Wednesday words on parenting: psychobabble and raising the perfect child

When the girls were younger and another mother would say, either to them or to her own child, “Use your inside voice please”, it had the same effect on me as hearing nails on a chalkboard.  I’d cringe, often visibly.  To a lesser degree, I’d shiver after hearing:

It’s a teachable moment.


In a restaurant, turning to a 3-year-old: What would you like to order?

How did it make you feel after Susie took your toy/poked you in the eye/spat in your food?

Gifted, as in, My child is highly…

We’re transitioning to a big boy bed/solid food/shoes with laces.

I paused every time I was about to say ‘playdate’ and tried to say something, anything else.  Sometimes I failed.

Years ago, having dinner with some little friends from the park, I watched and listened as their mother spoke psychobabble to her disruptive four-year-old son who didn’t want to sit at the table, something like: “Help me understand what’s going on.  I think you’re frustrated.  Does dinner frustrate you?  Is it hard to stop what you’re doing to sit and eat some food?  The rest of us want you to sit and enjoy dinner but if that makes you uncomfortable, we don’t want to impede your creative play, blah, waaa, blah, waaa, blah…”  I stifled a laugh.  The mom and I never became friends.  Too exhausting and I’m pretty sure I’d be judged by the way I forced my kids to do things because I said so.

In a very reassuring piece from last week’s New York Times, studies show parents are more interested in raising a caring child than a successful one.  But how do we best do that?  From the article:

‘Many parents believe it’s important to compliment the behavior, not the child — that way, the child learns to repeat the behavior. Indeed, I know one couple who are careful to say, “That was such a helpful thing to do,” instead of, “You’re a helpful person.”’

Really?  Why are they careful?  What possible adverse effect could one have over the other?  Fuck!  (I bet swearing in front of a child has an adverse effect.)

The piece goes on to discuss research – because parenting well provides unlimited opportunities for examination – that suggests the opposite approach will successfully produce the next Mother Teresa.  Praise the character of the child, not the behavior:  ‘Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.”’

So I guess when I told Goldie the other day, “Don’t be mean,” I should have said, “Don’t be a bitch…please.”

Behavioral studies designed to help us all be better parents are well intentioned, as much as the studies that reveal ‘whole grain’ is better for us than ‘whole wheat’.  But we’re splitting hairs.  And sometimes kids turn out awful regardless of proper syntax, or fantastic in spite of eating Wonder Bread.

Honestly, we’re doing the best we can.  Or at least I am.  Most of the time.  Mostly I’m good to the girls.  Okay, sometimes I suck.  Sometimes, parenting is totally confounding.  Good thing they’re doing all this research.


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  1. Cathy dore says

    And to think a patient mentioned this article to me today while I was sitting in my shrink office shrinking her. She is about to give birth for the first time. Our discussion: Certainly parents need more grace than psychobabble!

    Love today’s blog. Thanks.

  2. Eileen says

    Jo, you have always been a Super Mom! I miss seeing you and I miss your girls. Love keeping up with you from the east coast via your blog. You’re always right on target. Most of us do the best we can at parenting (teaching, too!) and some days are just…..better than others!

    Keep up the good work –


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