Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What is Balanced Parenting?

I would have thought that "Balanced Parenting" would result in a billion hits on a Google search, in fact it only came up with 606 (the Wiki article being pretty unbalanced IMO). With so many people today seeking to create lives of balance and hoping to develop parenting styles that will work with them... well I'm just surprised that there isn't a basic formula out there about this.

So, having been raised around dozens or children, and parents, and having done a great deal of research on this subject, I think I will just have to develop my own "balanced Parenting" philosophy... the very one I hope to flesh out with experience when Lily makes her appearance.

Since Lily isn't here yet and I haven't been able to start getting to know what works with her, it will be fleshed out as time goes by, but here are a few principles I think are very important to me about the kind of parent I hope to be:
  • Forget the rules: So many parenting methods I've read about try and give people a one size fits all approach to raising kids. "Do This" and "Don't do this." I don't think that hard and fast rules work very well for most people; what seems logical is to try out a variety of methods until you come to the ones that work for you and your child. Especially in today's world, I believe that flexibility is key to happy and well-adjusted children (though stability is important too), and that by being a parent who is flexible and adaptive to your child's needs you will be modeling the important skill of adaptability to your child.
  • Let them Choose: I've found that one of the best ways to produce happy and independent children is to teach them from a young age that they have choices. If it's not a matter of great consequence, and there are choices available that they are old enough to make, then let them make a choice. Ask if they'd rather have a banana or a peach, if they want to wear blue or red, which book they want to read or what activity they want to do. So many times we parents make all of the choices for our children because it is the easy thing to do. If we give them that choice, even if it takes longer, we are teaching them a valuable skill and also that they have the right to be independent and explore their own minds and opinions about things. As they get older their choices should, of course, become more complicated. With young children it is helpful to give two or three options but with an older child it becomes useful to allow them to not only choose which option, but to figure out what options are available... this helps foster creative and critical thinking.
  • Avoid Rigid Schedules: Having a schedule is a great thing for a child. Stability and routine are things that foster a sense of security and often give children a sense of happiness. Sometimes, though, things happen and schedules are unavoidably altered. By maintaining a flexible attitude about this, and making a change from routine into an adventure, you can help your child learn the importance of being flexible in life. One schedule that I know I will start out not following is the idea of a rigid feeding schedule. I've heard many advocates of feeding a child every x hours, and maybe this works for some people, but I think that children, especially infants, know when they are hungry and should be fed on demand... the trick with that one is to be sure that they're crying from hunger and not some other discomfort. Most children will develop their own routines of feeding (and they will change with growth spurts etc..) but they have a built in "I'm Hungry" meter, and I guess I trust that more than I trust the clock.
  • Nurture their Curiosity: Kids are naturally curious, and that's a good thing, they want to know about things and explore their worlds. This is one thing you want to encourage. With infants you can do this by putting them in a position to see what's going on around them and giving them opportunities to look at and feel new things. Talking to them and explaining things to them as infants is also helpful; while they may not understand you, research shows that children of chatty parents not only develop language skills sooner but also have larger vocabularies. As they get older and can communicate better, one way to nurture their curiosity is to not only answer their questions but also ask them questions. If they ask you why the sky is blue, why not ask them what they think before you tell them the reason? Their ideas on the subject might surprise you. Try to get them thinking about things while you are out. Not only will this lead to better behavior, by thwarting the evil specter of boredom, it will get them in the habit of thinking about things as they grow and learn.
  • Set Limits and be Consistent: Perhaps discipline is one of the toughest jobs any parent can face. We hate to see our child distressed or unhappy, but the fact is that discipline is also one of the most important jobs we have to do as well. If we don't teach our children that there are limits for their behavior and to respect the rights of others' as well as themselves, we are setting them up for a multitude of problems in the future and impairing their ability to find success and happiness in the real world. Another problem that some parents have with discipline and their kids is that of consistency: we allow or even encourage bad behavior and then turn around and correct it. Sure, you might think it's funny the first time a child says some word or does something rude.. it's a new trick. I've seen parents laugh at their 2 year olds repetition of a swear word and then punish for the same word used in public (where it embarrasses them). It's confusing for a child to be praised and punished for the same behaviors, decide upon the limits and behaviors you think are unacceptable and then stick with it.
  • Don't give in: Your child wants a toy or candy bar from the store, you've already told them no and to your horror they are now throwing a tantrum in front of everyone and embarrassing you with their screaming and crying. It is just so much easier to give in to them, isn't it? Well, perhaps it will pacify them for the moment and stop their screaming now, but the fact is that the real message you are sending to them is that if they want something all they have to do is throw a fit and they'll get it. You will be much better off, in the long run, if you stick to your no and either let them throw their tantrum as you finish in line or take them out to the car to finish it where there's a little more privacy (and less stress for you).
  • Dealing with tantrums: I've watched a lot of kids in my life; I love kids. Unfortunately there is a stage where every child will start throwing tantrums (though not always at the same age). I find that with some children I am one of the only adults that they don't throw tantrums with... is it because they always get their way with me? Nope, I am a stick to your guns type of caregiver. The thing is that I won't react to their tantrums. My experience has shown me that the best method of dealing with a tantrum is to make sure they are in a safe area to throw one (I'll give them a pillow to bang their head on if they need to) and tell them to let me know when they are done and then turn my attention to something else. If you react to a tantrum by giving them what they want, comforting them, or punishing them you are reinforcing their behavior (even negative attention is attention). By ignoring the tantrum you teach them that it isn't going to work. That's not to say that they won't have any more, they will as young children have very little emotional control, but this method not only teaches that tantrums aren't effective, it also helps them learn to console themselves and learn to have more control over their own emotions than if you were to deal with it for them.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of parenting skills or philosophies :) there will be more to come, and probably more specific ones, as time goes by (and Lily teaches us how to parent her).

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