More than anything, parents want to do their best for their kids. But every parent I know lives in the pressures of the ShouldStorm, which bombards them with shoulds. Always telling them what they should and should not be doing to maximize their child’s development.
Now, new research from the University of Chicago has shed light on a sinister way the ShouldStorm actually drives parents to undermine their child’s development, all while thinking they are helping. It all comes down to what parents are told is good for kids.
The new study comes from the TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health at the University of Chicago. The team found that many parents believe that young kids benefit from education TV shows or using screens. Parents see that their kids are happy and occupied. And they have been bombarded with advertisements that told them this is good for kids. Or that parents should be giving their kids these “educational opportunities.”
But in fact, research shows that early screen time and “educational” TV shows for babies and toddlers actually interfere with healthy development. So the U of Chicago team wanted to see if supporting parents by updating their parenting beliefs to the latest science could help.
Parents and science on child development
The problem is that while we have a lot of science on child development, it has not been widely communicated to parents. This leaves many parents with outdated parenting beliefs and behaviors. Unfortunately, that means a lot of kids hit kindergarten with inadequate levels of school readiness.
The U of Chicago team found that a key factor is what parents believe about their role in their children’s early learning. Even better, they designed and tested an intervention for parents who noticeably improved children’s school readiness. Their findings, reported in Nature Communications, noted that when an intervention helped parents update their knowledge and equip them with tools, parents’ behaviors naturally enhanced their children’s development.
Updating parenting beliefs
The researchers offered families 12 one-hour home visits over the course of six months, to introduce ideas about child development and then mentor parents as they used them. For example, the team might be help parents understand that it’s okay not to read every word in a book. In fact, when their child interrupts to talk about the story, those conversations are very helpful for their child’s learning. Or that parents pointing out shapes in everyday objects or having children compare two windows can build their math and spatial abilities in the early years.
The home visits organized these ideas for parents with what the team calls the 3 T method: tuning in, taking turns, and talking more. This helps parents connect with their children in reciprocal, give-and-take way that boosts child learning.
“For example, they might practice ‘tuning in, taking turns, and talking more’ about cooking a meal, demonstrating how that daily routine presents a perfect opportunity to engage with a child and introduce descriptive language and math terms,” write the study authors.
After six months of home visits, parents showed signficant shifts in their beliefs and nurturing behaviors. And that’s where the team saw measurable changes in child outcomes: “enriched parent-child interactions and higher vocabulary, math, and social-emotional skills for the children,” according to the paper.
Avoiding the ShouldStorm
These parents were freed from false shoulds about unhelpful products for young children. They were empowered to understand their own value to their child. But it’s easy to see how this empowerment could get hijacked into helicopter parenting by the ShouldStorm. I can already hear our parenting inner critics: “You should be talking turns and talking more right now!” “You should really TUNE IN to your child more.” And of course, all of those shoulds are busy distracting us so that we are tuning into the ShouldStorm instead of our kids anyway.
Just as kids need us to interact with them in a meaningful way, they also needs us to back off sometimes. That’s where my own Sigh, See, and Start method can help us. What do we do when we feel a should? Sigh, See, and Start. Here’s how to do that with the 3Ts.
Sigh: take a deep breath and let it go long and slow. In that sigh of relief, let go of the shoulds and connect with yourself. Then See: See your child, see the situation. In a word, Tune In. Finally, Start: start taking turns, start talking with your child about what you are doing together or observing. When parents Sigh and See before we Start, we can let go of the unreasonable pressure of the shoulds. Then we can connect with our kids in the meaningful way we hope for.
Do you want to get free of the ShouldStorm in parenting? Sign up for my free email course and learn the pediatrician’s method that will transform your home.
Portions of this article were previously published at PsychologyToday.com.