Parenting: Becoming a better parent

We respect families enough to know that they will use all of the resources available, scientific research and common sense to develop as a parent as their child is developing as a human being.

If parenting were a profession, it would be the oldest one. But parenting is not often thought of as a profession; many think of it as an instinctual process, especially for women. As soon as you know you are going to be a parent, many assume you instinctively know the right thing to do.

An instinct for parenting is a highly-debatable subject. Common sense and a few observations will tell you we all have what feels like a reflexive parenting style, probably based on how we were parented ourselves. Some of us feel that we have learned all we need to know about parenting from watching our own parents and being a child. Some of us think that either we should do exactly what our own parents did to raise children, or do exactly the opposite of what our own parents did.

It is often those of us who reject our own families’ style of parenting that look for new ways to parent our own children. We consult our friends to learn parenting skills that suit our idea of what a good parent should be. We read books and articles in magazines, watch TV shows and gather information published on the internet to learn about parenting skills.

In her article “Good Parenting: Making a Difference”, researcher Marjorie Smith of the University of London points out that there is a “huge proliferation of advice and ‘expertise’ now available to parents in the form of books, articles in popular magazines, and more recently, internet resources and television programs.” It’s important to remember, however, as Smith notes, that “the quality, as well as the reliability and validity of much of the information available to parents have been questionable.” The academic study of families and parents is a fairly recent phenomenon.

So, to add to our “instinctive” knowledge, advice from our parents and friends and the so-called expert advice that is available today, the academic study of families and parenting is producing a growing body of knowledge about parenting derived from research and study of the family. Researchers have confirmed that parenting is a bi-directional process. That is to say, parents learn from their children as children learn from the parents. Further,studies have revealed that the culture and the gender of the parent have an effect on parenting styles. For example, research conducted in 2004 by R. Enruque Varela, et al, found that being a member of an ethnic minority family may be related to increased use of the authoritarian parenting style.

We also know that the parenting process is affected by genetics and behavior in the environment. More specifically, children inherit certain traits, but the child’s environment, including their early relationships and experiences, determine how those traits will be expressed in the child.

Further, the parents’ abilities and temperament affect parenting behaviors. Smith explained, “…The [parent’s] ability to read [the] infant, and attune to [the infant’s] needs and to behave in predictable ways – [the parent’s] sensitivity and responsiveness to the infant – are the most important aspects of the early relationship, and are reflected in later attachment security and in the child’s developmental progress.”

In other words, being “in tune” with your infant will help parents develop a better relationship with your child and help you get to know your child better. If you are interested in learning more about having a sensitive, “attuned” relationship with your infant, read the interview with T. Berry Brazelton, noted pediatrician.

Parents can use a variety of strategies to become more attuned and sensitive to their child. An example of one strategy is the practice of teaching your child to use gestures and signs. Previous research has shown that using signs and gestures helps children learn to use language. A new study demonstrates that families can use signs and gestures to better understand their child’s thoughts and feelings, even before children learn to speak. To learn more about how to use signs and gestures to communicate with your young children, visit

So, are we suggesting that parents should abandon the advice of their elders and wipe their minds clean of previous knowledge and assumptions? Rely only on what is supported by the scientific process and evidence and re-learn how to be a parent? That makes no sense to us. Many parents share a deep and broad knowledge about parenting that comes through common sense and experience. We know that parenting is a long-term commitment; it is an endeavor that takes place for a lifetime; that it affects the life of the family profoundly, in the present and through the generations; that it sometimes takes all of a parent’s skills and knowledge to hold on to sanity; that it is difficult and that it is joyful.

We believe parents need all of the information that they can get. We respect families enough to know that they will use all of the resources available, scientific research and common sense to develop as a parent as their child is developing as a human being. So we encourage all parents to look to both research and their own experience to be the best parents they can be. We are not only what we are, but also what we can become.

For more articles on parenting and child development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.


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