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Parenting In A Box

September, 2010
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Parents/caretakers are faced with a host of challenges today in raising their teenagers. Issues, such as 24/7 Internet access and social networking, temptations to try alcohol and other drugs, and curiosity about sexual interactions, are many of such challenges confronting youth.
Effective parenting is very much needed nowadays. However, nobody is born a parent…
Dr.West-Olatunji, Associate Professor at University of Florida believes in the dynamic relationship between the freedom and safety that children need at every point in their lives. “The children need enough space to try out what they have learned from their parents and other adults in their lives. They also need this space to create new solutions that have not been given to them, ones that they have thought about on their own. However, children also need to know that parents are still present to catch them when they fall or set necessary boundaries,” said the professor while she draws box on the white board.
LittleStar met with Dr. West-Olatunji at a talk organized by Beijing BISS International School – “Parenting Teens in the 21st Century” on September 8, and talked with the professor on effective parenting.
LittleStar: What is parenting really about? To TEACH or to PROTECT the kids?
Dr.West-Olatunji: Effective parenting facilitates the healthy growth and development of children. Parents/caretakers assist children by modeling appropriate social and self-advocacy behaviors and articulating a particulate set of values and mores that they believe contribute to children’s wellbeing. Parents/caretakers also nurture children and provide for them until they are able to provide for themselves by offering food, shelter, and safety. While adults are not born with the skills to parent, we do develop an understanding of what children need based upon our own experiences in families, with our own parents. This is both good news and bad news. If we learned ineffective ways of living, we often pass on these inadequate skills to our children. In contrast, we can also pass on effective life skills that our parents taught us.
LittleStar: How important is parenting as to a child’s growth? What is good or successful parenting?
Dr.West-Olatunji: There has been lots of research conducted to explore the relationship between parenting and children’s growth and development. Parents are key players in how children fare in their lives — socially, physically, intellectually, and spiritually/morally. How children react to life’s challenges is often dependent upon their parental and familial experiences. When children experience support and encouragement, they typically have positive attitudes toward new endeavors and obstacles to their objectives. They are able to recover from their failures and provide support to their peers. Successful parenting allows children to self-actualize so that they can blossom into happy, productive, and empathic adults. Effective parenting helps children to see themselves as successful and having self-worth. Good parenting incorporates open communication between adults and children so that young people feel a sense of agency and voice, regardless of the natural hierarchy in families.
LittleStar: Today we are talking about "Parenting in the 21st Century", is parenting very much different 20 or 50 years ago? Faced with today’s world - Internet, globalization, international school, do you think parenting is more challenging than years ago? What changes and what doesn’t change as to Successful Parenting?
Dr.West-Olatunji: Current challenges that children face include the expectations that they can do more. Use of technology has spurred these expectations that arise out of multitasking and social networking. Both adults and children alike experience increased anxiety in response to increasing demands. Additionally, today’s children are vulnerable to information overload due to the ready availability of information via internet (smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Parents need to be aware of how their children are responding to life’s challenges. Adults often mistakenly believe that, because children are not employed, they are not significantly impacted by their daily life experiences. This is not true. Children can face very serious problems that can potentially have deleterious effects on their academic performance and emotional well being. Other challenges reflect more traditional problems for students, such as bullying, peer pressure to engage in inappropriate behaviors (such as sexual and substance abuse activity), wanting to fit in relative to peer social networks, and performance anxiety within and outside of school.
LittleStar: When does parenting begin? On the day one becomes a parent? When does it end? Once the child has grown up? Then, what is the golden period for parenting for the child? Adolescent years?
Dr.West-Olatunji: Parenting never ends. At any age, children (even adult children) have parenting needs. So, be prepared to receive telephone calls and personal visits from your children after they have grown up and have questions about parenting their own children. Also, because parents are still modeling what it means to be human at each developmental stage, they can provide examples of how to handle middle age shifts as well as developmental shifts at mature life stages. There is always something that your children can learn and need from parents, even the nurturing is still desired. You might be asked to cook an adult child’s favorite meal or tell of story of his/her childhood. These are ways in which adult children ask for nurturing or emotional bonding. These activities reinforce the positive interactions and experiences from the formative years.
biss-talk-2sThere are several stages of development that are often viewed as “golden years” by parents. However, different parents may have different perspectives. It depends on each individual’s own preferences and personality. For some, the early childhood years are golden because children have less autonomy and are more compliant. Other parents may feel the pressure of providing so much nurturance at this stage. For other parents, the middle childhood years are golden because children typically experience self-efficacy through their activities as they experience athletic, visual/performance art activities, and civic/social engagement projects. Few parents might suggest the adolescent years as golden as this developmental stage is traumatic for child and parents alike. Adolescents undergo so many changes on so many levels — cognitively, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and morally – at this time in their lives. As such, they are at risk and often mobile. This combination frequently causes anxiety for parents who worry about their teen’s livelihood. This period is followed by the late adolescence period when children begin to view life and their parents differently, able to think in more complex terms about their world. This stage has also been viewed as golden for parents as children might verbalize how valuable their parents’ parenting has been in their growth and development and articulate an appreciation for parents’ efforts.
