"Dr. Laura....I just want to give my kids a better start in life than I had. How can I make sure they're self-disciplined but happy?"
All of us want to raise children who become self-disciplined -- and happy -- adults. The only question is how best to do that. Luckily, we know a lot of the answers. Research studies have been following children from babyhood to adulthood for decades, so we actually know much of what works to raise great kids. Here are five of the most important things we know.
1. Children learn to love from a secure attachment with at least one loving adult.
Parents facilitate this secure attachment in the first year by listening to their unique baby and responding to her needs. They continue to nurture secure attachment by accepting the full range of who their child is -- including all that messy neediness and anger -- into the toddler years and throughout childhood and the teen years. Parents who are unable to tolerate their child's neediness, or who control (rather than accepting the child as he is), are intrusive (rather than taking the child's cues), or otherwise react out of their own needs rather than responding to their child's needs are less likely to raise a securely attached child.
This close relationship is what motivates kids to cooperate and to accept their parents' rules and role-modeling. Without that bond, parents lose their influence as soon as children begin interacting with peers, because kids are looking to satisfy those unrequited needs via their peers.
Do you have to "attachment parent" to raise a securely attached child? No. Estimates are that before parents in the US began using what we think of as attachment practices (baby-wearing, co-sleeping, nursing), about 60% of toddlers were still securely attached. It's the parent's emotional responsiveness that determines security of attachment. Of course, many parents say that attachment practices increase their responsiveness, which the research is beginning to confirm, at least for baby-wearing.
2. Children learn self-discipline from limits with empathy.
Kids who are raised without limits don't get many opportunities to practice self-discipline, so they don't necessarily learn to be considerate of others or to manage themselves through unpleasant tasks -- which is why permissive parenting can raise undisciplined kids. (For more on the drawbacks of permissive parenting.)
BUT -- and this is a big BUT -- if the limits are imposed in a way that provokes resistance ("Don't you sass me, young lady!"), the child still doesn't learn self discipline, because she doesn't internally accept the limit. So when a limit is perceived as harsh or unfair, kids don't actually learn self-discipline, which is why authoritarian parenting raises kids who ultimately can't manage themselves without outside discipline (and are more susceptible to peer pressure). All punishment undermines self-discipline. (Did you really think he was sitting on the naughty step taking responsibility and considering how to be a better kid? He was reviewing why he was justified in his behavior and plotting revenge, like any normal human!) (For more on the drawbacks of strict parenting.)
When limits are imposed with empathy:
"I see you're mad! Shoes are not for throwing, no matter how mad you are... Tell me in words!"
...kids may not like the limit, but they don't get stuck in resistance. They feel understood, supported, connected. That connection makes them willing to live with the limit, especially if parents also accept their upset about the limit. She builds more self-discipline every time she stops herself from going after what she wants because there's something she wants even more -- a good relationship with you.
What's more, she learns that she can't always get her way, but she gets something better: someone who loves her exactly as she is. This unconditional positive regard becomes the core of unshakable positive self esteem and stable internal happiness. (For more on setting limits with empathy.)
3. Children learn to self-soothe by being soothed by parents.
That's because the neural pathways that release soothing biochemicals are formed when the baby is soothed by the parent. Leaving little ones alone with their big emotions does NOT teach them to self-soothe; it makes it harder for them to calm themselves throughout their lives. Children who are explosive, anxious, or "dramatic" need extra support in the form of parental calming (as well as safe opportunities to show us their emotions, see #4 below). The skill of self-soothing is essential for children to learn to manage their anxiety, emotions and behavior.
4. Children learn to manage their emotions -- and thus their behavior -- when parents emotion-coach.
Decades of research show clearly that when parents emotion-coach (instead of shutting down emotions), kids are healthier and more successful in every way. Emotion-coaching means the parent notices the child's emotions and sees them as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching. The parent acknowledges the child's perspective and empathizes. Once the child has had a chance to express the emotion, the parent supports the child to problem-solve.
Why is emotion-coaching so important? Because the parent helps the child feel safe enough to feel the emotions, so they can be experienced and begin to dissipate. The child learns that emotions aren't dangerous and can be managed.
Kids who are uncooperative, angry or fearful are signaling that they need us to "witness" their feelings by letting them be upset in our loving presence. Children who know their feelings are "allowed" don't store them up, so they're better able to manage their emotions and behavior.
So if you're connecting with your child, and setting limits with plenty of empathy, and your child is still acting out, she's signaling you that she needs help with her emotions. (For more on helping kids when they're angry, see What if your child gets angry, but never breaks through to tears?)
5. Children learn what they live.
This is simple. If we're considerate and respectful to a child, they become respectful, considerate people. Kids who are rude and disrespectful learned it somewhere; if they bring it into the house and we politely remind them that we don't relate that way, they don't adopt that style. If we yell at them, they learn to yell, and they'll be yelling back at us by the time they're eight. Ultimately, what your children experience as they grow up with you will depend on who you are, and that will be more important than any parenting philosophy.
Easy? No. This kind of parenting requires you to manage your own emotions. That's the hardest work there is.
But giving your kids a good start in life means you're sending ripples for generations into the future. Not just your children, but their children, and their children, and their children. Imagine all those happy, compassionate, self-disciplined people, all flourishing and making the world a better place, because of you. They're all waving to you from the future, saying Thank You.
Want more info on these ideas?
There are countless studies that together have shaped this approach to parenting, and more are being published every day. Many are cited in my book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Here are some other books that focus on specific areas; all are well-researched and easily available.
For more on Attachment Research, a great source is Robert Karen's book, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. Since attachment researchers have been following kids in some of these studies for many decades now, they have some pretty clear ideas about how attachment affects kids' development. We know how to develop secure attachment, and we know all the positive effects of it on kids as they grow up -- and of course we also know the risks of insecure attachment.
For more on Discipline, a terrific source is Alfie Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Kohn lists extensive citations that serve as a review of the literature on the effect of various styles of discipline.
For more on Emotional Intelligence, check out John Gottman's Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. Gottman has been following couples in his love lab for long enough that he is now seeing their children. So he's seen how various parenting practices affect kids' emotional development.