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What makes a perfect parent?
Posted at: Apr/04/2017 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: Behavior, People, Society,
There are lots of things that all of us attempt to do not just well but perfectly. High on this list is the art or task of parenting; raising our children. To this task we look to our personal experience and the families we were raised in and the families we knew growing up. Learning by example is a great tool, but in this era of self-help books we are also blessed with a wealth of books published by experts telling us what works best and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, the experts seem to contradict each other and their favored techniques seem to fall in and out of fashion, making the filtering of advice overwhelming and confusing.
In the past few decades, a vast array of parenting experts have arisen proclaiming parenting as its own science. These experts publish books, conduct seminars and get interviewed on television/radio promoting what is best for our children. Like all experts, they rely on a collection of studies, objective truths and self-rationalizing opinions. As these experts prognosticate, they leave a trail of confusion and fear that if you do something wrong you will create a bad child. Breast feeding, for example is the only way to guarantee a healthy and intellectually advanced child – unless bottle feeding is the answer. A child should always be put to sleep on their stomach until it is announced that they should always sleep on their back. Of course, “spare the rod and spoil the child”, or is it “spank the child and go to jail.”
One reason that parents are so easily swayed by parenting experts is that parents, in fact, all humans, are poor at assessing risk. Because of this, there are certain risks that scare people into changing their behavior. These changes in behavior are often well out of proportion to the risk itself. In 2004 a woman in New Jersey reported that her friend had died of mad-cow disease. Despite the fact that the autopsy reported a different cause of death and mad-cow disease is not known to transition from cows to human there was a scare in the beef market. A huge number of Americans stopped eating beef for months and Japan suspended all U.S. beef imports for 4 months. In another example, people are far more frightened of planes than cars, despite the fact that cars are responsible for many more fatalities than plane. Then again, experts like to spin statistics for their own purposes. If the amount of time one spends in a plane verses a car were equal, the numbers also indicate that the likelihood of death would be about equal. Using statistics and selective facts humans can be driven to both rational and irrational behavior at the same time. It is rational to be afraid of mad-cow disease, but it is also irrational to be more frightened of mad-cow disease than the far more likely heart disease. Clearly, it is easier to be frightened of things that pose an immediate threat as opposed to those thing that are far-off or much more gradual.
One of the recurring subjects that parenting experts visit is the question “how much do parents really matter?” This is often referred to as the “Nature vs Nurture” debate. Nature being the genetics and DNA that the child is born with while nurture is considered the environment and support that a child is provided as they grow and mature. It seems clear that bad parenting can play a major role in determining a child’s future. Children born to parents who might otherwise have gotten an abortion are more likely to commit crimes as adults. This at least is a rationale used by some segments of American society to justify higher crime rates in their ethnic group. Nevertheless, it is unclear how much good parents can do to prepare their children to be successful adults. There have been numerous studies of twins who were separated at birth that suggest genetics is responsible for about 50% of a child’s abilities and personality. The Colorado Adoption Project studied the lives of 245 infants who were adopted shortly after birth. The study found no direct correlation between the personality of the adopted child and their adoptive parents. In truth, studies that only correlate 50% of the time represent an inconclusive premise or ambiguous results. Regardless of the data, there are notable proponents on both sides of this debate continuously publishing books.
The classic debate about nature vs nurture often comes down to the story of two hypothetical children. One child is white and the other black. The white child is raised in Chicago by parents who spend a lot of time with him. They read to him and take him to museums. When the white child shows a proficiency in math his parents are proud of. The black child is born in Florida and his mother leaves him when he is two years old. His alcoholic father raises him sometimes beating him. The black child grows up to be a neighborhood drug dealer, while the white child grows up to have a successful life by contemporary standards. How much of their path in life was determined by genetics and how much by their environments. For well-intentioned parents, their biggest fear is that they do not have any control on what type of person their children ultimately become.
One of the places where we associate performance with good development is academic arena. Education in America is one realm where there are a wealth of studies. In the 1980’s it was mandated on the Chicago Public School (CPS) system that incoming high school freshmen could attend any school in their district. To meet the overwhelming demand for specific schools, CPS used a lottery system to determine which students would be allowed entrance into the school of their choice. Parents of high testing students wanted to place their children in the schools that were viewed as more academically rigorous. Presuming that two students with similar test scores actually do have the same abilities, this seemed an excellent opportunity to study nature vs nurture where the school environment was the nurturing component.
Within the limited scope of the study, the CPS data led to one clear conclusion: school choice barely matters in determining academic success. Effectively, students with similar freshman entrance grades and testing scores graduated their respective high schools and scored similar on standardized testing regardless of the high school they attended. The data scientist would tell you that this proves nurture matters a lot less than nature. Unfortunately, like so many studies a wider lens may be needed. What was ignored was the impact of academic skill development in grades K-8, so ultimately the CPS study proved that the pursuit of an academically “good education” does not always improve academic performance.
