Wholehearted parenting: Raising kids with courage and resiliency

Research offers suggestions for shame resilient parenting practices.

As anyone who serves in a parenting role knows, parenting is hard work! Parenting requires dozens of day-to-day choices and decisions from birth through adolescence – and even into the role of being a parent with adult children. Many of us find ourselves in need of support, guidance or just a non-judgmental listening ear at times as we navigate the important role we play in the lives of children. What parents don’t need are books and educational efforts that try to blame, shame and guilt-trip them into being “perfect” parents. These well-intentioned but often shame-based approaches can be very destructive to parents doing their best to raise children in a world with increasing risks and demands on families, according to researcher and educator, Brené Brown, Ph.D., Caring about the welfare of children and shaming parents are mutually exclusive endeavors.”

Brown’s research on shame, vulnerability and courage illuminates several ways that parents can engage in what she calls “wholehearted parenting” with a focus on raising children who move through the world with courage and resiliency. Here are a few suggestions based on the Brown’s work:

  • Cultivate a sense of love, belonging and safety within your family. We all feel vulnerable at times and we need to feel that we are connected to a family where we belong, where we are seen, where we are accepted and loved. Love and belonging are a birthright – and Brown’s research shows that resilient people believe that they are worthy of love and belonging. It’s our job as parents to cultivate this belief in our children (and in ourselves).
  • It’s important to remember that children are radically shaped by their families of origin and how they see their parents interacting with the world. That said, there are many ways to be a good parent. There is not “one way,” a “better way” or a “perfect way.” Brown stresses that talking about “good parenting” and “bad parenting” is a shame minefield. A key to wholehearted parenting is to support each other as parents – and don’t engage in harsh judgments of each other when someone is parenting in ways that are different than our own. Seeing that we’re not alone, that we all make mistakes and that we’re “in this together” fosters shame-resilient parenting practices.
  • Avoid using shame as a parenting tool. While shaming children may work to change their behavior, it usually happens at a great cost to their overall sense of worthiness and mental health. Children experience shame as a threat of being unlovable. Brown’s research shows that most kids who are shame-prone are more likely to engage in risky behaviors (substance use and school failure), compared to adolescents who are guilt prone. Talk with children about the difference between shame and guilt. Shame communicates that we are “bad” and unworthy of love and belonging. Guilt communicates that I made a bad choice, mistake or decision. So, when your child draws on the wall or stays out past curfew, she is not a “bad girl.” She is a creative, wise young person who made a bad choice. Wholehearted parenting communicates “I love who you are, but your choices are unacceptable.”
  • Don’t be afraid to set boundaries. Our job is not to be “friends” with our children or to be “cool” or to be liked by them. Kids are hardwired to be defiant and push boundaries – and research shows that kids who push and test limits with their parents have better social outcomes. Our job is to set healthy limits and hold our boundaries and let our children try on different ways of being as they push against these boundaries. Brown’s research showed that young adults who had little to no boundaries as children felt like their parents didn’t care about them; this fostered a deep sense of shame. Brown reminds us that boundaries give kids a sense of safety and security – and that kids learn to hold boundaries themselves based on how well we hold our own boundaries.

Brown’s work includes many more parenting suggestions for cultivating creativity, accountability, joy, courage and resiliency. You can download from her website The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto which reminds us that who we are and how we move through the world with our children is a much stronger predictor than what we know about parenting.

Michigan State University Extension incorporates Brown’s research on shame and shame resiliency into some of its educational programs for youth and adults. One effort is called Be SAFE: Safe Affirming and Fair Environments, which includes a curriculum for adults to use with middle school-aged youth in out-of-school settings. For more information about Be SAFE visit the MSU Extension bookstore website.

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