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Dan Siegel

Parenting Time Machine: Imagine your children in the future, and how you got them there

Here's a little exercise that can help you think about what you want to prioritize as a parent. 

First, engage in some time travel.  Imagine yourself in the future, when your kids are grown.  (If you want, you can have it turn out that you don't look any older than you do now and that you’re driving a convertible sports car instead of a stinky minivan.)  From that vantage point, look back at the way you raised your children.  How will you feel about the parenting decisions you've made?  The experiences you've given your kids. 

For me personally, I'm constantly learning new things that make me say, "I wish I'd known that earlier."  I expect I'll probably write a book in the future about what the parenting expert wishes she’d done differently, given the perspective of time (and emerging research.) 

But if you were to ask me now to predict what I will one day say are the most important things my husband I did as parents that made the biggest difference in how well our three boys turned out—in my imagined future, it so happens that my kids are fantastic humans who have a very young-looking mother—here’s what I’d say. 

  1. We disciplined by using reflective dialogues and collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive consequences.
    Actually, I wish we did more of this, but I truly believe that traditional punishment as a discipline technique is not only less kind and caring, but much less effective as well when it comes to changing behaviors and building character.  (Watch for my upcoming book, No-Drama Discipline, written with Dan Siegel and published by Random House, for a book-length discussion of this idea.) Nearly any discipline situation can be better handled by talking to our kids and at times even asking for their opinions on how to address a situation.  Firm boundaries and high expectations can be maintained while also using discipline moments to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving.
  2. We built secure relationships with them.
    Instead of simply "managing" our boys and getting them to their activities, we got to know them, and let them know us.  We all talked and laughed and argued together, deepening the connections between us all.  We consistently (not perfectly) responded quickly and predictably to their needs, and they had repeated experiences that wired their brains to know that they can trust in relationships.  And, we were tuned in to their emotional world—we focused on understanding and talking about the internal experience:  thoughts, feelings, wishes, regrets, motivations, etc.  Sensitive, emotionally attuned, predictable care leads to secure attachment.  Secure attachment is the single best predictor for children to thrive.  We weren't perfect parents, but we did build strong relationships with our kids.
  3. We sent them to sleepaway summer camp.
    Our boys happen to have gone to a magical place called Camp Chippewa in Northern Minnesota.  But summer camp in general is great for kids, in that it allows them to overcome difficult situations like homesickness.  Being away from parents and living in a cabin with other kids and mentors of all ages is transformative for many children.  The activities at camp are great; they have a blast learning to canoe and shoot a bow and pitch a tent, but it’s the skills, the mastery, and the frustration management that make it so good for their development.  The friendships they make, the traditions and rituals they learn, being in nature, and the independence they gain are fun, and they build resilience.  They learn a lot about themselves through this experience.
  4. We made our home a place their friends wanted to be.
    One of the best ways we got to know our kids was by watching them interact with their friends.  We also liked getting to influence the environment our boys and their peers grew up in. 
  5. We gave them other adults who cared about them.
    Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close friends all became important people in the lives of our children.  They never wondered whether they were worth loving or being paid attention to, because there was always a crowd of people in their lives who were loving them and paying attention to them.
  6. We were present with them without rescuing all the time.
    Sure, there were plenty of times when we gave the distracted "uh-huh" while we heard about the latest Lego creation.  But we did our best to really be there with our boys.  To listen to them, to talk to them, to pay attention to what bothered them and what mattered to them.  We wanted them to know that we delighted in them as people, and that we were there for them.  Always.  Even when they were badly behaved, or they were having meltdowns.  We saw our job as walking with them through struggles and letting them know we were there with them—without rescuing them from every negative emotion or situation. 
  7. We gave them a chance to find and do what they loved.
    Whether it was sports or piano or art or joke-telling, we did all we could to let our kids chase and enjoy their passions.
  8. We protected playtime.
    I'm not saying that there weren't periodic seasons when our boys ended up being over-scheduled, but for the most part we worked hard to make sure they had time to just hang out and play.  We were big fans of enriching activities, but not at the expense of having time for unstructured play that let them imagine and dream and even deal with boredom.

So that's an example of my list.  What would be on yours?

Notice that this exercise asks you to think about what you're doing well.  You could make a similar list about what you wish you'd done differently.  (Watch for a future article in which I outline some of the regrets I imagine I'll be living with in the future.  There will be plenty of those, I'm sure—although I always remind parents, as I do in this article, that even our parenting mistakes can be beneficial for our kids.)

The point in all of this is simply to remain aware and intentional about what we're doing as parents.  We might see changes we want to make, but we'll also realize that there's plenty we're doing that we'll look back on some day and smile, and even be proud of. 



Knowledge, Instinct, and Self-Understanding: Basic Parenting Tips

There’s plenty of advice available on parenting, but there’s no one Parenting Rulebook that answers all parenting questions.  In fact, it’s helpful to have a handful of different strategies and approaches, and to keep in mind that your approaches should evolve as you mature as a parent, and as you approach each new phase of childhood.  It’s almost always problematic when parents rigidly adhere to any one philosopy. My overall suggestion?  Combine knowledge, instinct, and self-understanding.



