New Neuroscience Reveals 5 Rituals That Will Make You An Awesome Parent
Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
2020. Yeesh. I was starting to wonder if the reason we’ve never had time travelers visit us from the future was because humans just aren’t around that much longer.
In the mind-frying insanity of the pandemic, it might seem like the most relevant parenting book is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” But, truth be told, having kids has always been challenging. Parenting: the job where you must give everything but up.
Little ones and teens can be two different species of terrible. Toddlers perpetually turn the living room into something worthy of FEMA assistance, and the teenage years are a story of joy and wonder and abject stupidity where you get to hear things like “Sorry, mom, the Illuminati ate my homework.”
But to add insult to injury, you just don’t get good advice. So we’re gonna fix that. Time to round up the science on parenting. And I have a handy dandy acronym for you because one word is easier to remember than, well, lots and lots of words.
We’re gonna go with SERVE:
• Emotional Intelligence
Public Service Announcement: No, I don’t have kids. But I took excellent care of my tamagotchis so you can trust me. And if you like your parenting research delivered by someone with a sense of humor best described as “inappropriate with a chance of ruining family dinner” you have come to the right place.
Now I can’t guarantee this will transmogrify you into someone truly worthy of that “WORLD’S GREATEST DAD/MOM” mug but it should prevent you from ending up as the Spencer’s-Gifts-bargain-bin-version of a parent.
Let’s get to it…
No one has ever said the secret to being a great parent is being selfish — so I will. Seriously though, if you want happy kids, an often-neglected step is making sure you’re happy. They need you in good mental shape to guide them.
Extensive research has established a substantial link between mothers who feel depressed and “negative outcomes” in their children, such as acting out and other behavior problems. Parental depression actually seems to cause behavioral problems in kids; it also makes our parenting less effective.
Your stress isn’t just your stress; it’s their stress too. When you’re overwhelmed it actually hurts your children’s intelligence and immune systems.
…Studies have shown that parental stress weakens children’s brains, depletes their immune systems, and increases their risk of obesity, mental illness, diabetes, allergies, even tooth decay.
And as we approach a full year of plague-life, we’re all a little fried. But your kids need you to be positive.
Even in the toughest times, when a person can think positively about the future they are capable of reducing the stress felt by their family members by as much as 60 percent. – Atienza, Stephens, and Townsend 2002
So remember, if you keep making the sour face, it’s gonna stick like that… No, that’s not science. But if you keep making that face it might stick on your kids’ faces. And that is pretty close to what the research says.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, we’ve got you covered. Back to the little ones. How do you make sure they’re ready to deal with others once we stop referring to people as “vectors” and start calling them “humans” again? (I have been seriously wondering if I even remember how to shake hands…)
2) Emotional Intelligence
Kids generally have the stability of the higher numbered items on the periodic table of elements. But those meltdowns are actually useful: they’re teaching moments. When children lose their cool is the best time to teach them how to deal with their emotions. And that helps them learn to better handle the emotions of others.
I’ve covered many parenting and emotional intelligence books on the blog and have seen a consistent pattern that we can use here in our mini-Hogwart’s for EI. It’s four steps for helping kids get a handle on their feelings when they’re upset that will also strengthen their emotional muscles over the long term.
So next time the screaming starts, what do you do?
A) Empathize and Listen
Professor John Gottman is the God-Emperor of relationship research and he says you need to validate emotions to connect with your kids before anything good is going to happen.
In this context, listening means far more than collecting data with your ears. Empathetic listeners use their eyes to watch for physical evidence of their children’s emotions. They use their imaginations to see the situation from the child’s perspective. They use their words to reflect back, in a soothing, noncritical way, what they are hearing…
Yes, this is hard and takes practice but unless you want your children to have the emotional intelligence of reality show participants, responding to screaming with more screaming is not a good idea.
B) Label Emotions
When kids lose it, they act like they’re possessed by demons and that’s because, in a way, they are. Negative feelings are scary and try to take over your brain. So help kids to label their emotions to get a handle on them. This dampens extreme feelings at the neuroscience level.