One of the most common themes when researching sociology and education is the “testing gap.” The “testing gap” is the measured outcome that white students score higher on middle school standardized testing than black students. The testing stops after middle school because differing graduation rates across ethnic lines make it difficult to compare the data. There are a host of theories including poverty, genetics, family challenges, racial bias and such at play. Harvard professor Roland Fryer is among a group of sociologists who argue there is an unfortunately strong social incentive for black students to do poorly in school. He reports that black students who do well are at risk of being mocked by their peers for “being too white” or “selling out.” While the notion of intentionally doing poorly has many long term repercussions for our society, it also implies that academic performance can be driven by environmental or “nurture” forces in contradiction to other studies that devalued nurture in the development of a child.
In the 1990s, the Department of Education (DoE) initiated its own study of childhood development from kindergarten to the fifth grade. The study is considered the benchmark for anyone seeking to understand the testing gap between white and black students. The study measured the students’ academic performance and compared this data with such other factors as race, family structure, socioeconomic status, etc. These extra data components allowed sociologists and economists to perform regression analysis on their results. Regression analysis seeks to isolate the relationship between certain specific factors and other factors: for instance, the relationship between a child’s third-grade math scores and the child’s parents’ level of education. By itself, regression analysis cannot prove causation; it can only show correlation. The Interpreting of this this correlative data by sociologists can provide a means to prove causation.
A key result from the DoE study of the 1990s was that the black-white testing gap disappears when economists control or normalize for factors like income level, parents’ educational level, and mother’s age at the birth of her first child. These results are encouraging because they mathematically refute the genetic notion that black students are inherently inferior to their white counterparts. This study ultimately showed that academic performance in the K-5 grades is driven by environmental factors and that means it is things that parents, teachers and community leaders can improve.
The DoE study ultimately isolated 7 highly correlated factors that are related to a child’s development.
1) The child has highly educated parents
2) The child’s parents have high socioeconomic status
3) The child’s mother is thirty or older at the time of her first child’s birth
4) The child’s parents speak English in the home
5) The child is adopted
6) The child’s parents are involved in the PTA (Parent Teacher Association)
7) The child has many books in his house.
Obviously, 1, 2, 4 & 7 are different measures of same thing with regards to the parents. Surprisingly, things like reading to children, museum trips and stay at home parents had little weighting on the results.
What all of this study data really says is that genetics are not nearly as important as basic parenting. It matters that a child has educated parents because these families tend to value and encourage education. This aligns closely with a high socioeconomic status because these are generally parents with secondary education and a strong professional work ethic. In a similar manner, a mother who has deferred having children until thirty has generally done so to complete a college education and start a career. When English is spoken in the home it means that the child does not have to go back and forth between two languages at home and school respectively. Language skills are also very practice oriented so using English at home advances language skills for school. Additionally, English speaking parents are better equipped to oversee and help their children with their studies.
The data on the importance of being involved in the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) is vague, but there are some conclusions that can be surmised. Parents who attend PTA meetings tend to be educated and therefore motivated to help their children succeed. These same PTA parents are likely also involved in other organizations that overlap and impact their children’s lives.
It is important to note that things like a high IQ testing score and moving to better neighborhood did not make the list. Another aspect of the DoE study was that no direct negative impact could be found with TV watching despite the strong bias in education circles against television.
What does all this mean for the aspiring parent? While the scientific community seems to focus on genetics having a profound impact on a child’s development, these studies contradict that. The Department of Education study is one of many whose data has been analyzed by sociologist and economist coming to the conclusion that parents do have a profound influence on their children’s development.
Being a ‘good parent’ is not as daunting as the title might seem. Much like other forms of leadership, there is a common set of themes that most parents good seem to do. High on the list is listening, don’t compare, be consistent, praise, make time, enforce the rules, choose your battles carefully, encourage independence and lead by example. Nearly any management boot camp would teach and encourage a similar list.
When raising a child, you are also trying to develop a new member of society. Your child will have opinions that they think need to be heard. Even if these thoughts are ultimately foolish, listening shows respect. After listening, you can always explain why their view is wrong.
Don’t compare is especially important when there are siblings. It is very easy to fall into the trap of comparing one child’s academic or sports performance to another. This inflates one child while bruising the other. This does not mean everyone is a winner and that you should praise even poor performance. Children need to be challenged and pushed, but the standard they should be measured against is their capability, not the next child. The ‘everyone is a winner’ attitude shields children from the real world and the notion that they did not get that math problem right. Nothing is learned when you tell a child that 3 x 5 = 35 is a creative answer. The aforementioned example comes from a 1990’s teaching guideline when it was considered more important to not bruise self-esteem than report a wrong answer. Learning to cope with failure or just being wrong, is part of growing up.
