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The Spark Within

On my return flight home from San Francisco a few days ago, I chatted with a young man sitting next to me.  We talked nearly the entire flight, from take-off to landing, only stopping to take sips from our drinks. I don’t usually chat with strangers on flights since I value that precious alone time. Plus, it’s usually the only time I can actually read a book. But this young man was very friendly, obviously kind, and clearly wanted to chat. So I took out my earphones and put my book down.

He had spent a weekend at home and was headed back to college, where he is a pre-med student. It was obvious that he is very passionate about his studies and career choice and had already decided on what field of medicine he wanted to study (cardiology). I was intrigued by this 20 year old man because he seemed so confident and self-aware. He told me that he has known he wanted to be a doctor since he was very young and had been preparing himself his whole life for the challenge. The sacrifices, the studying, the long hours, and lack of social life…he said he was ready for all of it. I believed him. But I was curious. Where did his drive come from? Who or what inspired him? And did he feel any pressure to become a doctor? His Asian ethnicity made me immediately think of the recent Wall Street Journal article about Chinese Mothers and I could not help but ask questions about the mother who raised him.

His mother was an immigrant from Vietnam and, although she encouraged him and his brother to do their best, there was never any pressure to study for a certain career. While he is studying to be a doctor, his brother is studying to be a filmmaker at a local art school, something that their mother supports and encourages equally. They were allowed to play sports, play any instrument of their choice, spend plenty of time with friends, and pursue whatever interested them. I said that his mother must be so proud of him and his accomplishments and goals, to which he replied with a modest shrug. His mother worries, he told me.  She worries that he works too hard and encourages him to spend more time with his girlfriend, friends, and to enjoy his college years. He brushes off her concerns, saying that if he doesn’t work hard enough, he will not achieve his goals. She certainly didn’t sound like a “Chinese Mother” to me. (continues…)

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Mental Monday: To Spank or Not to Spank…Shouldn’t Even Be A Question

When it comes to bringing children into this world, there is an abundance of divisive topics- “natural” births vs. medicated/C-section births, breast-feeding vs. formula-feeding, disposable diapers vs. cloth diapers, pacifiers vs. no-pacifiers, and so forth.

So many of these so-called issues are not really worth my time to argue, simply because I don’t see much harm in opting for one method of doing things over another. My motto is always this; as long as no one is emotionally or physically harmed in the process, whatever works best for your family is the ideal method of doing things. I don’t care whether or not you had a home-birth or had to be induced. I don’t care if you breast-fed or bottle-fed or whether your child wears Huggies or has been trained in Elimination Communication since birth. These types of topics do not concern any of us and we should not judge others for doing something that we ourselves do not include in our parenting repertoire.

However, there is one parenting topic that I believe warrants all the disapproval and judgment that it gets: spanking. (continues…)

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Mental Monday: What Kind Of Parent Are You?

Authoritative Parent, Permissive Parent, Authoritarian Parent, Uninvolved Parent, Over-Parent/Helicopter Parent, Attachment Parent, etc…

If you’re a parent, chances are good that you’ve heard about some or all of these parenting approaches. Parents may find themselves questioning which one works best or which one identifies how they parent.  It can be easy for some parents to try and pigeonhole themselves into one of these categories or even attempt to extricate themselves from a certain style. As most parents know, the way you parent significantly influences the development and pathology of a child. Even a child’s personality is influenced by parenting style. Although parenting style has little effect on the basic disposition of a child’s personality, it can easily impact or transform behavioral characteristics. And, all too often, those changes are not in a positive form.

So maybe we know all the different styles out there and perhaps we even identify with one or two of them. But what really matters most when it comes to how you parent? Forget labels. Forget trying to pigeonhole yourself into one category or another. What matters most are three very simple and basic parenting characteristics. Evidence from longitudinal research studies have shown that these three parenting factors produce the most well-adjusted adults and create the most harmonious parent-child relationship (L’Abate & Baggett, 1997):

  • Warmth Factor

Emotional warmth is consistently found in research studies to be the most important parenting style factor. This applies to both parents. Having emotional warmth towards your child includes praise, support, approval, encouragement, expressing terms of endearment, and physical affection. Warm, loving and affectionate parents are much more likely to raise well-adjusted  adults who are mentally healthy, are psychologically mature, and have adequate coping skills. However, emotional warmth comes with its own balancing act. It is easy for parents to over-praise and/or not punish inappropriate or negative behavior. While it’s important to validate good behavior or accomplishments, it’s equally important to follow through with rules and (non-abusive) discipline.

  • Control Factor

Parents who have a high control frequency raise their children with many rules and will often intervene in their children’s activities. On the flip side, parents with low control frequency are too permissive and, to the extreme, negligent. Parents with a balanced sense of control will intervene when their child needs help, guidance, and support and step back when their interference is not only not warranted but also counterproductive. These parents will also maintain reasonable and age-appropriate rules, boundaries, and disciplinary actions.

