I have 5-year-old twin daughters. For the sake of privacy, I’ll call them Mary and Martha. Mary is sensitive, nurturing, deeply compassionate, and easily distracted. Martha is industrious and won’t stop until the job is done. She is brave and matter-of-fact. I love my girls to the moon. And they often drive me nuts.
They are both very bold with their Daddy when he is impatient and impertinent. Mary delivers an emotional appeal—“Daddy, you hurt my feelings”—with wobbly intonation. Martha pronounces a directive—“Daddy, you should not talk rough to me!”—with assertive decree.
In moments of irritability, I react impulsively and act at the whim of my own anxiety. I still have a long way to grow. As parents, we must remember that the most effective discipline is disciplined parenting.
The Harvard Family Research Project defines responsive parenting as “the use of warm and accepting behaviors to respond to children’s needs and signals” (2012). Becoming increasingly responsive as a parent requires not only an incredible dose of humility but a fullness of perspective.
Responsive parenting requires attunement to your unique child. Yet here I propose seven general principles which I believe are consistently applicable to children of any age or temperament.
1. Show Love, Without Condition
First things first—make sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that your children know that you love them unconditionally, that no matter what they do or how circumstances change, you love them. Providing unconditional love is a prerequisite to the success of rules, expectations, and all the rest.
I am grateful to Dr. Gary Chapman for the simple profundity of his “five love languages.” There are five basic ways we give and receive affection: time, touch, words, acts, and gifts; we are each wired more or less in ways that affect which of these modes of affection mean the most to us.
I find there is always fantastic nuance in the linguistics of love. My daughter Mary feels highly connected to me when I give her nurturing massage. Martha feels highly connected to me when I block her karate chop, swipe her legs out from under her, and tackle her to the ground.
When we show love in our child’s unique language, we maximize the impact of our affections and fortify a secure base. Be a scientist, and experiment to learn what fills your child’s bucket. Then multiply to infinity.
2. Order Up Expectations, Sans the Egotism
Share your convictions firmly but without unnecessary rigidity. Remain open-minded, and share your thought process, even aspects of your own ambivalence. Your children will come to respect your authenticity and gain in cognitive and emotional depth. When you do choose to pick a battle, the credibility you may have gained in the process of compromising on nonessentials may be leveraged against a non-negotiable.
3. More Carrot, Less Stick
Catch your children doing the right thing, and do not miss opportunities to affirm a child’s acts of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Cultivate virtue by feeding, watering, and lighting the growth of character and integrity.
Also, work hard to nurture your bond with them, and you may find yourself less on the proverbial parenting soap box and less engaged in punitive discipline.
Mary and Martha love when I read them stories. We’re currently halfway through The Horse and His Boy on a quest to finish all seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia this summer. They know that if they have any chance for an extra chapter or two tonight, most of their toys must be neatly stored by bedtime hour.
4. Feed Connection, Starve Reaction
Your children want to know and to be connected with you, to know that you know them and want to be connected with them. It’s easy to miss this simple yet weighty truth as we grind out the day-to-day. Pour out affirmation and interest, and slow down reaction to mistakes and misbehavior.
Confront your children about issues for which you find yourself curious or concerned. Have direct and open conversations. Prioritize relationship over reaction, connection over compliance.
Do not present yourself as aggressive or unmovable. Observe and respond to your children’s perceptions and perspective. Do not just listen to yourself think and talk. Listen to them. Then, if necessary, remain resolute in clarifying limits and reassert your love.
5. Be Playful, Ditch the Digital
Let’s face it: we live in the digital age. And, whatever its virtues, it has waned our capacity for responsive attunement to our children’s tireless energies and budding desires. It is undeniable that learning as well as bonding best occurs when there is a significant component of play and reciprocal interaction.
A few weeks ago, my daughters were restless for fun, so I turned a couple of couches on their side and engineered a magnificent tent with an assortment of rods, a ladder, blankets, pillows, and a string of lights. That tent stayed up for weeks and prompted our adventure into Narnia. They will remember this forever.
6. Foster Wonder, Deter Gloom
We must teach our children how to think and feel, connect and create, and incite their wonder. We must find the time to attempt real answers to their insatiable questions and pose our own in return. Let us fearlessly lead our children in conversations of beauty and purpose and death. Life itself is the essence of wonder.
We don’t teach our children how to play. Rather, an innate curiosity and creativity drives their wildly imaginative masquerades into make-believe. Such creativity is a catalyst for competency. It deters boredom and gloom and promotes resilience. Yet many of us inhibit our children’s play, to their detriment.
7. Reward Competence, Discourage Vanity
Your children want to be awesome, just like you. Teach them everything you can about the world so that they will gain insight, and teach them everything you can about how the world works so that they will gain skill. Insight and skill are precursors to self-worth. Baseless praise is not. Neither is praise of outer appearance.
For instance, that Mary and Martha are pretty girls is a distraction from Mary’s early promotion in swim class and Martha’s success in cooking up scrambled eggs all by herself. Praise of externals risks an infusion of vanity. When I praise what they have genuinely done well, I excite self-worth and stir courage for more.
Landry, S. H., Smith, K. E., Swank, P. R., Zucker, T., Crawford, A. D., and Solari, E. F. (2012, March 15). The effects of a responsive parenting intervention on parent–child interactions during shared book reading. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026400. Retrieved from http://www.hfrp.org/family-involvement/publications-resources/the-effects-of-a-responsive-parenting-intervention-on-parent-child-interactions-during-shared-book-reading
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