Knowledge is definitely power, and parents usually find it useful to have a few strategies to help them parent their children.  Simply by reading and talking to other parents, you can arm yourself with all kinds of tools and approaches to help you more easily teach your children and discover a philosophy of parenting you feel good about.

Knowledge is also powerful when it comes to dealing with developmental phases and challenges, from the early newborn days all the way through adolescence.  When a new mother becomes frustrated because her six-week-old is nursing every hour all day long, a part of her may begin to resent the infant because of this loss of freedom.  However, if she were to read a bit about newborns and their growth patterns, she’d discover that during a growth spurt, a baby will often “cluster feed” for a week or two.  An understanding of this important phase in her son’s life can help the mother be much more patient and understanding, even if she continues to feel a bit frustrated about the amount of time she’s spending nursing.

The same would apply to a toddler.  A father can address the tantrums of his two-year-old much more lovingly and effectively if he has an understanding of what this phase means for his daughter (that one of her most important jobs at this age is to discover and assert her own independent self).  Again, his frustration (and even anger) may still be there, but the father can handle those emotions much better if he can understand that his daughter is in the process of claiming her own personhood and testing to what extent she is actually separating from her parents.

The basic idea is that knowledge can help you view parenting struggles as opportunities to know your children better and to help them through difficult times.  It doesn’t mean that you won’t get frustrated; but good information can make all the difference in your perspective.  The more we can understand our children and learn about their process of development, the better prepared we’ll be to guide them along their journey toward healthy adulthood.



Be wary of any parenting approaches that offer an “all or nothing” mentality or that seem extreme.  Certain “parenting gurus” will present THE ONE WAY to get babies to sleep through the night, THE ONE WAY to change behavior, or THE ONE WAY to get your teenager to make straight-A’s.  But most of the time, moderation and a combination of different approaches produce the best results.  Listen to lots of experts (and non-experts), and then pick and choose different aspects of different approaches that seem to apply best to your situation.

Again, knowledge is power.  But don’t give up your own power to make decisions that are best for your children, yourself, your marriage, and your family.  Gather all the information you can, and then use your common sense and your instincts to make a decision that feels right.  You know your child better than anyone.  Think about how your child might experience the situation and respond to your child’s needs.  Your instincts will usually tell you to respond to your child’s needs, and those instincts are there for a reason—that’s what your child requires most from you:  that you’ll trust that his needs will be recognized and responded to quickly and consistently.



The science from a number of fields shows that parents’ own experiences in their lives strongly influence how they react and parent.  This is a double-edged sword.  Our positive and nurturing experiences influence our parenting, but our negative and painful experiences affect us as well.  The nurturing we’ve received in our lives will be passed on to our children in the way we interact with them.  But the pain we’ve experienced can cause us to react in ways that don’t really make sense, so that we end up parenting in ways that we aren’t really happy with.

For this reason, it’s important that parents do all they can to understand themselves as fully as possible.  Self-awareness can lead to emotional and mental health.  And the more emotionally and mentally healthy you are, the more present you’ll be able to be for your kids, and the more fully you’ll be able to love and nurture them in the everyday moments of life.  (Dan Siegel and I wrote an article about this idea for the PBS series “This Emotional Life.”  Click here to see it.)

Remember, also, to take care of yourself and your marriage and your other relationships.  Avoid focusing so much on parenting well that you neglect your own emotional and physical health.  For your children to fully flourish, they need parents who are flourishing too, nurturing themselves and their relationships.



Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a Point to Enjoy One Another

Do you ever feel like you’re spending most of your time disciplining your kids and carting them from one activity to the next, and not enough time just enjoying being with them? If you do, you’re not alone; most of us feel this from time to time. Sometimes it’s easy to forget to just have fun as a family. Yet we are hardwired for play and exploration as well as for joining with one another. In fact, “playful parenting” is one of the best ways to prepare your children for relationships and encourage them to connect with others. That’s because it gives them positive experiences being with the people they spend the most time with: their parents. Of course children need structure and boundaries and to be held accountable for their behavior, but even as you maintain your authority, don’t forget to have fun with your kids. Play games. Tell jokes. Be silly. Take an interest in what they care about. The more they enjoy the time they spend with you and the rest of the family, the more they’ll value relationships and desire more positive and healthy relational experiences in the future.

What's REALLY Causing Your Frustration Towards Your Kids?

Do you ever get so upset with your kids that you do something that leaves you (and the rest of the family) asking, "Where did that come from?" At times we’re not really listening to our children because our own internal experiences are being so noisy that it’s all we can hear. We often try to control our children’s feelings and behavior when actually it’s our own internal experience that is triggering our upset feelings about their behavior. An example of this would be when your child is being really clingy, and instead of seeing that she’s communicating that she needs your comfort and attention, you get furious with her. Your fury is not really because of her developmentally appropriate need for you—it’s because you feel smothered because you haven’t done anything for yourself in a long time, or because you had a parent who relied on you to meet her needs, and in this moment, you feel resentment again at being needed.