The puzzle of parenting
Jan 11, 2017 09:39AM ● Published by Neighbors Magazines
Dr. Kimberly Svevo-Cianci
Most parents want the same things for their children—they want to provide a positive environment in which their kids can grow up to become happy, healthy and self-reliant adults. But with no guidebook or definitive markers of success, how can parents be sure they possess the necessary tools to take on one of life’s greatest responsibilities?
“Parents can support their children’s development and wellbeing so they can grow up in a positive way and have opportunities for academic and social success,” says Kimberly Svevo-Cianci, founder of Changing Children’s Worlds Foundation.
After welcoming a child into the world with unconditional love, many first time parents soon find themselves overwhelmed with various fears and anxieties. Parents of newborns worry about everything from protecting their babies from harm to whether their baby is getting enough to eat, crying too much, sleeping too much or too little and generally whether or not they themselves have the skills to be good parents. With all of these fears, how can first time parents manage their stress?
According to Leon Hoffman, director of the Pacella Parent Child Center in New York, first time parents often waste too much time sweating the small stuff in their child’s infancy.
“Worry gets in the way of being spontaneous and enjoying your infant’s first year of life,” Hoffman says. “Babies are far more resilient than we give them credit for.” (webmd.com)
Of course, relaxing is easier said than done, and many new fears develop for parents as their children get older. According to a survey conducted by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, the top “big problems” facing children across the United States today include childhood obesity, bullying, substance abuse, violence at school and internet safety. As the list suggests, the potential problems facing today’s children often feel too big or abstract for parents to manage. What skills must parents develop to raise happy, well-adjusted children? Even as the world continues to change, experts say the foundation of good parenting remains the same.
“Showing a child endless love is at the core of being a good parent,” says William Doherty, Ph.D. “Fortunately, this comes easily for most moms and dads; Nature has programmed us to love our own children.” (parents.com)
Doherty says that, above all, parents show love by being a reliable and attentive presence in their children’s lives. It’s the little things parents do that matter most; parents show their affection with a hug, praise high grades or display an art project on the refrigerator, and this positive environment reinforces good behavior.
Another significant way a parent can be a positive presence in their child’s life is by playing an active role in their education. Experts in psychology and linguistics have espoused the importance of reading to children when they’re very young. At Indian Prairie Public Library (IPPL), parents and their children can participate in “Little U” storytime classes which use talking, singing, reading, writing and playing to build early literacy skills. IPPL also participates in the nationwide “1000 Books Before Kindergarten” program, funded in part by the Darien Rotary Club, which helps parents boost their children’s learning potential in preparation for school. While this program might sound intimidating, it can be accomplished in less than three years if parents read a book to their children every day. Reading can be a great bonding activity between a child and parent. Furthermore, according to an article on reachoutandread.org, reading aloud builds word-sound awareness in children, a predictor of general academic success.
Parents who provide positive academic and home environments for their children when they’re young are certainly on the right track. However, as all parents know, challenges will arise in even the most loving homes. What can parents do to deal with the undesirable behaviors their children are bound to exhibit? An article on the Child Development Institute’s (CDI) website provides practical solutions and tips for parents regarding common behavioral issues. Among other things, they recommend parents never disagree with one another about discipline in front of their children. Further, they suggest parents never give an order, request or command without being able to enforce it at the time. The CDI also suggest parents consistently reward or punish the same behavior in the same manner as much as possible.
“Many parents find that it’s tough to be firm with their children. They can’t set rules. They threaten but they don’t follow through with consequences,” says therapist Ron Taffel, Ph.D. (parents.com)
Taffel explains that children who don’t see their parents as authority figures will often find a code of conduct in a “second family” comprised of their peer group and pop culture. Immersed in the world of this second family, kids act out in unhealthy and dangerous ways.
“They lie without guilt; they experiment with drugs and alcohol; they have sex at frighteningly early ages,” Taffel says. “They do these things because in the world of their second family, such behavior is acceptable.”
Taffel recognizes that many parents want to avoid the kind of oppressive parenting they grew up with, but he emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between offering children support and simultaneously providing structure.
“It is the constant, natural back and forth between love and limits that is the mark of a great parent,” Taffel says.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, M.D. says a great parent is also a great role model. Parents can provide structure and discipline, but it’s equally important they practice what they preach by modeling healthy behavior.
“A lifetime spent with a generous adult creates another generous adult. A childhood in which material goods aren’t overemphasized produces a child who understands that she can’t buy everything at the mall,” Berger says. (parents.com)
The idea of modeling positive behavior can prove difficult for parents who grew up in abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family situations. Even parents who start out with the best intentions may find the task of parenting more complicated than they had anticipated. Fortunately, there are organizations in many communities which can provide guidance in these situations. One such Geneva-based organization, Changing Children’s Worlds Foundation (CCWF), works towards providing children with a network of caregivers who are engaged in supporting their positive development in nonviolent families and peaceful communities.
CCWF President Kimberly Svevo-Cianci, Ph.D. started the organization in 2011 when she saw a need for primary prevention against child abuse and neglect. Svevo-Cianci advocates for prevention over intervention whenever possible, stressing that adverse childhood experiences often continue to affect individuals into their adult life.
“Childhood trauma impacts your ability to regulate in the face of anxiety and stress, and toxic experiences can even impair a person’s DNA,” she says.
To accomplish their mission, CCWF uses the International Child/Parent Development program (ICDP), an intergenerational approach developed by psychologists in 1985 to strengthen parent-child relationships. CCWF partners with organizations like Tri-City Family Services, training caregivers who facilitate 10–12 week ICDP groups at schools in Kane and DuPage County. Offered at no cost, the program trains parents, children and caregiver facilitators to implement empathy-based interactions in their daily lives.
Svevo-Cicanci says the ICDP is aimed at parents of kids between the ages of 0–6 but can be effective for parents of children as old as 16. She describes the program as a way for parents to understand their role and model positive behavior using emotional, regulative dialogue.
Like many other childhood development experts, Svevo-Cianci emphasizes the incalculable positive affect parents have on their children when they play an active, attentive role in the child’s life. Whether through the help of organizations like CCWF, literature and online resources or the support and guidance of other parents, successful parents are ones who care deeply and love their children unconditionally. Parents who play this kind of active role in their child’s life may find the hardest part of their job is finally letting go.
“The major part of our job as parents is to eventually become dispensable,” says licensed marriage, family and child therapist Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. (parents.com) “So, above all, we need to encourage our children to do things for themselves. We need to teach them to think independently, solve their own problems, and believe deeply in their own abilities.”