When I was a new dad, I wasn’t the best parent. I wasn’t a horrible parent, I was just … a mess.
I remember when my first boy was just one-and-a-half years old, before he was in daycare. I spent my days with him, working as both a stay-at-home dad and small town newspaper editor for a Colorado community of just about 500 souls. I was depressed and clinging to selfish notions that I’d lost something in my transition to fatherhood — some quality of youth and vitality that I would never get back.
It was a lonely time. My friends were far away. I was isolated on a remote mesa in the American Southwest and I was going through some shit.
One day, my son started crying. I changed his diaper. He kept crying. I offered him food. He continued crying. I changed his clothes. Crying. Offered toys, a nap. Still crying.
It was too much for me. So I sat him on the floor of his nursery, laid down beside him in defeat, and screamed impotently into a stuffed lion. Soon we were both wailing. Him, barely a toddler, me a grown man without an excuse.
What I’d wanted at that moment was to make him better and solve his problem. What I should have done was consider my own problem. I should have made myself better.
Self Discipline Versus Child Discipline
Since I started writing about parenting I’ve become convinced that there’s little parents can do to their children to “improve” them. I don’t mean that parents don’t have any influence over their kids. On the contrary, parents have more influence over their kids than anyone else. That is, until popular culture starts to work its dubious influence. Luckily parents have a pretty good head start. It’s just a matter of what to do with that time.
Parents who subscribe to the “train up” method of parenting popularized by extremists Michael and Debi Pearl (whose book I will not link here) prefer to use childhood as a crucible. Their goal is to mold their children, by brutal force if need be, into submissive, pious docility.
“The parent holds in his hand (in the form of a little switch) the power to absolve the child of guilt, cleanse his soul, instruct his spirit, strengthen his resolve, and give him a fresh start through a confidence that all indebtedness is paid,” the Pearls contend.
Granted, it’s an extreme ideology. Still, the idea of child “training” represents how parents can become invested in leveraging their power via discipline and parental fiat in hopes of improving a kid. Unfortunately, the research into the effectiveness of these techniques isn’t exactly rosey.
Consider the work of Dr. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor from the University of Michigan School of Social Work who co-authored a massive 2016 literature review looking into the long-term outcomes of children who were spanked. He and his colleague Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin looked at 75 studies with longitudinal data representing 160,927 children who had been spanked to see if their outcomes were different than those of children who had been more obviously abused. They found that spanking was not associated with any positive outcomes. In fact, spanking was linked with mental health problems, addiction, and violence. What’s more, the outcomes of children who were spanked were consistent with children who had been physically abused.
Yes, children can be punished in productive ways. But punishment rarely begets discipline as a set of behaviors. Time-outs may provide an opportunity for kids to practice self-talk and self-regulation, but they need to have those skills first. How do kids get those skills? From observation and practice.
You scream at a child and you’ll get a child who screams. You hit a child and you’ll get a child who becomes destructive. React with anger to a child and you’ll get an angry child.
Sure, I’ve heard from plenty of people who contend they faced parent-perpetrated childhood horrors and “turned out fine.” But these are the few who managed, against the odds to get healthy. The thousands that fell into addiction, crime and mental health struggles don’t have a voice. History is written by the ones who “turned out fine.”
The most important discipline in the home is a parent’s own self-discipline. It’s the ability to step away when anger flares, remain calm in times of crisis and hold compassion and rationality when a child struggles. But discipline is hard to find if you’re feeling more broken than whole.
Self Improvement as Child Improvement
I don’t think I really came into my own as a dad until I started taking antidepressants. The guy doing the parenting before serotonin reuptake inhibitors struggled to connect with his kids. His disdain and sadness permeated the house. His frustration made him quick to raise his voice. His lack of energy made him a lackluster play pal.
Since getting the drugs on board my perspective has shifted and improved. Instead of looking at my children through the dim veil of a dysregulated brain, I see my boys as the little humans they are — full of potential, unbound energy, and curiosity. I talk more than I yell. I reason more than I spin through cycles of resentment. Hell, I even stopped drinking.
I’m far from perfect. In fact, I could still use a good therapist. We all could. Because the fact is, any time parents engage in work to become a better person, that work is observed, experienced, and internalized by our children.
A parent who is processing their baggage has less baggage to pass on to their own kid. That’s not pop-psychology mumbo jumbo. It’s based on research.
The idea that parents can pass behavior to children through modeling is based on social learning theory developed by psychologist Dr. Albert Bandura, who I’ve mentioned here before. His breakthrough was in showing that learning occurred in a social context, and most notably for parents, that it could occur through observation of behavior or the consequences of behavior.
Bandura tested his theory with the well-known Bobo Doll experiment, which is standard Psych 101 fodder. In his experiment, children were exposed to an adult model who would either ignore or beat the crap out of and verbally assault an inflatable clown-faced Bobo Doll. Bandura found that children who were exposed to the adults’ violent interaction with the BoBo Doll were more likely to mimic the behavior when left alone with the doll to play. Moreover, they were more likely to display novel aggressive behavior to other toys.
In his seminal paper on the subject, Bandura noted that the lessons of aggression children learn can change as they extrapolate the general effects of aggression on the world. So while watching an adult kick a BoBo doll might teach a kid to do the same thing, the aggressive behavior might become more generalized. “Models teach more general lessons as well,” Bandura writes. “From observing the behavior of others, people can extract general tactics and strategies of behavior that enable them to go beyond what they have seen or heard.”
For parents engaged in self-improvement, that means their kids see a human person who is steadily more emotionally stable in adverse situations. But it also shows them that a strategy of self-improvement is one that pays off in relationships. Making the work you do on yourself apparent to your children helps in several ways:
Normalizes Seeking Help: Children need to understand that it’s okay to reach out when they aren’t feeling well. That’s as true for a tummy ache as it is for crippling ennui.
Builds a Child’s Emotional Vocabulary: Theory-of-mind is the act of becoming aware that other people have needs, thoughts and perspectives different from your own. Developing theory of mind requires a good deal of experimentation to see which behaviors elicit which responses from others. That’s why toddler scientists are so infuriating. They don’t drop the cereal bowl out of malice. They drop it to find out what’ll happen next. And when parents are working on their own emotions, what children observe are rational parents who react calmly and confidently.
Improves Communication: Parents engaging in therapy learn how to communicate and process their feelings. That’s a really great skill when dealing with children. Being able to stop, take a breath and react calmly will help parents open lines of communication with kids and ultimately lead to collaboration over power struggles.
Teaches Resilience: A parent who knows how to process their own emotions is a good model of resilience for a child. A kid that sees a parent move forward with even resolve after a setback will be better able to develop their own resilience.
Promotes Relationship Building Skills: When adults go to therapy, particularly when they go together, they learn how to problem solve. Having problem solving skills in a relationship is key to success. A kid who watches their parents work through problems rationally and thoughtfully will develop a solid set of relationship building skills.
Oh, Also, Working on Yourself Feels Good.
It’s hard to see the light when you’re screaming into a stuffed lion on the floor of your baby’s nursery. But it’s important to know that working to become a better person feels good. Yeah, looking at yourself isn’t always pretty. The process can be painful.
That said, when you start laying your burdens down, there is a lot of joy. And becoming a better person should be all about joy. As you feel better, you’re more prone to notice the good in the world and you’re more likely to share it with your kids.
That’s how we change the world as parents and raise better humans — we share the joy and the good. Those influential years we have shouldn’t be spent filling them with guilt, fear, pain, and anger. It should be spent in collaboration and wonder. But you can only get there if you can see that wonder yourself.