All You Really Need to Know About Parenting
Parent First Parenting: The Simplicity Principle, Part 1
Let me save you oodles of precious time reading countless books, googling endless parenting websites, and spending hours in sleepless worry. If we take a step back from the minutiae of parenting choices, decisions, arguments, and FEELINGS, parenting has only a few basic truths. Don’t be bamboozled by those alluring social media ads from parenting experts making promises they can’t keep or misrepresenting the science of parenting to instill self-doubt. As a seasoned social scientist, child psychologist, and parent, I’m here to tell you: it’s not that complicated.
Of course, as human beings, we still want more information even though we don’t really, really need it. It’s like the monster at the end of the book – we can’t help ourselves from searching for more and more answers and guidance. You can read and re-read this post (and the next one, part 2) when you feel overwhelmed by it all. When it feels impossible to use all the strategies. When your family’s basic survival is all that matters. When you just want to reassure yourself that what you are doing is good enough. It probably is.
I present The Simplicity Principle Part 1 to give an overview of what you need to know about your child; Simplicity Principle Part 2 will cover you and your parent-child relationship. If you can keep in mind these few foundational building blocks, you “pass” parenting. The rest is extra credit, and now more than ever we could all use the pass/fail system.
Child Development: The Quickest Primer Ever
Child development is a rich and complex field of study, but what we really need to know as parents doesn’t have to include the myriad theories of developmental stages. You will fill out forms at your pediatrician visits, and they will tell you if your child’s development may be amiss. Otherwise, here are the most important child development nuggets.
Temperament matters A LOT. We don’t control it – they are born with it.
I “knew” about temperament from studying child development and working with children my whole adult life. But then I had my own children. Forty percent of children fall into the “easy” temperament category; that means chances are we end up with a child (or several) who do not qualify as “easy.”
What the child development world can miss is the impact temperament can have on parent development -- the depth of parenting doubt, insecurity, and crisis that can come with parenting a non-“easy” child (I don’t love this distinction, but I’m using the terminology that’s out there). Temperament determines much of your parenting experience – and sense of parent self-worth. Even though it shouldn’t because again, it’s them, not you!
Since temperament is so central to the parenting experience, taking time to know each of your children’s temperaments is well worth your limited time and energy. (See recommended books in Resources list.) The knowledge of how temperament influences behavior can help you anticipate problems before they escalate, and come up with tricks that work for just that child. That’s right, what’s totally effective for one child can be a complete misfire for another – and you are flummoxed because you did it the same!
Understanding your child’s temperament helps you get better at hitting the target, even if it’s not quite a bullseye. (For more on my personal experience as a mother with a child of very different temperament, read Temperament Is Everything).
Children Need Limits.
I know we all know this, but it’s worth reviewing not just why it’s important, but why it’s so challenging!
As any parent with a shred of experience knows, along with the clear need to set limits comes the clear talent of children to push these limits. And push them they do, to the brink, which immediately brings us to the brink.
Depending on temperament (you will notice how these basic truths of parenting are all connected), children with intense and persistent temperaments can simply outlast us. The force is strong with them. My oldest daughter, who shares the temperament genetics with her little brother, is a true master. She asks for something. I tell her No. She asks multiple times in multiple ways across multiple days. I decide it’s not worth the energy this limit-setting is draining from me and boom, she gets that positive reinforcement of getting what she wants if she just bugs us enough about it; my child psychologist brain explodes with dissonance from my Mom brain. So, although we need to know that setting limits with our children is an important part of parenting and child development, we don’t need to be perfect. (We never need to be perfect at anything in parenting, by the way.)
Setting limits isn’t just about granting or denying their wishes, however, it’s knowing them better than they know themselves and being a step ahead in giving them what they need. This is why every parent of young children never leaves the house without a diaper bag stuffed with snacks. This is why we protect naptime with the force of a batallion. This is why we wrap up parties before kids want them to be over.
Our young children’s new brains are building the neuron networks for self-control and self-regulation, but they don’t have it yet; WE are their self-control and self-regulation. (WE are very many parts of their brains; another reason we are so tired, and forgetful.) The hope is that a few years from toddlerhood, the elementary kid will feel tired, and put themselves to bed, no hours-long bedtime hoopla necessary.
External limits (that’s us) have to come first for a child to build their own sense of internal limits, which is what translates to the all-important life skills of self-control and self-regulation. One top tip from the trenches: the more you set limits when they are younger, the easier it will be when they are older. It literally will take years, but those years are worth it when your teenager has better self-control and self-regulation; well, as good as it gets at least.
