Today’s post marks the beginning of a new, multi-part series on Wise Parenting. Each post will focus on a different parenting strategy for difficult situations.
Much parenting, like most day-to-day living, is pretty automatic and doesn’t require a lot of thought. We have rules and routines that are, more or less, followed by parents and kids alike. In fact, we would probably drive ourselves crazy if we had to think through every little thing we do. Once in awhile, however, we face a difficult parenting problem or decision that is without an obvious solution. Though there may not even be a “right” answer, we still need to respond the best we can. Perhaps your 13-year old daughter is concerned about a friend whose problem she cannot share with you because she promised not to tell anyone. Or maybe your 15-year old son has just informed you that he is gay and wants you to meet his new boyfriend. It is at times like these that most parents hope they have the ability to respond wisely.
Wisdom is the ability that King Solomon possessed and Aristotle pursued — the capacity to act in a thoughtful, practical and principled way when faced with important, difficult and “messy” matters in life. Responding wisely is not easy. It requires us to break out of our routine behavior, gain some emotional distance, determine the best way to frame the problem, and thoughtfully consider the most helpful course of action.
For the past several years, I have been studying the process of wisdom in order to better understand how we can make wiser decisions in our everyday lives, including how we raise our children. This research, involving dozens of interviews, builds on the recent work of scientists, as well as philosophers and sages across the ages. From this I have been developing a model of wise parenting to assist parents when they face important and difficult issues.
Wise parenting is a process that can help parents respond more effectively to challenging parenting issues. It consists of six important principles:
- Stay cool, calm and reflective
- Aim for the right purpose
- Frame the problem appropriately
- Expand the perspective
- Apply the best knowledge
- Find the right balance
Over several weeks, through a multi-part series on Wise Parenting, I’ll elaborate on each of these principles and discuss how they can lead to wiser parenting.
Staying cool, calm and reflective
We begin with one of the cornerstones of wise parenting, the need to be calm and reflective when faced with a difficult problem or decision. Imagine the classic wise man or woman and we often picture them calmly sitting by a babbling brook or on a mountain ledge, prepared for whatever challenge they may face. While the backdrop may not be that relevant, the principle that we usually make better decisions when we are cool, calm and reflective remains true for parents. When we are upset by our teen’s actions or faced with a difficult parenting problem, we often experience strong emotions. Such emotions are an important signal that something is worthy of concern. But they can also lead us to respond rashly, resulting in “heat of the moment” ill-advised decisions. Or even worse, they lead us to say unkind or untrue things that may make the situation worse. Wise parenting requires us to respond less from our gut and more from our head. When we are faced with a significant parenting issue and wait until our emotions have subsided and we are able to think more clearly about our response, it’s more likely we’ll find a solution that is sensible, caring and that we’ll feel better about over the long run. That’s why the old adage about sleeping on a big decision before taking action is usually good advice.
When we are calm, we are better listeners and our ability and willingness to understand the perspectives of others, including our children, is enhanced. As psychologist and writer, Mary Pipher, has noted, “One important reason to stay calm is that calm parents hear more. Low-key, accepting parents are the ones whose children keep talking.”
Imagine that one evening your teen comes home drunk. You’re so upset you’re having trouble thinking straight. In this situation the wisest strategy may be to send him to bed and tell him you’ll have a serious discussion of the incident in the morning. This will give you time to calm down and reflect more fully on the situation and your teen time to sober up and think about what he’s done. While our emotions do have a role — like communicating how upset or disappointed we are — they can interfere with our ability to come up with a constructive and thoughtful solution that helps our teen’s misbehavior become a learning opportunity which is less likely to be repeated.
Time and distance usually help us regain our composure. But if we continue to have trouble overcoming strong feelings and are unable to view the issue with clarity and understanding, other strategies may become necessary. It may be helpful to examine your own feelings and motivations more closely. Are your strong feelings related to your own issues? Perhaps you are embarrassed by your teen’s behavior or disappointed that they haven’t lived up to your expectations.
Meditation, a quiet walk or spending some time in a relaxing or vigorous activity are all effective ways to calm your emotions and gain a clearer head. Another way to achieve a calmer and clearer mindset is to enlist the help of an impartial listener. Trusted friends, family members, clergy and helping professionals who are less emotionally involved, can often provide a more candid and unbiased perspective that is focused on good solutions.
Because none of us are perfect, we can never be perfectly wise parents. Some days will better than others, but striving to be wiser in our dealings with our teens is a worthy ideal. When we are calm, reflective and respond thoughtfully with our heads rather than only our emotions, it is more likely that our actions will be wiser and in our children’s best interests.
In the next post in on our series on Wise Parenting we will examine the importance of framing the problem and how this can help us overcome the common mistake of trying to solve the wrong problem.
What do you do when you need to “keep your cool”? What tips for “staying calm” can you give to other parents?
Steve Small is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. He and his wife have been married for 30 years. They are the parents of 3 former teenagers and a new son-in-law.