We know a lot about the benefits of raising emotionally intelligent children. But what about becoming emotionally intelligent parents?
In January of 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a warning that conditions of “toxic stress” affecting parents during pregnancy, childbirth, and the early childrearing years can have a lasting negative affect on children’s physical health, well-being, and future life skills and accomplishments. Based on a review of research over a 20-year period, the AAP further concludes that providing early practical and emotional support to parents is one of the best ways to “protect young children from adversity” and should be considered a public health issue.
But this is easier said than done. Indeed, identifying how to systematically support parents has proven to be an elusive challenge.
Parenting is a highly decentralized activity; most parents draw their skills from their own experience being parented, along with “on the job” training. Unlike teachers, lawyers, or even lifeguards, there are no required courses parents need to take in order to gain certification.
That said, I believe we can help parents avoid levels of toxic stress if we can steer them toward a crucial resource that’s often overlooked: their fellow parents. In my own work, I find repeatedly that parents support their children more effectively when they are not isolated. When they share with other parents, more often than not they find the higher, rather than the lower, common denominator in their parenting techniques. What we need, then, is to find practical ways to help parents be more supportive of one another.
Creating this support, as a public health matter, requires that we pay more attention to places to which parents tend to be drawn, such as pediatric offices and early childhood centers, including day care, preschool and K-2 classrooms. Parents already come to these venues for a common purpose: to support, or get help with, the betterment of their children. Typically, parents have trust and/or respect for the personnel in these settings.
And so these are the places where it is most likely that one can bring parents together in the interest of their children (and in their own interest as parents), in ways that will create ongoing support for their parenting. For pediatricians, childhood center directors, and early childhood educators and administrators, there is much to be gained by reducing the isolation of parents and creating ways in which parents can access the positive influence of one another.
Creating emotionally intelligent parenting networks
A modest, practical proposal for reaching parents is through what I call Emotionally Intelligent Parenting (EIP) Networks. These Networks are groups of parents who gather together to read a book or review some materials related to childrearing. EIP Networks give parents a place to learn together, plan together, test ideas together, and reflect together. They work because they allow parents to examine materials, think about and discuss their meaning and importance with other parents, and then apply what they have learned to their everyday parenting.
Networks also bring the expertise of many parents into one room. One parent may have developed an effective solution to a problem with which another parent is struggling. I recall a recent example in which one parent was sharing how she was at a complete loss to handle sibling fighting. Another parent chimed in that she could not abide any lying by her daughter. And a dad then added that he finds it stressful to get his kids out of the house in the morning. In response to his concern, the first parent shared her strategies for organizing her household, getting clothing laid out, and routines set in the night before. The mom who could not deal with lying was one of eight siblings and knew some excellent ways to reduce sibling fisticuffs, especially the “you’re both to blame” rule. And the dad had some ideas about how to reduce lying, including some books that he read to his daughter about honesty that started some productive conversations about trust in a family.
With new ideas from whatever book or materials the group decides to use—and support from other parents as they help each other bring these ideas into their lives—parents are more likely to apply what they read and find ways to make it work.
Parents, like the rest of us, often need some structure to help them stay on task. That is where pediatricians, day care providers, and early childhood educators can be of greatest service. For children in public schools, teachers, educational administrators, or parent-teacher or homeschool associations can be helpful in starting and sustaining Networks. Holding EIP Networks either just before, just after, or even as the focus of the association’s regular meetings makes it more likely that people will attend. Similarly, pediatricians and day care directors can use their offices to convene groups; in helping groups to get started, those who initiate it should recommend materials that members will find appropriate to their cultural, educational, and childrearing situations, and monitor continued participation.
You can organize an EIP Network around topics of interest or particular problems you want to solve. In EIP Networks, parents often begin to communicate in between meetings, as they start trying to apply ideas and find they have questions. In fact, this is exactly what professionals’ main role is—to encourage the groups to meet, to discuss, to network outside of the formal meetings, and to reflect on and share materials. Networks become sources of education and support for parents and access points for the professionals who have helped set up and sustain them.
How to organize discussions
An important part of sustaining the Networks is being realistic in scheduling meetings, designating a leader to get discussion rolling, arranging logistics (like refreshments and child care), and ensuring people know about the next meeting. Optimal group size is 6-10; otherwise, people cannot participate as much.
Sometimes groups are able to meet once per week or every two weeks, but that may be something to work up to. Don’t push it at first. When parents are not good readers, the groups can listen to tapes or e-books; when English is not their language of comfort, the materials can be in the appropriate language. It is often unnecessary or undesirable to expect parents to read an entire book for a meeting; a few chapters at a time is more than enough. Why attempt to do too much and have participants feel inadequate?
Parents in EIP Networks will often get more out of the material they read if they’re given a set of questions to consider as they read it. In order to provoke productive discussions, you may wish to pose questions to the group like the ones listed below. I have found them to generate excellent reflections and insights:
Revelations: What are 1-3 things you read about that you find interesting, new, thought-provoking?
Confirmations: What are 2-3 things you read that confirm your intuitions or what you are already doing?
Emotional Reactions: What are 2-3 things you read that you found yourself having an emotional reaction to, either positive or negative? Your reactions might have been surprise, embarrassment, annoyance, pride, etc.
Things That You Will Apply and Where: What are 2-3 things that you feel you can and will apply to your own life? Where and how will you do this? What obstacles or roadblocks can you anticipate? How might you get past them? What other resources might help you?
How an EIP Network functions depends on the group members. Will people conduct themselves with emotional intelligence? Will they listen as others speak? Wait their turn? Avoid giving put-downs? Will they do the reading that everyone agrees to? The interpersonal process is hard to predict and control, but like most things worth doing, EIP Networks take practice, and with practice it gets better.
Parents are not easily amenable to parenting instruction, and it is unrealistic to expect caregivers such as pediatricians, day care providers, and teachers to have the time needed to also be primary parenting instructors. Success must be built on the trusting relationships that do exist between the individuals who select the group leader and parents. Where there is a history of trust, the leader is the beneficiary; where there is not a strong, pre-existing trust, the leader must take care to establish this early in the life of the group.
Slowly and inexorably, informal networks of parents—with a welcoming structure and input from well-chosen resources—can create a spiral of more caring, responsive parenting. This, in turn, should lead to less toxic conditions for children, and allow more of them to reach their potential—in school, in their mental and physical health, and in their own development into socially and emotionally intelligent adults.