Children respond well to boundaries, when a parent is consistent in their expectations and responses, they will be better able to learn how to be successful. Just like adults, children thrive under consistency. Going to bed at the same time, doing homework at the same time and place, eating meals at a consistent time will have a remarkable impact on behavior and the overall demeanor of your household.
All parents have a right to be proud of their children. The first time an infant’s eyes scan the room we the parents become certain that their child is especially bright and alert. Praise should not be given falsely, or for trivial thing, but when earned praise is welcome. Children are really just miniature people, just like adults, praise and recognition are welcome when something is done right and the outcome exceeds expectations. Most people of any age will repeat good behaviors just to experience praise they have previously received. When your child picks up their toys and cleans their room, say something positive and that behavior will be repeated. Just don’t fall into the trap of giving praise for every trivial thing.
Children thrive on having a relationship with their parents. Every child should have some one-on-one time with each parent at least weekly. This time does not need be at the park throwing a baseball; just taking them with you to the grocery store or the home center can become special time. Ask them about their day, what they are looking forward to, make them feel this time is dedicated to them. There are some special boundaries here, be careful not to try and be your child’s best friend. Being a good parent comes with a certain degree of respect and finality of decisions. Becoming a best friend can inhibit your success at enforcing difficult or authoritarian situations and decisions.
Much like consistency, enforcing the rules of your household is a way to avoid anarchy. This also means that if a rule comes with consequence, you need to enforce that consequence. Remember, you are also teaching a child how to eventually become a functioning adult and live in the adult world. For an adult, if they run a red light they will likely create chaos at the intersection and get a ticket if a police officer is nearby. If it were understood in advance that not completing homework would mean that your child can’t go outside and play, you need to enforce this. Without being too harsh, life is about action and consequence. Good actions generally have good consequence and bad actions nearly always come with a bad consequence. As children and teens, these are important concepts to experience and practice.
Children will challenge their parents at every opportunity. These situations will especially test one’s patience at the end of a long and difficult work day. Living under your roof for a number of years, children and teens will become experts at knowing where, when and how to push their parents’ buttons. Try not to turn every situation that questions your authority into a battle, instead…choose your battles carefully. One common challenge that most parents will experience is dinner time. On the healthy and responsible side is ensuring that your child eats all the vegetables you have put on their plate, but depending on your child, this may not go well. We shared this challenge early on with a pediatrician who was also a parent. He pointed out that it’s important to get your children to eat healthy things, but it is a personal choice whether you want to turn the family dinner into a potential battle ground. We settled for offering but not forcing the vegetables, but we also did not offer custom meals if our children did not like the dinner menu. When children are hungry enough, they will learn to eat what is available.
Part of growing a child into an adult is encouraging independence, this includes decision making. This is an especially deep challenge for mothers. When a child first comes home from the hospital they are dependent on their parents (mothers especially) for nearly everything from personal hygiene to eating. As infants become toddlers they also start to develop language skills and a sense of independence. This is a time when parents need to start giving up some of their caretaker and protector role for their children. By the time your child is 4-5 years old they should be starting to make some decisions for themselves such as what they are going to wear that day. This does not mean you let your child choose to wear the same favorite shirt day after day. As a parent you can hold up two shirts each morning and let them decide. They get to practice making decisions and the parent gets to control the scope of the decision. As a child ages the scope of the controlled decision making can be expanded. Adults who have never practiced making decisions often struggle in the adult world, but making your own choices is part of learning to be independent.
One of the most common attributes of good leaders is that they set solid examples for their team. This concept is equally important for parents. If a parent loses their temper in public, they are teaching their child this behavior is acceptable. If a parent is seen reading a book and studying at home after dinner to expand their work skills, children see this and find homework more acceptable. Children are smart and the notion of “do as I say, not as I do” is seldom taken seriously. Reading and having books in the house that are actually read becomes one of these really good examples for children.
Being a perfect parent is an unrealistic target to aspire for. There are far too many “experts” who will try to sell books and seminars preaching their specific path to great parenting. Unfortunately, the social challenges that parents and children face are continuously evolving, making any documented and specific procedure unrealistic or obsolete. Biologists and geneticists will argue that much of your child is predetermined by their DNA. They are undoubtedly right with respect to hair color and IQ test score, but there is a lot more to being a good person. The data from a host of studies analyzed by sociologists and economists indicates that who and what children become, what they learn and how they participate in society is strongly influenced by the environment they are raised in. As daunting as this task may seem, much like so many other things in life, it is a job you attack one day at a time. Get involved in your child’s life, set a solid example and remember to never underestimate your child. Like so much of life, you seldom get to make every decision right, but you still get to produce someone you are proud of and create some great memories along the way.