How do we become better parents?

Any one who loves, cares for, or is being exasperated by a young child has his or her own list of questions:

“How do I get my two year old to STOP biting?”

“Am I being unreasonable when I ask my 4 year old to “cooperate”? And by cooperate I mean. . . sit and eat with a fork and spoon.”

“Is it pressuring my 5 year old to expect her to stay dry at night? I want her to feel confident. I want her to have sleepovers and play dates without having to make an ‘action plan’ just-in-case of an accident.

The list goes on (and changes as children grow older). It makes sense why mothers, fathers, grandparents and babysitters rely on friends, scan “how to” books and consult with Pediatricians to answer these questions. They talk, read, consult and plan. But so much of the time, this advice falls short: toddlers keep biting, evening meals end in tears, and daily routines still include frustration, resistance, and upset feelings.

In the United States, the self-help publishing industry is worth more than $693 million. currently lists more than 20,000 books on pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. And many of these titles promise instant results; it is common to come across books like Have a New Kid by Friday: How to Change Your Child’s Attitude, or 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child. 

And yet, these suggestions, recommendations, books and advice so rarely lead to behavioral change. Parents continue to rely on outside opinion, turning to another title or formula week after week, with little result. Why has this practice become so common, and yet so ineffective?   

Here might be one reason.

Returning to the first example: the biting toddlers’ father. When he asks for advice, he might get a number of different responses. His mother says, “You’re caving in. Give Jonni a time out.” His wife believes, “You are expecting too much. He’ll grow out of it.” Jonni’s preschool teacher cautions, “Respect his autonomy.” A magazine article encourages “empathy and mirroring.”

And this mother, wife, expert and professional all give good advice. But even good, one-size-fits-all advice doesn’t always fit. 

If this father wants meaningful, change-oriented advice he should HOPE the answer he gets is  “I am not sure.”

Because effective intervention depends upon the Individual who is setting the limit or trying to be patient. Before this father’s question can be answered he needs to know: Am I caving in? Why might I be telegraphing impatience? What is our family’s morning routine like? What were mornings like in the home I grew up in?  Am I doing something that is aggravating my child’s behavior? Am I NOT doing something that might help?

Teaching a child table manners, to use their words, to establish night time dryness (or any other skill) requires a degree of self awareness. Of course care givers focus on the here-and-now. But they also need to understand their own history and personal experience of being a child and growing up under the care of their teachers, grandparents, mothers and fathers. So until magazines can talk, ask questions, and prompt readers to explore their own past, advice remains less helpful than is intended. And parents will struggle more than is necessary.