Providing words in this way can help children transform an amorphous, scary, uncomfortable feeling into something definable, something that has boundaries and is a normal part of everyday life. Anger, sadness, and fear become experiences everybody has and everybody can handle. Labeling emotions goes hand in hand with empathy. A parent sees his child in tears and says, “You feel very sad, don’t you?” Now, not only is the child understood, he has a word to describe this intense feeling. Studies indicate that the act of labeling emotions can have a soothing effect on the nervous system, helping children to recover more quickly from upsetting incidents.
Exorcism complete. Now we get rational…
Now that you’ve empathized, listened and labeled, you can actually fix things. This is when correcting their behavior can really lead to learning and wonderful things like a future that does not involve the penal system.
After the parent acknowledges the emotion behind the misbehavior and helps him to label it, the parent can make sure the child understands that certain behaviors are inappropriate and can’t be tolerated. Then the parent can guide the child into thinking of more appropriate ways to handle negative feelings. “You’re mad that Danny took that game away from you,” the parent might say. “I would be, too. But it’s not okay for you to hit him. What can you do instead?”
Alright, you’ve put out the fire but we gotta squeeze one more lesson in here…
D) Teach Empathy
University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant says emphasizing the feelings of others after outbursts can lead to better kids. Here’s Adam:
When you punish kids for bad behaviors, if you just stop there, then there’s a big risk that they don’t understand why the behavior was wrong. What parents who do a really good job teaching moral values do is they explain, “This is how your behavior hurt others. Think about what kind of pain this child was in when you hit him.”
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
We’ve talked about you and talked about them but now we need to think about your family as a unit. Kids aren’t just tiny roommates that don’t pay rent. So how do we create closeness and meaning in the clan?
Doing things as a family still matters. I know, nothing short of an EMP blast seems to get them to stop using their Xbox or iPad but rituals performed together are what makes a family.
Consistent family rituals encourage the social development of children and increase feelings of family cohesiveness by more than 17 percent. – Eaker and Walters 2002
Kids who have dinner with their families do better across nearly every metric.
A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.
Survey 50 parents and 59 of them are going to agree that this is a good idea — but often we don’t do it. I know, schedules are crazy. It’s too hard to do every night. And that’s 100% okay. “Dinner” isn’t the important part. All that matters is consistent time together, whenever it is.
And, when possible, you want to broaden those rituals to include a wider group of family and friends. Use Zoom or Skype. Kids don’t just need parents, they need a community of people who love them to truly thrive.
Studies of boys and girls find that the presence of a trusted nonparental adult increases feelings of support and life satisfaction by more than 30 percent. – Colarossi 2001
And if you can only pick one person outside of the immediate family, who should it be?
Grandmoms have superpowers beyond mortal comprehension. You know this. It’s in the Constitution.
Countless studies have shown the extraordinary benefits grandmothers have on contemporary families. A meta-analysis of sixty-six studies completed in 1992 found that mothers who have more support from grandmothers have less stress and more well-adjusted children… So what are these grandmothers actually doing? They’re teaching children core social skills like how to cooperate, how to be compassionate, how to be considerate. Researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah interviewed 408 adolescents about their relationship with their grandparents. When grandparents are involved, the study found, the children are more social, more involved in school, and more likely to show concern for others.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
There’s something else that’s important for kids… Hmm, what’s that word? Oh, it’s up here in the attic next to “character” and “integrity.” Let me blow the dust off it. Okay, here we go. That word is…
When I spoke to Bruce Feiler, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families”, I asked him what he would recommend if he could only give parents one piece of advice.
He said: “Set aside time to talk about what it means to be a part of your family.” Here’s Bruce:
Initiate a conversation about what it means to be a part of your family. Sit down with them and say “Okay, these are our ten central values.” (or) “This is the family we want to be. We want to be a family that doesn’t fight all the time.” or “We want to be a family that goes camping or sailing” or whatever it might be. When my family did it, it was literally a transforming experience. We ended up printing it and it hangs now in our dining room.
