Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.
Baking has been one of my favorite enrichment activities to do with my kids. After all, it covers math, science, social studies, and a heavy dose of daily living skills!
The demands of pandemic parenting, though, have made me rethink how to best impart strong values to my children. In Post 2, I talked about my daughter’s frustration over homework, and how I realized that my own intolerance of mistakes might have influenced her behavior. Similarly, how we model coping in quality-time activities such as baking can help prepare our children for the emotional challenges that come with the hurdles they will face on the road to success.
In a recent (October 2020) NY Times opinion article, columnist Thomas Friedman writes about projections for what education and work will look like in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/20/opinion/covid-education-work.html).
Friedman refers to the idea described in Heather McGowen's The Adaptation Advantage (https://www.heathermcgowan.com/) that, “Your child can expect to change jobs and professions multiple times in their lifetimes, which means their career path will no longer follow a simple ‘learn-to-work’ trajectory.”
The key to success in this changing environment is to encourage “process over product” and setting the stage for lifelong learning that will help children become flexible, adaptable, well-adjusted adults. One way to encourage this flexibility is to model it in yourself.
Modeling flexible behavior is a complex undertaking. There are several ideas to consider, some of which we will tackle in other posts. In this post we’re going to look at the conflict between personal values and child behaviors.
To fully understand this conflict we will look at a type of psychotherapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT.* ACT is designed to help people understand their values and how they express those values in various domains, including health, achievements, spirituality, and relationships.
For example, one might describe their value in family relationships by reflecting on what kind of a sister/brother, daughter/son, or wife/husband they want to be. They might find it more important to teach their children new skills rather than just spending relaxing leisure time with them. Clients are asked to list their valued areas in the order in which they prioritize them. They are then asked to consider to what extent they live in accordance with their values. For example, if one highly values family relationships, and yet they never speak or visit with family members, the clinician might highlight this discrepancy.
Of course, valued areas can conflict with one another. Long work hours may be consistent with how one expresses their value of career success but will inevitably conflict with values of leisure and socialization.
Our children present us with a special challenge when their behaviors lead to inner conflicts of what we think the ideal parent-child relationship is.
Take, for example, children who lick their fingers after touching cake batter containing raw egg, which might upset someone who places a top priority (understandably) on preventing illness.
In situations like this, it may be difficult to not show nonverbal signs of tension in our mannerisms (which children are eerily quick to pick up on). In our baking example, the parent might unintentionally model hypervigilance during what is meant to be a pleasurable bonding activity. This might put both parent and child on edge, and in turn make the parent feel guilt for not creating a warm and pleasant experience.
Here, it might be helpful for parents to focus on understanding their emotional reactions to their child’s behaviors. The problem is not that the parent is wrong for worrying about their child’s health and safety, but rather, that they might be “stuck” on the idea of protecting the child rather than embracing the situation as a teaching moment that will enhance their bond with their child and prepare them for unpredictable situations.
How can we think so deeply about problems when they demand immediate solutions? What parents might find is that just a few seconds of distraction, such as focusing on the feel or sound of running water, may be all they need to mentally reset and calmly remind the child not to eat raw egg. I also find it helpful to notice tension in my body, and to say to myself, “I am starting to get agitated, and I can turn it around.”
In summary, by the time people choose to be parents, we have already adopted internalized values that influence their expectations for how they will parent. While expressing values is well-intentioned, our own values will inevitably conflict with what we experience in our interactions with our children. Understanding this can help parents understand their negative emotional response to the child’s behavior.
In the next post, we will expand on a challenge that we mentioned earlier: Tolerating our own mistakes, and how this impacts parenting.
*Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook) is a good resource for learning more about ACT. Also, an example of a values assessment can be found here: https://thehappinesstrap.com/upimages/Values_Questionnaire.pdf