our roles do not necessarily produce the results we want in spite of good intentions. I have been a parent for 43 years, so I’m speaking from experience.

To be effective helpers, parents need to create the conditions and develop the skills required to make a positive difference in a child’s life. Based on my analysis of research conducted over the past 50 years, there are four conditions and four skills at the foundation of effective parenting. The conditions are: genuineness, positive regard, respect, and specificity. The skills are: demonstrating interest, demonstrating understanding, personalizing goals, and sharing perspective.

Title: Pinocchio | Author: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier | Source: jepoirrier on Flickr | License: CC BY-SA 2.0
Author: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier | Source: jepoirrier | License: CC BY-SA

Condition 1: Genuineness
 You can’t fake it as a parent. Kids pick up cues better than most adults. They read energy. They read tone. They know intuitively what’s real and what’s not. If their parents are not getting along, they sense it. If “I love you” is spoken as a perfunctory obligation, the words fall flat. Being genuine means saying what you are saying in honest and direct ways. Kids are the world’s best crap detectors. If you want to help your kids, you have to get real and be real.

Condition 2: Positive regard
 Being a critic is not particularly helpful as a parent. Kids need to learn to love themselves and be positive about their own self-worth. Constantly pointing out negatives and harping on what’s wrong diminishes the child’s sense of who they are and who they can be. This is not to say that parents should not have standards and make demands on their kids. It means making sure your strokes are outnumbering your pokes by at least a 5:1 ratio. I always felt my job as a parent was to free my kids to be who they want to be and to support them in those efforts. I tried to keep them out of danger and away from destructive influences, but I always tried to be positive about their possibilities and who they were as unique individuals.

Condition 3: Respect

The Dream Rocket Project | Credit: NPS Photo/ Cara Pearson | Source: NPS
The Dream Rocket Project | Credit: NPS Photo/ Cara Pearson | Source: NPS

One of the biggest challenges of parenting is to respect the differences our kids bring into the world. Our image of who we think they should be, what they should believe, how they should look, where they go to school, how they should live their lives, and to whom they should be attracted will probably be different than our children’s images. Trying to impose our values and beliefs rarely works. In my experience, brainwashing and controlling may work as long as the parent has the power to reward and punish, but those strategies limit who the child wants to become. To me, respecting children’s right to explore, giving them the latitude to reach their own understanding of the world, and freeing them to live their lives as they choose honors them as unique individuals.

Condition 4: Specificity 
 Parenting by platitude doesn’t typically produce desired results. We’ve all heard the vague commands issued by frustrated parents: “Be nice!”; “Quit acting so badly!”; “Can’t you be more flexible!” Parenting by principles usually works out much better: “When you look me in the eye, I feel more sure that you are listening to me”; “If you get dressed in the next 10 minutes, then you can have 5 minutes to play with your toys before school”; When you eat your banana and your spinach, you can have one small scoop of ice cream”; I’m going to count down from 10 and then turn off your screen.” Giving feedback and directions with concrete details increases the chances of children doing what they need to do to be successful and achieve their goals.

Those four conditions set the stage for using helping skills.

In the absence of those conditions, all the knowledge and skills in the world won’t help you accomplish your parenting goals. It turns out that people going to graduate school to become professional social workers and psychologists are as likely to become less functional as helpers as they are likely to become better helpers as a result of the training. Those who get better are the ones who do the inner work necessary to become more genuine, positive, respectful, and specific. Those who get worse are the ones who get so caught up in their professional identity and become so enamored with their profound insights that they violate the conditions required to be helpful. If the conditions are present, then advanced skills and substantive knowledge can make a positive difference. The skills, however, can be learned by any parent who wants to learn them.

You don’t need to be a psychologist or social worker to be an effective parent.

Here they are:

Skill 1: Demonstrating Interest
 Sticking with the number 4, there are four steps for demonstrating interest: paying attention, noticing behavior and appearance, asking questions, and actively listening. Paying attention means getting at the same level as the child, turning toward him or her, closing the distance, establishing eye contact, and eliminating distractions. Those are the specific behaviors involved in paying attention. Noticing behaviors and appearance requires us to observe changes and look for clues indicating how the child feels, what’s currently important to them, what the child’s energy level is, and how the child is relating to the environment — including you. Asking questions means making intelligent inquiry about what’s going on in the child’s life at any particular moment. Actively listening requires us to suspend judgment, focus intensively and intentionally, and hear the words and feelings the child is expressing at the beginning and end of the conversation. If you demonstrated real interest in this skill, you would have noticed that there are 15 distinct opportunities for letting a child know you really care — each one of which is powerful in and of itself.

