"Dr. Laura....I just want to give my kids a better start in life than I had. How can I make sure they're self-disciplined but happy?" - Katie
All of us want to raise children who become self-disciplined -- and happy -- adults. The only question is how best to do that. Luckily, we know the answer. Research studies have been following children from babyhood to adulthood for decades, so we actually know what works to raise great kids. Here are the five most important things we know.
1. Children need a secure attachment with at least one loving adult. Parents facilitate this secure attachment in the first year by listening to their unique baby and responding to her needs. They continue to nurture secure attachment by accepting the full range of who their child is -- including all that messy neediness and anger -- into the toddler years and beyond. Parents who are unable to tolerate the child's neediness, controlling (rather than accepting the child as he is), intrusive (rather than taking the child's cues), or otherwise reacting out of their own needs rather than responding to their child's needs are less likely to raise a securely attached child.
This close relationship is what motivates kids to cooperate and to accept their parents' recommendations and rules. Without that bond, parents lose their influence as soon as children begin interacting with peers, because kids are looking to satisfy those unrequited needs via their peers.
Do you have to "attachment parent" to raise a securely attached child? No. Estimates are that before parents in the US began using what we think of as attachment practices (baby-wearing, co-sleeping, nursing), about 60% of toddlers were still securely attached. It's the parent's emotional responsiveness that determines security of attachment. Of course, many parents find that attachment practices increase their responsiveness, which the research is beginning to confirm, at least for baby-wearing.
2. Children need to be able to "self-soothe" to manage their behavior; and they only learn to self-soothe by being soothed by parents. That's because the neural pathways that release soothing biochemicals are formed when the baby is soothed by the parent. Leaving little ones alone with their big emotions does NOT teach them to self-soothe; it undermines their neural development so that it's harder for them to calm themselves throughout their lives. Self-soothing is essential for children to learn to manage their anxiety, emotions and behavior. Children who are explosive, anxious, or "dramatic" need extra support in the form of parental calming (as well as safe opportunities to show us their emotions, see #4 below).
3. Children learn self-discipline from limits with empathy. Kids who are raised without limits don't get many opportunities to practice self-discipline, so they don't necessarily learn to be considerate of others or to manage themselves through unpleasant tasks -- which is why permissive parenting can raise undisciplined kids. (For more on why permissive parenting doesn't work.)
BUT -- and this is a big BUT -- if the limits are imposed in a way that provokes resistance ("Don't you sass me, young lady!"), the child does not learn self discipline, because he does not internally accept the limit. Instead, he rails against it, either internally or externally. So when a limit is perceived as harsh or unfair, kids don't actually learn self-discipline, which is why authoritarian parenting raises kids who ultimately can't manage themselves without outside discipline (and are more susceptible to peer pressure). ALL punishment undermines self-discipline. (Did you really think he was sitting on the naughty step taking responsibility and considering how to be a better kid? He was reviewing why he was justified in his behavior and plotting revenge, like any normal human!) (For more on why strict parenting doesn't work.)
When limits are imposed with empathy ("You're mad, and shoes are still not for throwing!"), kids may not like the limit, but they don't get stuck in resistance. They feel understood, supported, connected. That connection makes them willing to live with the limit, especially if parents also accept their upset about the limit. She builds more self-discipline every time she practices it; when she stops herself from going after what she wants because there is something she wants more--a good relationship with you. What's more, she learns that she can't always get her way, but she gets something better: someone who loves her exactly as she is. This unconditional positive regard becomes the core of unshakable positive self esteem and stable internal happiness. (For more on setting limits with empathy.)
4. Children can only manage their behavior when they can manage their emotions, and they learn to manage their emotions by having parents who accept their emotions, even while limiting actions as necessary. Human emotions need to be felt so they dissipate and leave us; feelings that are repressed pop out uncontrolled and cause "bad" behavior. But children need to feel safe to experience their big upsets and let them go. Kids who are uncooperative, angry or fearful are signaling that they need us to "witness" their feelings by letting them be upset in our loving presence. Children who know their feelings are "allowed" don't store them up, so they're better able to manage their emotions and behavior. So if you're connecting with your child, and setting limits with plenty of empathy, and your child is still acting out, she's signaling you that she needs help with her emotions. (For more on helping kids when they're angry, see What if your child gets angry, but never breaks through to tears?)
5. Children learn what they live. This is simple. If we're considerate and respectful to them, they become respectful, considerate people. Kids who are rude and disrespectful learned it somewhere; if they bring it into the house and we politely remind them that we don't relate that way, they don't adopt that style. If we yell at them, they learn to yell, and they'll be yelling back at us by the time they're seven, if not before.
Easy? No. This kind of parenting requires you to manage your own emotions. That's the hardest work there is.
But giving your kids a good start in life means you're sending ripples for generations into the future. Not just your children, but their children, and their children, and their children. Imagine all those happy, self-disciplined people, all flourishing, because of you. They're all waving to you from the future, saying thank you.