Please remember this: you can do nothing 100% of the time. Yes, consistency is key to effective parenting, but the human-level type of consistent, not the robot type. Pick what matters most for your children and you (sleep? screen time?), and put your energy into those limits. Do your best most of the time to set those limits, and shrug your shoulders and move on when you give in; you will get plenty of more chances. Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need your energy reserves for many, many limits to set for years to come.
This may seem like the most obvious statement ever but our children’s brains are not like ours. Their neuron networks are rapidly building, pruning, and strengthening all the way until age 25. Even though I know you know this, do you get frustrated when your child cannot seem to learn to pick up their stuff without a billion reminders? Or when YOU LEAVE AT THE SAME TIME EVERY MORNING but they get totally waylaid by some blades of grass or the act of getting dressed?
I’ll say it one more time: their brains are not like ours. Some of the parts yet to develop are the ones controlling planning and organizing. We look at the living room and see every errant toy and sock that belongs somewhere else; they see a super fun toy to pick up and play with. Even the child psychologist in me expected this to change when they matured past preschool age. I have learned, alas, that children and teens seem generally incapable of picking up their own stuff without a verbal stream of reminders.
The reason this concept of brain differences between us and them is so important is how it can save us a lot of frustration. This frustration includes when popular parenting advice intended to help us build empathy with our child actually makes us feel worse. When we are advised to think what it would be like if someone were giving us consequences for our behavior, or trying to “bribe” us with rewards (more on this in the upcoming Discipline Principle), how we would feel manipulated, this omits a very critical fact: they are children with child brains; we are adults with adult brains. It’s not the same. We need to treat them like they are children BECAUSE THEY ARE CHILDREN.
In the classic parenting book, The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, it helped me tremendously to be reminded when staring helplessly at my young child in the throes of a huge outburst that I am his frontal lobe. For now. We need to do what their eventually developed frontal lobe will do, but they just can’t yet. The behavior itself is still totally crazy-making, but it’s not because there’s something wrong with them or us (most of the time).
The same goes for those famous adolescent blow-ups. As psychologist and author, Lisa Damour, has described, the emotional sections of their brains actually light up more and are feeling the emotions more intensely than our brains. The sudden tears and door-slamming are the limbic system of the brain on fire, and that would feel awful.
Understanding the brain differences of our children and adolescents, even if not in great detail, can help us realize it’s not us. This detachment from taking their behaviors or reactions personally saves us the unnecessary guilt and self-blame, ultimately helping us respond more effectively, staying steady in the storm.
The Simplicity Paradox
Yes, I realize parenting is far from simple. It’s the most puzzling, constantly shifting and challenging life experience out there, as neither we nor our children stays the same while life happens. Within these ever-changing tides, however, we can help ourselves tremendously with the reminder that these basics of child development are most deserving of our time and energy. Especially during seasons of so much overwhelm (you know, like a global pandemic), if we can take deep breaths and channel our energy towards what matters most, we do better, which means our children do too.
Cheat Sheet: Your Quickie Recap
Temperament: Child temperament is a central part of the parenting experience, including how effective or “good” we feel as parents. Keep trying different behavioral approaches until you find a good fit with your child’s temperament.
Limit-Setting: Limit-setting is an important part of children developing self-control and self-regulation. Consistency is important, but 100% is impossible. Prioritize areas of limit-setting (sleep, screen time) and expend your energy accordingly. Do your best and move on from the rest!
Brain Development: WE are often serving functions of under-developed brains, like organizing and regulating strong emotion; doing this for them and with them helps them build up those parts of their brains, even if it takes years. Be patient with your child, and with yourself. Especially during the tantrums, across ages!
The Thoughtful Parent blog, Amy Webb, PhD: As a child development expert, Amy talks to you like a friend about the ins and outs of child development, especially in early childhood. She has a beautiful new book, Tender Beginnings, all about those first 6 months. A perfect gift for any new bleary-eyed parent of a newborn.
Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, and Energetic, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D.: All about child temperament, and “goodness of fit” between parent and child temperament, it’s a must-read for any parent struggling with an intense, persistent, and/or sensitive child, or any difficult “fit.”
The Explosive Child: A New Approach For Understanding And Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, Ross Greene, PhD: This classic has endured several decades as a deep dive into the brains of young children who express themselves more, um, “intensely.”
The Tantrum Survival Guide, Rebecca Schrag Hersheberg, PhD: Dr. Hershberg addresses the great parenting albatross of tantrums with a responsible use of science, practical strategies, humor, humility, and recognition of just how hard it is.
Lisa Damour, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood Although focused on girls, much of this book really applies to all adolescents, especially when it comes to emotional brain development.