Parenting tips are everywhere but the question is, do parenting tips work? All around us they fill magazines, the airwaves and the internet and many parents rely on them not just for little snippets of information but for their wholesale parenting approach. Which begs the question, do parenting tips work? And if don’t, why don’t they?
Well, that’s a good question. Now, let me start by saying I like tips. I like fashion tips, food tips and pretty much every kind of tip you can think of, especially if it has some relevance to my life. So you’d think when it came to parenting, I’d be full of tips. Tips on how to get your toddler to eat, tips on how best to get your four year old to give you a good night’s sleep and so on. You’d think given my job, I’d be a fountain of great tips.
Do parenting tips work; Not if you use them to solve complex behaviour issues
But I’m going to have to disappoint you because you see when I go in to people’s homes to help solve their children’s behaviour issues, I find that it is often the parents’ reliance on tips to solve complex problems, that exacerbates whatever behaviour issue they’re dealing with still further.
That’s because many parents honestly think they can solve complex behaviour issues with a tip. Unfortunately that’s the equivalent of trying to stay afloat in a leaky boat whilst chucking the water out with an eggcup. Makes you think it might work, but it’s horribly ineffective and likely to make you lose your mind. It’s also incredibly frustrating for parents who keep tying various superficial solutions in the hope that one of them might just work.
Parenting tips; they’re not designed to get to the root cause
So if tips work for fashion and cooking, let’s ask do parenting tips work to solve a child’s temper tantrums or sleeping issues? No, they don’t simply because they don’t get at the root cause of what’s going on. You see, tips are light hearted and usually transitory by nature. Parents try one tip and then another and by the end, their child ends up under a sea of changed minds and new parenting ideas, none of which usually end up lasting for more than a few moments of initial enthusiasm. Who after all, can remember all those lists of, ‘10 tips to parenting nirvana’ anyway?
That’s not to say all parenting tips are bad. As far as I’m concerned, parenting tips are fabulous when you want to know best how to navigate travel for Christmas or summer holiday with your toddler or you want ideas for Halloween costumes. Then tips work. They even work in a limited sense if you just want some ideas about different parenting approaches or want to find out when your child may be ready for the potty. They don’t work though if you try and solve complex behaviour issues using them. That’s not what they’re designed for.
Parenting tips; what they mean in practice
To use a silly pretend scenario to illustrate why tips don’t work to change behaviour, I’m going to pretend to be a little girl. I’m five and I have an older brother, he’s almost seven and I don’t like him much because he likes building stuff and I don’t. My mom and dad love to build stuff when they’re not on their phones. That’s the only time they get off their phones to build with my brother. That’s cause they say they’re engineers and it’s so much fun. I don’t know what engineers are, but I think it’s got to do with building stuff.
I want to play outside! I love to play at the park and play games. I don’t like building stuff but I’m super good at cartwheels! There’s some woods by our house and that would be SO fun but we don’t get to go. Mom says the yard is nice but it’s small and she’s always indoors anyway. Sometimes mom tries to play Barbies with me and I don’t hate Barbies, but sometimes they’re stupid!
My friend Jason, well he’s allowed all over and it is SO fun when I get to go on a playdate and my mom can’t stay. He even gets to climb trees but every time he comes over we have to stay in the yard. When we go to the park, mom keeps following me and Jason around. Jason says his mom takes him to the woods and let’s him play but my mom says no. Dad plays soccer with us but everyone has to follow what he says. I just like to play! My dad says he’ll build stuff with me but I don’t want to do that. Building stuff is stupid! I think they wish I was like my brother.
Signals from children can be misread
Now let’s pretend this little girl has recently started getting angry. She’s started to talk back and be defiant on occasion. She’s had some meltdowns and her frustration seems to be growing. She doesn’t seem to want to concentrate on anything and some enforced playtime has turned in to a time of acrimony and stress.
Mom and Dad see this newly minted defiance and are perplexed. What’s wrong? She shows reluctance to sit down and do anything! Ok, so she’s not a natural engineer, but maybe she’s ADHD? Perhaps they should get her assessed?
They book appointment with a doctor, then a psychologist all the time explaining their ‘issues’ while their little girl sits and listens to all the things that are wrong with her. Why won’t she concentrate? Why doesn’t she seem to want to play with her parents? There are hushed discussions at school because her parents are worried. She’s just not doing very well. Her frustration that her mom and dad don’t seem to understand her boil over and to her, they quite obviously have no idea what to do. They’re always fighting now about her it seems. Maybe there is a problem? She feels lost.
Parenting tips don’t get to the root cause of the problem
The issues get worse. Mom sees magazine articles and tips or dealing with a challenging child. Yes, she’s definitely challenging, mom thinks. Her child seems to be withdrawing from her. She just doesn’t seem to be getting through. She reads the parenting tips and hands them to dad who adopt the new approaches with enthusiasm. Some have minimal benefits but because they don’t deal with the root cause of the child’s discomfort, they largely go nowhere and simply provide a constantly shifting response. They suggest the parents limit their phone use and spent more time with their child, a sensible suggestion but that just doesn’t seem to be working. Mom can’t understand why every time she sits down with her daughter she gets a hostile response. Yesterday mom even got a Barbie thrown at her.
Now admittedly the above example is a simple scenario and the cause here is obvious. You might also say that the parents in our fictitious scenario are being more than a little dense. Real families of course are much more complex with lots of interlinking factors, but it does give you an idea of the limitations of tips and how they can inadvertently lead parents down an unhelpful path. They are ideas for what to do about a behaviour but without understanding why that behaviour has started or how it is being sustained. Without that knowledge, any parent trying to deal with a behaviour issue is wearing a blindfold.
Parenting tips are a quick-fix
If we’re examining whether parenting tips work, we also have to look at how they feed in to our society-wide obsession with quick fixes. Look at media in general and it’s all about a fast way to do everything. Lose weight fast. Get rich quick. The emphasis is on solutions that are quick and painless. But if you and your family are suffering because of behaviour issues on the part of your child, there is no quick tip solution, not one that will work long term anyway. Understand that and you’re well on the way to solving the problem once and for all.
If you’re dealing with difficult behaviour problems, I hope that by explaining why parenting tips won’t help you, I’ve identified what will. To solve your child’s behaviour issues, you have to look at them holistically in the context of the child’s whole life. You have to examine where you’re going and what you’re doing and then do something about it and all that takes self reflection and courage. Are you leading? Are you giving mixed messages? Are you undermining each other (if you have a partner) and so on. Only by being prepared to look at your own role will you be able to move forward and put the behaviour behind you.
Parenting tips can be great if we use them for what they are designed for and keep them for all those little extras that make our lives easier. They make for fun reading before bed or in the doctor’s office. Just don’t expect them to stop chronic tantrums. In my case, I’ll stick with fashion and cooking tips. I need those.