Presumably every parent reading this wants to be the best parent they can possibly be to their children. But what does that mean? The answer will be different for each of you but it’s important that you take a minute, if you haven’t already done so, to visualize what you think an amazing parent looks like. Having this prototype of good parenting helps you to evaluate your work (yes, parenting is a lot of work) and to help steer you back on course when you find that you’re straying. Nobody can be the perfect parent all the time so we can only strive for our best as much of the time as we can manage.
How do you know what good parenting looks like? This gets us to our first real psychology lesson: Social Learning Theory pioneered by Albert Bandura in the 1960’s. Simply observing social interactions can lead to a tremendous amount of learning. Applied to parenting, we look for the outcome parents experience based on how they choose to interact with their children. For example, you observe a parent-child interaction in which a 1 1/2 year-old appears to be on the brink of a melt-down, desperately wanting the toy another child is holding and the mother repeatedly saying, “No, that’s not your toy. Here’s your toy.” The child continues to cry, the mother gets more and more stressed…you can see where this is going. In contrast, you observe the same interaction but the mother in this case responds by saying, “Jimmy’s using that toy now but you’ll get a turn soon. Oh, look over here!” as she adeptly repositions his body facing the other direction and with energy and excitement redirects him to see a bird/butterfly/flower/whatever she can think of to shift the child’s focus away from the offending toy. The second mother tries to avoid just saying “no” to her child, realizes that young children are easily distracted, and uses high energy and positivity in her parenting. Observant parents in the room may choose to later imitate, or “model” these behaviors with their own children.
Find your role model parents, whether it’s your own parents, another mom in a play group, or a character on television. Think about what aspects of their behavior and dialogue with their children you value, and use them in your own parenting. Pick and choose from different models and develop an image for what amazing parenting looks like to you.
Also pay attention to parents whose behavior you do not want to model, whether it’s body language, speech patterns, or parenting techniques gone awry. I’ll talk more about discipline techniques and consequences in a future post, but just a quick example from years ago in my pre-baby days when my husband and I actually had time to play tennis together in the evenings after work…on a neighboring court I overheard a boy probably around age 11 repeatedly using profanity when he became discouraged about his tennis game. There are many ways this situation could have been handled better but what I’ll never forget is hearing her say, “If you keep using that language, we’re going to have to go home” not once, not twice, but at least 8 times. In the end, we actually ended up going home before they did. Even though I had never yet had to set-up an if/then consequence for my own children, I clearly observed that this technique was not working and got my first chance to build my arsenal of parenting techniques to (and not to) model.