If you’re like most parents, you worry about your children. Are they safe? Are they healthy? Are they doing well at school? Will they make good choices? Are they happy in life? The list of things to worry about is seemingly endless- especially for parents prone to control and over protection. We face a delicate balance in raising our children:
- Providing the appropriate level of freedom at every stage to allow for natural development … but not so much that harm comes of them
- Providing an environment of protection and caretaking to bolster their sense of security… but not so much that it denies the child important lessons in autonomy and resiliency
- Pointing them in the right direction (based on our experience) so that they become an upright and contributing member of society… but not so much that it stifles their natural interests and ambitions
- Using the tools of extrinsic motivation (rewards, threats, punishment etc.) to help move them forward in life… but not so much that they come to feel dependent on, or controlled by outside forces
- Understanding their limitations and areas in need of development… but not to the point where we fail to acknowledge and celebrate their natural gifts—their personality, talents, skills and character strengths.
- Instilling the values of prudence, perspective and self regulation as guidelines to making it in these tumultuous times… but not to the extent that hope, optimism, zest and curiosity are dampened or worse, extinguished.
While being a parent often seems like a daunting task, the teachings of Positive Psychology can help steer us through rough and uncertain waters. From the principles of positive emotion and positive relationships to resiliency and motivation, there is not a topic covered in this emerging science that does not have some relevance to child development. For example:
- Psychologists Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan’s studies of self-determination theory (2004) show that children’s social behavior naturally becomes more self-regulated as they grow. Autonomy is not only a naturally occurring part of growing up, but a sign of healthy development. In studies of children’s abilities to manage their own behavior at school, Brown and Ryan found that autonomy and a greater ability to self-regulate is often associated with greater pleasure and interest in studies, resulting in the ability to handle stresses more effectively—all critical components of healthy and authentic independence.
- Reliance on Personal Strengths: Research studies indicate people are happiest, most productive, and most creative when using their personal strengths. The field of positive psychology calls these signature strengths, those special skills and abilities that allow an individual to excel. The VIA signature strengths questionnaire for adults has been validated with millions of people across multiple cultures. The childhood version of this survey, VIA Strength Survey for Children, is freely available for children to identify their unique strengths.
- Giving to Others: Philanthropy is known to cultivate positive feelings. Though children have limited financial resources, they have much of value to give to others. Examples might include a letter or phone call to a relative, donation of a toy to needy children, and participating with parents in charitable activities such as working at a food pantry.
- Positivity and resilience: Encouraging children to examine the known facts of the situation, separating facts from fears. Remind the child that most fears do not come true, and if they do, the result isn’t as bad as was feared. Examine the worst that can happen and decide on a course of action should it occur.
This list is just a sampling of parenting advice culled from research studies in positive psychology. There is, though, a sense of urgency behind the advice, and the tools and techniques offered by this science. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported in 2007 that teen suicide rates had reached a fifteen year high. Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founding members of the positive psychology movement points out that depression is being diagnosed, on average, at age 15, an alarming drop from that of thirty years ago when the average age was 50.
Eleanor Chin, parenting coach and graduate of the Master’s Program in Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania (www.claritypartnerscoaching.com) offers these practical suggestions for parents:
- Remember that it’s a balance of what we (as parents) see as the goal and finding the path the fits the child.
- Listen to your child (really listen!). What are they telling you about what motivates them by their excitement? What de-motivates them by their lack of enthusiasm?
- Observe your child. What are their strengths? Do they have an opportunity to use these strengths every day? Help them to become aware of these strengths- their unique gifts.
- Encourage experimentation and learning from mistakes by viewing the missteps as information, rather than judging them as catastrophic.
- Provide opportunities for children to experience success on their own terms to build real competence.
- Teach them to develop empathy for others
- Help them build a network of supportive adults—teachers, coaches, family members.
- Support them in learning to notice, name and regulate their emotions.