I recently spoke with Regina Pally, M.D., Co-Founder and Assistant Director of the Center for Reflective Parenting about how and where children learn to do what they do and beyond that to where they get their sense of security or insecurity.
Goulston: Regina, how and where do kids learn to do what they do?
Pally: Childhood is so much about learning. Kid's brains are literally sponges for soaking up new information. But HOW they learn can often surprise and frustrate parents. Kids are phenomenal imitators. They are keen observers of what people are doing, and they are excellent at copying it. And in fact it turns out children learn much more by imitation than they do by instruction.
The easiest example of this that people can relate to is learning how to speak. Kids just pick it up. You don't have to teach them vocabulary or grammar; They just absorb by imitation, the language they are exposed to.
So when it comes to learning other behaviors it is not much different. As imitators they are more likely to do what they observe than what they are taught. When parents say do what I say not what I do, it is a recipe for failure. Because kids do what the adults around them do, particularly their parents. It is a kind of osmosis so to speak, in which they soak in and internalize what others they care about are doing.
This is the main way they learn how it is they are supposed "be" in the world -- what the rules are at home, and at school, how they are supposed to get along with other people, and also how they are supposed to control their behaviors and how they are supposed to control and express their feelings, and even things like how they are supposed to work hard for what they want.
Goulston: So telling your kids what to do is not as effective as many parents would hope?
Pally: Parents should keep in mind its more 'do what I do', and less 'do what I say'. And when I say Do, what I mean is how parents behave toward their child as well as with other people. Do they get easily frustrated with their child and impulsively lash out with hostility. Are they patient and listen carefully to what their child is feeling? Do they impose their power over the child or do they allow the child some autonomy in making decisions.
As much as parents wish they could teach kids how to behave simply by instruction... 'Now listen to me young man, you can't just go around the house yelling you have to think about other people in this house too.'... more often than not they will be more successful in getting their children to learn these important lessons by how they behave themselves.
Goulston: Can you give some specific examples?
Pally: If Dad does a lot of yelling himself, and gets easily frustrated when he does not get his way, it's no surprise if his child acts that way. If Mom gets hyper-anxious when her child is frustrated or disappointed, the child will get hyper-anxious as well in the face of these strong emotions. A mom who is able to be a little calmer will be more likely to be able to help her child internalize calmness in the face of frustration and disappointment. I am not saying that parents have to do this perfectly. But when parents misbehave in ways they don't want their kids to misbehave, I encourage them to at least be honest and apologize... because that is after all how they want their children to act when the child misbehaves.
Goulston: That's a good point about children imitating either parent, especially how that parent reacts to upsetting situations. I also remember from my psychiatric training how destructive it can be to a child's development to live in a highly conflicted household. What are your thoughts about that?
Pally: You're right about that. Children learn how to act and react and even what to feel from watching what their parents do. And this can be particularly important when kids are watching how their parents handle conflict with each other. Not only are they learning but it also affects their sense of well-being.
Goulston: What happens when a young child watches their mother and father having a difference of opinion and it escalates to a disagreement, an argument or worse (with either leveling hyperbole, screams, sullenness, "you never's" and "you always" at each other)?
Pally: Kids in families with this kind of tension and unresolved conflict, feel anxious and insecure but end up learning this is how to deal with conflict. These kids can then pass on to their kids this tendency to go from purely rational to explosively emotional within seconds.
Goulston: Can you describe what parents who deal with conflict act like?
Pally: A good example of healthy parents are those who respect and treat respectfully the differences in their spouse. And when they do have conflict and the emotions flare, they are able to finally talk it through and make sense of each other's point of view. Then they can see how reason (not to be confused with coldly, disdainfully and dismissively delivered logic) and emotion cooperate. This way that child is internalizing and then hard wiring into their brain how their own thinking and talking things through and their emotion will cooperate with each other. This is what some people would call the left brain and right brain working together in an integrated fashion.
Another example is a couple who shows mutual respect and valuing of their differences by suggesting their child go to their spouse if the other can provide what that child needs most. For example a father who is better at solutions than emotional comfort might say to an upset child, "I can see that what you want and need most now is someone to make you feel less upset and feel better. Your mom is terrific at that. Go talk to her to help you feel better." And alternatively, the mother who may be better at comforting than solutions might say to a child who needs a plan, "You know, your dad is terrific at figuring a way to deal with the situation and help you come up with what you should say or do to make it better. Go to him and he'll be great at helping you figure that out."
When a young child sees parents respecting, appreciating and utilizing the different strengths in each other instead of shaming the child if they need something that each parent is bad at, it fosters a sense of security within the child. Following that they will internalize it and turn to it unconsciously during times of conflict in their later life and know that things will turn out and that differences don't make you wrong. They just make you different.
Goulston: You're preaching to the choir. What about parents who think this is a bunch of hooey and then talk about how their parents argued and it wasn't so bad?
Pally: Show me a parent who thinks this is a bunch of hooey and I'll show you a parent who would rather be right than make a situation better. And you're right, those are the people we need to be speaking to.
Goulston: I don't know if this would make the point, but many years ago during my training I remembered hearing about a study conducted at a psychoanalytic child study center in Philadelphia in which parents were interviewed and the researchers made some correlations between what the parents said and their disturbed children's behavior in the playroom. Since it was a psychoanalytically oriented center they asked parents about their dreams which the parents hadn't told anyone about. To their amazement they then discovered that some of these parents' children were acting out the dreams in their play. So if a parent had a dream about a plane crashing, their child was crashing planes in the play room. What do you think that means?
Pally: It means your children are always watching you and taking in not just what you say and do, but what you feel. Kind of makes the hairs on your neck stand up, but it doesn't surprise me. I can't explain how it works, but we know kids feel and intuit somehow, even things that parents are completely unaware of feeling.
Goulston: And the takeaway from that?
Pally: If you want your children to feel good about themselves and life from their inside out, get yourself better from your inside out... and learn to handle conflict better.
Goulston: Thank you for helping us better understand how parents can raise their children be secure in anxious times by turning a conflicted home into a more loving one.
Pally: My pleasure, thank you. Maybe that's why we used to refer to it as "home sweet home."