Parenting At Its Best

There’s a wonderful article in The New York Times by Madeline Levine recently about the best sort of parenting.  (  Her observations closely parallel those of my friend Dr. John McKinnon in his books The Unchanged Mind and To Change A Mind.

Here’s a bit of Levine’s premise: For an infant to grow into a competent young adult, her parents should not do for her what she can do for herself, or what she can almost do for herself.  Dr. McKinnon would say that progress through the stages of development occurs when a child is developmentally ready and when she encounters an apt experience.  So when a toddler is capable of supporting his weight on his own two feet,  a parent must encourage him from across the room to let go of the table edge and take those first courageous steps.  Parents know the child will fall, and will learn from picking himself up and trying again.

As a child grows, the implications of “standing on his own two feet” will expand, and the parent’s task of letting him fall and pick himself back up will become increasingly terrifying. But in allowing a child to do what she is able…or almost able…to do builds self respect and teaches resilience.  To step in and convey, in word or deed, “we don’t think you can handle this” creates a sense of incompetence and dependency.  And it stunts a young person’s emotional growth.  To be clear, neither the NYT article nor John McKinnon’s books are suggesting that a parent provide a MARTA card to an eight year old and instruct him to go explore Atlanta.  But they are urging that parents let their children have opportunities to both succeed and to fail, confident that they will learn from both.

The article also sites research indicating that if a child is encouraged in a task without the reassurance that he is smart, he will actually do better than peers who are urged on without references to their intellectual gifts.  Ooops, haven’t all of us as parents made the “oh you’re so smart!” mistake?  But over the last couple of years I have seen several boys who were so terrified of not living up to their potential that they were virtually locked down in a global case of writers block.

The wisdom that is being conveyed by the NYT writer and by Dr. McKinnon seems to encourage adolescents to push themselves onward, with the assumption that failure will be part of the process — and a very necessary experience at that.  And it challenges parents not to be so anxious in their parenting that they step in unnecessarily just to alleviate their own anxiety.   Levine tells us that ” children  thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and no interfering. ”  It’s a tall order, but what about parenting isn’t?