SALT LAKE CITY — Parenting is the most demanding job we’ve got.
Most parents aren’t making deliberate decisions about what skills they need to possess to be the best parent; rather they are ensuring teeth are brushed, homework is done, and talking with children about their ideas and goals — which turn out to be important parenting skills.
Parenting absorbs us; it’s hard to get an objective look around.
We don’t often rely on science to guide our parenting decisions. It’s more likely that we consider the type of parents our parents were, and either duplicate the parts we felt were effective, or turn the other direction entirely.
Women talk with their girlfriends about discipline or choosing a good school. Men trade stories about their children and their relationship with them. We ask the pediatrician, and we notice the skills other parents utilize at the park and we integrate them into our routine. We Google. We read parenting books. And when we’ve done all of that, we realize how much contradiction exists.
Dr. Robert Epstein has done the legwork for us. He’s compiled a list of 10 parenting competencies that are predictive of good outcomes. In this case, good outcomes for children are defined as a child's success, health and happiness, as well as the quality of the relationship between parent and child.
Eleven parenting experts evaluated the 10 competencies identified, and data was collected from over 2,000 parents who identified both the outcomes of their children (health, happiness, success) and how closely they parented related to the 10 competencies.
Using this data, Epstein ranked what competencies had the most impact down to which had the least:
- Love and affection: Time spent one on one, exhibiting physical affection.
- Stress management: Parents' ability to manage their stress.
- Relationship skills: Parents' ability to maintain a healthy relationship with their partner.
- Autonomy and independence: Treating your child with respect and encouraging independence.
- Education and learning: Providing opportunity for your child in education.
- Life skills: Having a steady income and stable home.
- Behavior management: Discipline techniques, both positive and negative.
- Health: Access to healthy foods and exercise.
- Religion: Supporting "spiritual or religious development."
- Safety: Keeping your child safe from harm and harmful relationships.
Love and affection
Love and affection tops the list. The one-on-one time we spend supporting our child has a direct impact on his or her degree of happiness, health and success. Parents are powerful.
Stress management and relationship skills
Interestingly, competencies ranked No. 2 (stress management) and No. 3 (relationship skills) are factors that don't involve our child directly. How a parent manages stress and the skill he or she possess in relating to other adults aren't typically considered parenting skills. But, as we see from where they rank, are factors of high importance.
Mothers and fathers in healthy and satisfying marriages are more engaged in their roles as parents and have more positive attitudes toward their children. Frequent and intense conflict, on the other hand, is associated with unresponsive and insensitive parenting.
Stress management is a measure of how well a parent manages his or her stress. If a parent can rely on healthy ways to minimize stress, he or she is more accessible to the children and has more time for love and affection.
This finding dovetails with what we know about maternal depression and its impact on children. When mothers are depressed when their children are young, they may be fighting to manage basic care-giving tasks (food, hygiene, etc) and don't have the energy for important bonding that takes place early on. Regardless of a child's age acting as a role model by caring for yourself, will pay off for the entire family.
Relationship skills reference a parent's ability to communicate and compromise, whether he or she is parenting in the same household or co-parenting due to divorce or separation. Children show improved outcomes when parents are able to speak kindly to one another and model healthy relationship skills. Prolonged exposure to high conflict between parents has an impact on children's psychosocial development.
Research by the Urban Institute goes further, reporting, "Mothers and fathers in healthy and satisfying marriages are more engaged in their roles as parents and have more positive attitudes toward their children. Frequent and intense conflict, on the other hand, is associated with unresponsive and insensitive parenting."
Life skills are another domain where parents have a degree of control. Epstein defines life skills as one's "ability to provide for your child, have a steady income and a plan for the future." As we can see, many of these competencies are intertwined. Those who are financially stable have one less thing to worry about and one less stress to manage.
Behavior management is likely the competency most fuzzy for parents. There are myriad opinions on the best way to diffuse conflict with our child, or ensure that he or she complies with our requests. Recently, advances in neuroscience have shed some light on this topic. We know that when a child is hyper- or hypo-aroused, he or she is unable to participate in problem-solving or skill-building.
The good news is, despite all the contradiction in how to best discipline our child the approach we use isn't as important as it may feel. Besides, this competency falls in the lower third of the list.
Religion makes a surprising appearance on the parenting skills list. One theory is parents who support or encourage spiritual development may be a part of a broader religious community that provides support for the family spiritually and informally, and that leads to improved outcomes.
Figuring it all out
Parenting often feels sandwiched between guilt and shame. Being a parent seems to be a very public display of one's skills and abilities when this isn't the case. All parents, regardless of outside circumstances, desire for their children to be happy and healthy. How we progress toward that goal is determined by our history, values, experiences and opportunity.
Among this list of 10, there is undoubtedly a place where we "have it down." If one is interested in testing where he or she falls among the 10 competencies, Epstein's website has a skills test that will assesses a person's strengths and provide feedback.
Whitney Barrell, LCSW holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Utah. She works as a child therapist focused on mental health issues in children and families. Find out more at www.whitneybarrellcounseling.com.