  • Consistency Factor

Consistency is crucial when it comes to parenting and this goes for all communication exchanged between parents and children. Consistently displaying love and warmth and consistently maintaining control and following through with discipline are all imperative to the child-parent dynamic.

Some of this information may seem like common sense to you, but it’s not always easy to apply these three essential factors into everyday parenting practices. To be able to balance a healthy dose of warmth, control, and consistency doesn’t always come naturally and we will all fail at this balancing act at some point.

Many variables influence our own parenting style, such as the way we were parented and our sociocultural  and socioeconomic influences. It’s not surprising that those of us with warm and affectionate parents are more likely to become warm and affectionate parents. And, of course, the opposite is true as well. That doesn’t mean that those who did not have warm and affectionate parents are not capable of growing up to become warm and affectionate parents. It just means that applying these parenting factors may prove to be more challenging.

None of us are perfect parents and we will come up short at times. Just remember that although it’s important to recognize and own up to our parenting errors, it’s equally important to recognize that it’s not the minor parenting errors that have the greatest impact on our children. It’s the overall dynamic between parent and child, one that is filled with love, kindness, respect, support, rules, boundaries, and affection. There is little doubt that a childhood and adolescence filled with those essential components will likely transition into a well-adjusted adulthood.

Questions? Comments? Please share.

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Mental Monday: A Lifetime Sentence to Worry

Now that I’m a parent, I often look back at all the crazy/dangerous antics that I put my own parents through. I was not alone. My sister and brother were often as reckless and carefree as me.

From speeding tickets (all of us) to falling out of a 2nd story window (my sister) to getting hit by a car while riding a bike (my brother) to splitting a forehead wide open by falling on a step (my sister) to skydiving in our late teens (me, my brother), to getting into a bad moped accident in Ibiza (me) to traveling to scary foreign lands (all of us) my mom and dad became accustomed to the anxiety-induced adrenaline rush generated by the wild and accident-prone behavior of their children.

I had never really thought too much about this until I became a parent. I’ve worried about my baby boy before I even knew he was a boy. I’ve been worrying before, during, and every minute after he breathed his first breath. I think about how much I worry over him now and what it will be like in the future, when he’s driving for the first time, when he’s off to school, when he goes off into the world. I had assumed that the feelings of anxiety will only get easier.

My parents have informed me otherwise.

It’s been 30+ years since they have brought three children into the world and they still don’t have it much easier.

My brother is a psychologist in the military, a position he opted to take during this time of war.  He does not currently work in a war zone, but that could change any time. My sister, a civilian lawyer, works in Afghanistan. My parents are besides themselves with worry. They scour the news everyday. Their heart skips a beat before every phone call, especially those from an international number.  My sister has learned to check in with e-mails, even just to say nothing more than “hi.” She has learned to send an “I’m OK” mass e-mail to her immediate family before we hear about attacks in her area. Those e-mails bring most of her loved ones temporary solace during a constant state of turmoil. But, for my parents, the e-mails only validate their anxiety and fears.

I suppose it doesn’t matter if your child is 2 days, 2 months, 2 years, 22 years, or 32 years old. It doesn’t matter if your child is always with you at home, away at college, works in a “safe” city, or works in a war zone. As a parent, you will worry. A lot. It doesn’t always get easier. And, for some parents, it only gets harder.

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Mental Monday: Teens and Parents as Friends? Only on Facebook.

I always cringe when I hear a parent refer to their teenager as their best friend.

Some parents may use that term loosely or merely as thoughtless hyperbole but, for just as many other parents, they really do believe it to be true. They do everything with their teenager. They confide in their child about adult-themed content. They joke about and discuss inappropriate subject matter. They gossip with their teenager about their teenage friends. And the rules, discipline, and structure that may have once been present in the home tends to wane significantly or end altogether.

Why do parents do that?

My guess is that some parents just really don’t know how to parent a teenager.

When your child gets older and enters the pre-teen and teenage years, it can be difficult for some parents to know what role to play. While some parents start tightening the reins on the increasing independence of their children, other parents loosen up and start behaving more like a friend. Many teenagers act like mini-adults and will start testing their parents as they explore their new world between childhood and adulthood. And, as I’m sure we all remember well enough, it’s a tough world to live in. You’re too old to act like a child, but you’re also too young to behave like an adult. It can be very frustrating for both the teenager and the parents.

There is no doubt that as your child grows into a teenager, your role as a parent will shift. Once a child enters the pre-teen years, they tend to seek more validity and approval from friends, rather than parents. The opinions and advice of their parents start to lose some of their power. Once a child begins the long journey of self-discovery and identity, they often turn to the people that help define their image: their peers.  Many parents quickly realize that they have lost some influence over their teenager and will resort to treating their teenager as an equal. It could be out of desperation as they strive to keep their independence-seeking teenager close and connected and perhaps regain some approval and respect from their once-adoring child. (continues…)

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