Book Review: The Science Of Parenting

I'm jumping the gun on this review a little bit, since I haven't yet finished the book. So far, it's been a fascinating read, chock full of validation for the solid advice I received at La Leche League when my kids were babies: You will not spoil your child by meeting his needs for contact and attention. When these needs are fully met, he will eventually grow out of them. He won't be clingy forever.

Chapter after chapter, the message is clear: Kids that receive the physical and emotional attention they need when they are young grow up into courageous and independent adults, not the whiny clingy extra-large spoiled brats many of us were warned about.

I have a great example of this in my own home. My son was a high need baby; content when he was held, carried, and nursed often, and furious when he was left alone. He required a lot of my attention. And when his needs were finally met, he grew out of them. Big time. He's now one of the most self-sufficient, responsible, and independent teenagers imaginable.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, by allowing him to cling to me when he needed to, I was allowing his brain to borrow functioning from mine, and to learn how to comfort itself by imitating what I did. Had I forced him to be independent before he was ready to be, for example, by leaving him to cry for hours in an attempt to teach him to self-soothe, his brain would have lost its role model. He needed close and frequent contact for regulation, stimulation, and protection. And when his brain was developed enough to provide these things for itself, he gave up clinging and got on with the business of exploring and expanding. (Still coming back for an occasional hug as needed ...)

The mother in me found a lot of validation in this book for my parenting choices. The skeptical statistician in me noticed that the author was making some big leaps and perhaps drawing conclusions about cause and effect that may not be fully supported by the research. But in any case, she makes a compelling case for giving freely of our time and attention when our children are young, and not pushing them too quickly to master complex emotional tasks such as dealing maturely with disappointment without our assistance.

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Uh oh. Now I'm more than halfway through, and my uneasiness is growing. The author seems to be a big proponent of behavioral psychology; she endorses stickers, charts, and rewards, as well as ignoring undesirable behaviors.

As you may know from my other articles, that approach does not go deep enough for me. I want to know what is motivating the behavior, so I can redirect or educate at the level of causation rather than at the level of consequence and effect. Yes, time out is far better than spanking. And I think as parents, we can do much better than time out.

So while there are some gems in this book, and it takes some steps in the right direction, I can't give it 5 stars. Maybe 3 1/2, with plenty of encouragement to actively engage your discernment muscles while reading it rather than simply absorbing everything unfiltered.

what current brain research tells us about effective parenting

I"ll skip all the scientific details for now and jump right to the bottom line:

Our children do not learn anything when they are stressed out. (and neither do adults!)

Functional MRI's have allowed us to see the brain in action. We now have evidence that during stress, the part of the brain that is in charge of learning and integrating new information goes on hold while the blood supply is diverted to the part of the brain that is in charge of the fight/flight/freeze response.

When we yell at our kids (and we all do it sometimes) we are introducing a stressor that disrupts their ability to learn. So lessons imparted while screaming, punishing, or guilt-tripping don't actually penetrate to the part of the child's brain that can make good use of the information. This is why we are so often frustrated by catching our kids repeating the very behavior we so adamantly taught them was inappropriate.

If we want our kids to retain and have access to alternative behaviors that we find more acceptable, we need to talk it over with them after both we and they have calmed down.

My bestest briefest parenting advice in one word: WAIT

Wait to teach until you feel calmer. Wait until you are back in control of your breathing to let your child know what was not okay about his or her behavior.

Wait until you are thinking clearly about what you DO want instead of just prohibiting what you don't. Wait until you are cool enough to ask your child to participate in generating alternatives with you.

Of course you know I'm not suggesting you let your child get hit by a car while you do some yoga breathing. Life-threatening situations require immediate physical intervention. But sometimes our minds react to mild daily infractions as if they were life-threatening. It's at those times when a little bit of delay can do a lot of good.

So go ahead and put a stop to the behavior in a responsible way. Then take a time out for yourself until you are ready to have a reasonable discussion about what happened, why it was not okay, and what might work better next time. For toddlers, you may need to give physical guidance with your body - saying pet the doggy like this while you are holding your child's hand in yours and guiding it gently.

Remember Mary Poppins singing just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down? It's the same thing with parental guidance. Suggestions delivered with love and respect are much easier for our kids to retain.

Easier said than done? Yeah. We are all wonderfully human. Luckily, kids are very forgiving, and easily accept apologies. It's never too late to say, "Oops, I'm sorry for yelling about that. I'm feeling a lot better now ... can we back it up and try to figure out a new plan together?"

If this all sounds good but you think you might need some support to pull it off, I offer parenting consultations by phone, email, and in person near Boulder, CO. Contact me for more information: karen@karenalonge.com or visit the client information page on my website: www.karenalonge.com/forclients.htm