Robert Sege, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP
Robert Sege, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP
Division of Family and Child Advocacy, Department of Pediatrics, Boston Medical Center

Toward Resiliency in Parenting

One of my favorite memories involves walking my (now grown) daughter to preschool. We took our time—and searched for signs of spring along the way. One day, she spotted something curious in the middle of the road. “What’s that?” she asked. “It’s a manhole,” I told her. “No, Daddy, it’s a person-hole,” she replied in an adorable, yet matter-of-fact voice that I remember like it was yesterday.

Moments like these gave me a window into the mind of my little feminist-in-the-making and two sons. They gave us something to talk about for years to come, and helped her grow into the smart, savvy woman she is today.

Not only are these small interactions fun and memorable, they do wonders for kids. I see it every day in my clinic as a pediatrician. And plenty of credible studies confirm their critical importance in early childhood brain development. Science now points to the importance of family strength and resilience—the qualities that arise from relationships with our children, and with other parents in our communities.

So I say it with as close to certainty as a scientist can get: parent involvement makes a real difference. And while parent involvement can mean different things to different people, it is the daily interactions—as much as chaperoning a field trip and showing up for the school play—that matter. We now know that play—enjoying a simple game of Go Fish or a summer evening catching fireflies—lays the foundation for learning.

Kids’ brains develop in response to their experiences. In that first year of life, simple things like smiling, kissing, touching, and talking—all the back and forth that happens between infants and parents—foster a strong sense of attachment and foundation for life. These interactions establish connections in the brain that literally shape its development. For example, children whose parents converse with them regularly during the early years start school with larger vocabularies and more complex sentence structures.

Yet how do we converse with one-, two-, and three-year-old children, who are only beginning to talk? One way is to simply chat with them. What does that mean, exactly? It means pointing out an interesting tree as you walk by, telling stories, or even thinking out loud about things to which you don’t know the answer: I wonder why tomatoes turn red. I’m going to look in this book to figure out how to train our new dog. I’m not sure what I feel like for dinner tonight.   

One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing a parent or caregiver at the park, or the zoo, or the school drop-off lane talking not to their kids but to their cell phones. Kids know when you’re focused on them—and when you’re not. They pick up on nuances. That’s why my advice to the parents of my patients is this: set boundaries with the 24/7 connectivity of our world, and resist the urge to check that one email or fire off that quick text when you are with your kids. The emails and texts will be there waiting for us, and the last thing we want win pokies is for our kids to feel like nuisances.

Throughout childhood, kids need opportunities to play, explore, and interact with their environment. For all the quality educational programs on cable and the Internet, TV lacks the interaction and human touch so critical to brain development. , on the other hand, are good for our kids’ brains—and full of chances to problem-solve, make decisions, and figure out how to get along with friends.

As kids get older, just sitting down and having dinner can go a long way. Even as teenagers, kids need encouragement and praise—and they need to know you’re there for them. Growing up isn’t easy, and parents are like guideposts, steering their children through the ups and downs of life.

I notice (and sometimes feel myself) a growing concern among parents that life is busier now than ever before, and that work consumes too much of our time. That may well be the case. But keep in mind that it’s up to us as parents to set our own boundaries and lead the lives we want for our families. Know, too, that there’s never been a time in history when people didn’t feel overtaxed or overworked. Think about farm families at the turn of the 20th century: both parents worked long, hard hours, and faced the uncertainty of a bountiful harvest year after year.

Parenting can be both a joy and a burden. The way I see it, sharing our joys makes parenting more joyful, just as sharing our burdens makes them lighter. The parents I see in my clinic whom I worry about most are those who say they can stay the course alone, that they don’t need anyone’s help or support. Studies show that parents who can turn to three to four adults for support do better mentally, and so do their kids.

It may sound quaint to say that it takes a whole village to raise a child (really, how many of us live in villages?), but the truth is, we can create our own villages. Building a support network begins with the simplest steps: trading off childcare or trips to the library, chatting with other parents at the playground, hosting a neighborhood potluck. These natural, informal friendships enrich our family lives more than complicated arrangements that cost money.

We can lead our children by our own example, spending less time online, living in the moment more, and balancing our work lives with a connectedness to things equally important—the families and the communities in which we live.

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Learn More

“Taking Play Seriously,” Robin Marantz Henig, The New York Times, 2008

“Crisis in Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play,” Edward Miller and Joan Almon, Alliance for Childhood

“Curiosity: An Essential Part of Learning,”, 2011

“Parent Involvement in Education: What Kind? To What End?” Alfie Kohn, The Huffington Post, 2013

“Parents, Not Kids, are the Biggest Abusers of Technology,” Nancy Shute, U.S. News & World Report – Health, 2011

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