And a good way to start down the journey of developing those values is to discuss your family history. Sound a little odd? Research shows whether a kid knows their family history was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.
Have fun with it. Think about the epic tale of your family dynasty. “Game of Thrones” stuff. What are the rites and trials of the ancient order passed down through your esteemed lineage? Family isn’t all “23 and me” genetics – it’s what you stand for. Here’s Bruce:
…researchers at Emory did this study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.
But recounting your family history is not just telling kids, “Our family is awesome.” Talking about the tough times, the challenges your family faced and overcame, is vital. Here’s Bruce:
Understanding that people have natural ups and downs allows kids to know that they too will have ups and downs. It gives them the confidence to believe that they can push through them. It gives them role models that show your family’s values in practice.
(To learn the most fun way to make your life awesome during the pandemic, click here.)
Okay, final part of our acronym “SERVE.” Time to buy a vowel…
You need to teach these baby birds how to fly on their own or they’re going to stay in your nest forever. So start involving them in decisions. Being a part of the decision-making process at home teaches them to become autonomous adults.
“Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids,” Darling observed. They’ve set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence, and they’ve explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life’s other spheres, they supported the child’s autonomy, allowing her freedom to make her own decisions. The kids of these parents lied the least. Rather than hiding twelve areas from their parents, they might be hiding as few as five.
Believe it or not, this even extends to punishments. Letting kids have a say in sentencing makes them motivated not to get into trouble.
Scientists at the University of California and elsewhere found that kids who plan their own time, set weekly goals, and evaluate their own work build up their prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain that help them exert greater cognitive control over their lives. These so-called executive skills aid children with self-discipline, avoiding distractions, and weighing the pros and cons of their choices. By picking their own punishments, children become more internally driven to avoid them. By choosing their own rewards, children become more intrinsically motivated to achieve them. Let your kids take a greater role in raising themselves.
(To learn how to help your kids find their calling in life, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it all up – and learn the single most important thing for parents to do right now…
Here are the 5 rituals that will make you an awesome parent. Remember to SERVE:
- Self-Care: Happy parents make for happy kids. As James Baldwin once said: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
- Emotional Intelligence: Your job is not merely to protect little John Connor until he is old enough to lead the resistance against the evil machines. He needs the emotional intelligence to be a good rebel leader so remember to listen, label, problem-solve and teach empathy.
- Rituals: Have family dinner together. Get superhero Grandmom on Zoom.
- Values: Without these your kids are going to be kryptonite to decent human beings. Be a bard who sings the storied history of the family dynasty. What’s your family crest? (Don’t say “toothpaste.”)
- Empower: If you don’t start teaching them to be autonomous at 7 they will be living with you at 37.
You deserve a round of applause. Parenting is hard. It takes a lot out of you. Some mornings you stare in the mirror and see a face that looks like the reason people check into rehab.
When you were a kid, adults seemed way adultier. When you have to step into those shoes you realize just how difficult it can be. Children don’t realize when they’re growing up that they’re also watching mom and dad grow up.
And sometimes you’ll make mistakes. That’s okay. If you can’t laugh at yourself, I probably will. Seriously, I’m not perfect either. I’m sure I englished incorrectly a few times in this post. But we don’t need to be perfect, and all the very serious scientific stuff above does not negate the most important thing of all…
Which is to love them. Sounds obvious and saccharine but hug deprivation is a big problem right now. Kids need hugs. Even cold, clinical science says they do make us happier.
And if you want your kids to love you, the answer is the same: love them.
People are 47 percent more likely to feel close to a family member who frequently expresses affection than to a family member who rarely expresses affection. – Walther-Lee 1999
You cannot cure COVID but you can cure hug deprivation. Squeeze them tight and inoculate them against loneliness and worry. Parental love is a vaccine that confers durable immunity against many problems in life.
I’ll be honest, though — this remedy isn’t perfect. There is one problem with the parental hug vaccine:
It requires daily booster shots.
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