Skill 2: Demonstrating Understanding
 It’s impossible to make an accurate response to a child’s experience in a moment, if we are not paying attention, noticing, asking, and listening. Those are the prerequisites to demonstrating understanding or empathy. Empathy is the ability to crawl into another person’s shoes and be able to articulate how the person is feeling and why they may feel that way from their frame of reference. Feelings can be categorized as Up, Down, Angry, Fear, or Confusion. Each of those categories have different levels of intensity. For example, a high intensity “Up” feeling might be ecstatic; happy describes a medium level of intensity; OK captures a lower intensity. What’s important for the parent and the child is to have a large repertoire of feeling words that help them pinpoint the exact experience. And guess what? When you respond accurately to a feeling, the child will often say, “Exactly!” And then share what they are really thinking and how they are truly feeling. Nothing like immediate feedback to let you know you are tuning in and reading the experience accurately. Empathy also requires an ability to hear and respond to the key values involved in a particular experience, for example: trust, respect, friendship, inclusion, etc. As a parent, we often feel inadequate because we are not able to connect at the level we would like to with our children. That response may be a demonstration of understanding to your experience.

Author: Peter Gagilas | Source: gagilas | License: CC BY-SA 2.0
Author: Peter Gagilas | Source: gagilas | License: CC BY-SA

Skill 3: Personalizing Goals
 Demonstrating interest and understanding are necessary, but not always sufficient. The goal is to help our children clarify direction and articulate what success looks like and feels like to them. A parent might ask a child, “What’s your goal here?” and “How are your behaviors helping you achieve that goal?” Personalizing goals implies what you might suspect. The idea is that the child’s goal emerges from their own experience and is consistent with their particular values. It’s impossible to help a child set goals without understanding their feelings, values, and experiences. Encouraging children to express their dreams and aspirations is a good way to facilitate the exploration of multiple alternatives with the intention of focusing on a desired outcome.

Skill 4: Sharing Perspective
 Yes, parental perspective is important. It’s helpful to let the child know what you have learned from your experiences. But it is rarely the best starting point. If the child doesn’t believe that you are interested in their life, that you understand their experience, and you genuinely care about their goals, it is unlikely that they will listen to your perspective. It has to be earned. It can’t be imposed. If your goal is to have your perspective heard, then you need to abide by the principle of reciprocity — children listen to those whom they believe care about them, understand them, and hear them. Instead of saying, “Here’s what you need to do,” it’s often more impactful to say, “Here are some options you may want to consider.”

Let me be clear. I’m not saying there are never situations in which the parent just needs to “lay down the law.” Saying “no” remains an option for parents to keep in their repertoire. Being directive or denying all the time, however, does not tend to end well for the parent or the child. The key to parenting is to develop a broad and deep repertoire of responses that enable you to choose the right approach given the capabilities of the child and the importance of the situation. Being able to decide when it’s best to be empowering, participative, persuasive, or demanding is at the core of effective parenting.

More importantly, I need to stress that this post is not intended to be the end all and be all of parenting. It simply taps the literature from helping and applies the findings to parenting. Being an extraordinary parent begins with embracing caring beyond what you could ever have imagined. These little children who come into our lives are cosmic gifts and deserve all the love and support we can provide. Effective parenting also requires us to do the work to minimize the negative effects of whatever childhood tapes we bring to the parenting role. The last thing we want to do as parents is to pass on the trauma we experienced as children to our children. And then there are the basic 3C requirements of: reaching Consensus with your parenting partner on parenting decisions, ensuring Consistency of parenting messages, and administering appropriate Consequences for misbehavior. This parenting gig ain’t easy.

As a grandparent of twin 6-year-olds, I have the privilege of providing endless love and support for each child. I am blessed each morning with warm, tender hugs from each one. It is a gift for which I am grateful beyond words.

And yet, parenting can feel like fighting a war at times. We may not be dropping bombs or napalm, but we are continually dealing with explosions of one form or another. Each of our battles with our children can turn out for better or for worse. To me, what makes a difference between attaining the outcome you desire or the nightmare you fear are not only the conditions and skills you bring to each moment of parenting, but also the endless love you can bestow on your child each day — a cosmic hug beyond compare. May you be as helpful, loving and caring as a parent as you would like to be. And may you bring the grace of cosmic love to every moment with your children and grandchildren.

As Goethe said,

“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”

Originally published at Perspectives & Possibilities.