By Joe Peraino, Ph.D.
We are not taught in school the three most important things in life. These three things are relationships, sex, and parenting. This article is about parenting. Check other articles for the other topics.
Some things they never teach you in school. Three of the most important things not taught in school are sex, relationships and parenting. Why are these life circumstances so important? We spend a significant amount of our time thinking about, engaging in, or managing these activities. In this article, I will use the concept of wisdom to identify the effective ingredients of parenting. Future articles will discuss sex and relationships.
Let’s spend a few minutes talking about wisdom. It is a difficult concept to define. Even though it’s hard to define, we can easily recognize it when we see it. It is considered the pinnacle of human development and human excellence. It reflects an expertise in how we conduct our lives.
Paul Baltes, an adult development expert, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, identified seven properties of wisdom:
Wisdom represents a truly superior level of knowledge, judgment and advice;
Wisdom addresses important and difficult questions and strategies about the conduct and meaning of life;
Wisdom includes knowledge about the limits of knowledge and the uncertainties of the world (can deal with ambiguity);
Wisdom constitutes knowledge with extraordinary scope, depth, and balance;
Wisdom involves a synergy of mind and character, an orchestration of knowledge and virtue;
Wisdom represents knowledge used for the good or well-being of oneself and that of others;
Wisdom although difficult to achieve and to specify is easily recognized.
Let us apply these principles with an example. A colleague’s son told her he wanted to color his hair green. A low wisdom response to this request would be an emphatic, emotional NO! Fortunately, my friend used some wisdom in the situation. She realized that children often need to express themselves as they strive for independence and identity and remembered her own and her friends’ identity struggles as an adolescent. This realization of the source of the request (experience; see principle 4) led to a calm discussion (imparted knowledge, shared advice; see principles 1 and 2) with the boy about a) the reactions he would receive from friends, other peers including girls (in whom he was most interested), relatives, teachers and strangers; b) the opinions formed about him, from “radical, dude” to “what a stupid child;” c) what he would be communicating to the world with his statement of green hair; d) how long he would keep it green; e) the dye would have to be of good quality else it would not look good, stain clothes, get in his eyes, etc.; and f) alternatives to hair dyeing as an expression of individuality. After a few discussion sessions over several days, the boy chose to grow his hair longer instead of coloring it chartreuse. The parents would have preferred the previous length of hair but realized there are no simple, definitive solutions to issues like these (can deal with ambiguity; see principle 3) and exercised their best judgment not to battle over a fashion statement (benefited self and others, principle 6).
Parents often do not treat children with respect. A wise parent entertains all points of view and behaviors with openness and as having value. Children’s views have value, too. A wise person is not condescending. Children’s ability to think is immature. Their capacity to modulate affect is immature. Their basic knowledge is less than adults. Because they are maturing, parents need to respect their attempts to develop by acknowledging that they have different needs and views of the world. Parents provide guidance and nurturance and assist children to become independent and responsible. One major contributor to the development of responsibility and independence in children is the demonstration of respect toward them. This does not mean that children get their way all the time nor does it mean they have equal say. It means parents listen to and acknowledge their views without judgment, without ridicule, and without anger.
A wise parenting strategy is giving children choices. It teaches them an important life lesson: every choice has consequences. Choices help children think first and act later. They are therefore less likely to make bad choices. It teaches children that their destiny is mostly defined by their own choices. Parents are also less likely to be perceived as the “bad guy.”
Another wise parenting practice is to discipline without emotion. When children misbehave, they do not deserve, or need, berating. When you are stopped by a police officer, do they yell and scream at you? Not usually (J). They essentially give you a ticket and say, “have a nice day.” That’s how children should be disciplined: without anger, without disappointment, without guilt induction. The message needs to be: you made the wrong choice; here is your consequence. No drama, no big deal, no federal case. Children are going to make mistakes; they are not born perfect. Expect them to make errors, help them correct it by talking to them first. If they do not get it, reinforce it with a little “behavioral reinforcement,” i.e., consequences. Just like getting a ticket.
In case you are worried that you need to be old and gray to be wise, studies show that wisdom is uncorrelated with age; a wise person can be young or old. Studies also show that the top factors associated with wisdom are social (or emotional) intelligence and thinking styles that are not judgmental and progressive, a thinking style that can move beyond existing rules and being tolerant of ambiguous situations. Wisdom increases with collaboration; if two parents are in the household, communicate!
Being an effective parent is not easy. It requires the person to have knowledge about a multitude of topics and issues, to have the experience to empathize with one’s child, to know enough about society and current fads to place the issues in a proper perspective, to have good judgment, to have their emotions under reasonable control, and to be able to deal with complex situations. And you thought your job was hard. An effective parent is a wise person. Work on the wisdom principles and general recommendations outlined above and watch your children mature.