NurtureShock your parenting questions answered

Last week's @katiecouric episode (embedded below) provoked a number of questions and comments, many of which we couldnt get to during the interview. Katie suggested that we have our experts answer a few of them and post it on the blog, and they graciously complied.

The show was about a book called NurtureShock, co-authored by one of our guests, Ashley Merryman, and we also interviewed a parenting blogger named Liz Gumbinner who runs a website called coolmompicks.com.

Here are a few of the many Twitter and Facebook questions we wanted to answer, with responses from our two experts. Thanks so much for taking the time to watch the show and for sending your thoughts.

1. @ladybridj tweets: What's the hardest thing you had to tell your children (in order) to teach them a lesson?

Liz Gumbinner: 

I'm lucky that my children have been relatively easy so far, but they're still young. I once had to confiscate my 3-year-old's beloved crossdressing rag doll "Diego" (she likes to put tutus on him) for a few days to make good on a threat, and it nearly broke my heart.

2. @apollard327 tweets: What are the best ways to teach respect among siblings? They fight like cats and dogs with each other, but are quick to get upset when someone else treats the other one poorly.

Liz Gumbinner:

I think it's great that they defend one another. To me that's a sign of true respect. The fighting is going to happen because they love each other and they're comfortable enough not to be polite. But perhaps you can remind one child how it feels when someone says or does those kinds of things to them, and tap into their sense of empathy. The golden rule works pretty well.

Ashley Merryman:

In observational studies, siblings spend about 10 minutes of every hour fighting. And they are seven times meaner to each other than they are their friends. Basically, that's because there's no real incentive to be nice: as Po Bronson and I wrote NurtureShock, siblings are genetically sentenced to live together, with no time off for good behavior. So from the kids' point of view, being kind to a sibling is just wasted effort. On the other hand, they know that bad behavior may cost them a friendship.

Therefore, the best way to improve sibling relationships may be to get the kids to think of each other more like friends.

Over the long term, the issue isn't how much siblings quarrel: the important thing is that they had more good times together than bad. According to University of Illinois professor Laurie Kramer, parents can foster that positive connection by simply making sure kids have fun together. If a child's favorite playmate is his sister, then he will feel a sense of loss when they aren't getting along. Then he won't want to fight.

Dr. Kramer says that the key isn't in conflict resolution, but conflict prevention. For young children, have them practice inviting each other to play (so they don't just barge in on one another) and the just-as-important response -  a polite "I'm busy: can we play later?" Don't wait until the kids are upset. When everyone's calm is the time to help children learn to recognize emotions - to help them see if a sibling is already upset, this isn't the time to antagonize him or take his favorite toy.

3. @Gale_TDT tweets: What is the best balance of structured v. unstructured play. 2yo stays home w/nanny. Do we need curriculum, or can that wait?

Liz Gumbinner:

My understanding is that 2 year-olds don't need a curriculum. Free play is the greatest way for kids to learn! If you're looking for fun projects and activities, I like the homeschooling section on Pioneer Woman  - and I'm not a homeschooler.

Ashley Merryman:

For a child that young, I'd consider structured play not a required curriculum, but as a tool to help when either you, the child, or nanny run out of ideas on what to do.

In NurtureShock, we wrote about Tools of the Mind, a preschool program that focuses on structured play. For example, the kids spend a few days learning about fire stations: they might read books about them, go on a field trip to a firehouse, and so on. Then, they spend the next few days "playing fire station." But before they begin playing, each child makes a "play plan." The plan consists of his drawing of the fire station-related character he's going to enact, and then he writes, "I am going to ___" be a fire fighter, a 911 operator, etc. Then, the kids play in their chosen roles for 45-minutes.

For a toddler, you might want to begin with shorter time periods. But through this early play, children learn to focus, self-regulate and empathize with others. You might check out the Tools website the "Parents" section has ideas for directed play for children, from one year-old to early school age.

Of course, you're right that balance is the right approach. (The Tools kids have time to just run around as well.) If a young child's really happy and engaged in his own play - he is just captivated by a toy train, making "a choo-choo" noise and pushing the train around the room - I don't see any real merit in interrupting that and forcing the child to switch to a different kind of play.

4. @jessefaris tweets: How can u be the best mother u can be while keeping your own identity (not being swallowed up by motherhood)?

Liz Gumbinner:

The great balance question! So, so hard! I have it a little easier because I work outside the home, but I think especially for at-home moms it's important to have time to yourself, schedule in a date night, make sure you get social time with friends. Do things that make you feel like Jesse and not like Mommy. And don't feel guilty about it either. Also, make an effort to put on some swanky clothes once in a while and swipe on mascara. Superficial though it may sound, that always makes me feel more human.

Ashley Merryman:

Columbia University professor Suniya Luthar has been studying mothers' mental well-being. She's a long way from publishing any findings, but her preliminary data is showing that mothers' happiness is related to their ability to confide in a loved one that they can rely on an unconditional relationship. The problem is that many mothers believe that even just talking about their needs is a sign of weakness; it's a character flaw. Instead, they assign themselves the caregiving role even in relationships with other adults. So that's something to watch out for.

Another point in her work I've been particularly struck by: Luthar says that most women would happily help out a tired friend, and they wouldn't think anything less of her for the request. However, they find it nearly impossible to be the friend asking for help. Luthar says that it's all right to ask every once in a while. It's also fine to occasionally vent to a trusted friend, spouse or maybe your own mom.

Also, try to remember that children need some psychological differentiation from their parents. Children benefit from parental warmth and support, but they also need the ability to develop a sense of themselves; they need to learn how to be autonomous. If mothers become so invested in their mothering that they come to see children as extensions of themselves, then children may have trouble making their own decisions. And when difficulties arise, the problems may seem much more of an indictment on both mother and child than they really are making the problems all the more difficult to solve.

5. Kim on Facebook asks: Do you think parents years ago were better than parents today, or is it all the same?

Liz Gumbinner:

I think today we're quicker to admit that we're imperfect today, express our misgivings and challenges, and find company in our failures. But that doesn't make us better or worse. There are always going to be good parents and not-so-good parents in the world. I'm not sure where I fit on the continuum, but I always take comfort in the fact that I'm somewhere in the middle.

Ashley Merryman:

I hate to say, "These parents are/were better than those." I just think it is too easy to distract us from the real issue, which is "Okay, we're pretty good, but we can always get better  - so how do we improve?"

To me, parents are becoming increasing authoritative -  the scholars' description of parents who are warm and supportive. Authoritative parents aren't incredibly strict or permissive. Instead, they are reasonable authority figures. There aren't so many rules that the kids feel trapped or set up to fail. Instead, authoritative parents set enough rules that children have a sense of structure and security; they know what is expected of them and what they can rely on.

I do think that some parents are being overprotective. Constant self-esteem boosting and overpraising of kids is a comparatively new and problematic phenomenon (really only around since the mid-1980s). But not everyone is overpraising. And those who have been seem to be realizing this isn't such a great idea: they're concerned about turning kids into narcissists. So I think people's attention is rightly turning towards a focus on "self-efficacy." Teaching kids that they can do things. (Remember the delight on your kid's face, the first time he tied his own shoes?) Sometimes, that means leading by example or careful supervision. But other times, the best thing may be to let kids do things on their own. Even if means letting them screw up occasionally along the way.

  • Tony Maciulis

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