LittleStar: Parents and kids are obviously of two different generations, isn’t it natural to have disagreement or conflicts?
Dr.West-Olatunji: Yes, it is believed that children need to go through phases in which they separate themselves ideologically from their parents in order to individuate and create an identity of their own. Fortunately, these same theorists believe that children naturally return to harmonious relationships with their parents following this process. So, from this perspective, lack of agreement from your child may signal healthy growth and development.
LittleStar: To my understanding, parenting is usually done through good and open conversations. When and how often should the parents have such parenting conversations with their children? What’s the secret to have good and effective conversations with the child? During the conversations, should the parents treat the child as an adult?
Dr.West-Olatunji: Parents need to ensure that lines of communication are always open so that children can feel comfortable coming to them with whatever is on their minds. Similarly, parents need to feel comfortable in sharing their concerns with their children. How often and how parents engage in communication with their children is dependent upon the needs of the child or family. Sometimes children need more attention in certain times of their lives than in others. Sometimes one child needs more attention than another. Also, there may be family events that create the need for more (or less) communication. A parent can gauge the child’s need based upon behaviors. If there has been a drastic change in the child’s behavior or school performance, this might be a sign that more communication is needed. Parents should rarely treat children as adults but rather communicate with children at their developmental level. For instance, if a grandparent is seriously ill and hospitalized, a young child of age 5 or 6 may need to know and understand that the grandparent is not feeling well and will not be available for a while. A teenager has the cognitive and emotional abilities to hear more about the nature of the illness and how it might affect the family members’ day-to-day lives.
LittleStar: In some families, it is the Mother who is parenting the child, while other families dads playing the role. Is this OK or should both parents involved? Or is there a better work division? And who else should be involved in the process?
Dr.West-Olatunji: Caretakers can be anyone in the family system who has the genuine interest and ability to assist in the growth and development of a child. Either parent, Mom or Dad, can serve in the role of primary caretaker. However, the secondary caretaker must spend a sufficient about of time with children. Even emotional absence can create issues in children’s development. Parents who are not in the primary caretaking role are encouraged to find ways to prioritize spending time with their children away from the cell phone and computer. Such time can be rejuvenating for both the parent and the child.
LittleStar: Some kids prefer to talk to their friends instead of their parents, is that OK as long as problem is solved?
Dr.West-Olatunji: It is very important that children have a peer support network. When the children in this support group are healthy and well balanced, the peer support network can augment parenting activities. However, peers cannot be children’s sole source of nurturance.
LittleStar: Children are growing up and learning things for themselves, aren’t they? And parents cannot be around them 24/7?
Dr.West-Olatunji: Part of effective parenting is allowing children to learn for themselves. Just as children learn to walk by stumbling and falling or learn to ride a bike by falling off a time or two, so children must learn from their mistakes outside of parents’ watchful eyes. This process assists children in acquiring self-efficacy. They need to know that they can be resilient and recover from mistakes or resolve problems on their own. This helps them to feel empowered as human beings.
LittleStar: I like your metaphor -"Parenting in a Box" - Give children space and boundaries at the same time. Can you please give some tips on the SIZE of the box for the child? What’s the perfect balance?
Dr.West-Olatunji: Parenting in a Box refers to the dynamic relationship between the freedom and safety that children need at every point in their lives. They need enough space to try out what they have learned from their parents and other adults in their lives. They also need this space to create new solutions that have not been given to them, ones that they have thought about on their own. However, children also need to know that parents are still present to catch them when they fall or set necessary boundaries. An example of this is during adolescence when teens often experience peer pressure to experiment in sometimes risky situations. When a child has defined limits from their parents, he/she can use that as an excuse to decline participation with peers stating, “I can’t go because my parents would ground me!” This allows the teen to save face among peers and avoid the pressure. Children need to know that parents care and that they are worth parents’ time and effort. Only the parent and child know the proper balance given the fact that it keeps changing. One sign that a box is too small is that the child demonstrates anger, irritability, and may even show feigned compliance while secretly disobeying a rule. A sign that the box is too large is when a child acts out frequently to get (negative) attention. A passive form of this is when a child has competency but unconsciously demonstrates poor performance (such as, low grades in a subject that he/she knows well or poor athletic performance in a sport that he/she is usually outstanding). More obvious forms of acting out include talking back to authority figures, aggressive behaviors with peers, and sometimes even stealing articles/money from family members.
biss-talk-3sDr. Cirecie A. West-Olatunji, Associate Professor-University of Florida, is an internationally recognized presenter, trainer and author in the area of multicultural education and counseling and is a past president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. Her current research focus is the role of systemic oppression and social marginalization in the emotiond tnal and psychological development of young children. Dr. West-Olatunji has disseminated her research internationally in Botswana, Brazil, China, France, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Romania, Singapore, and South Africa. She has also provided educational consultation to a PBS children’s television show on diversity through KCET-TV in Los Angeles, CA ("Puzzle Place"). Cirecie West-Olatunji is co-author of two books, Future Vision Present Work and Counseling African Americans and has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals.


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