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Giving parents support and encouragement

Parents do not often get the support and encouragement they deserve. Help one another this holiday season by looking for ways to support positive interactions.

Parenting is a big job, and a little encouragement can go a long way.
Parenting is a big job, and a little encouragement can go a long way.

We met a mother a few years ago who was in the front yard of her house observing some ants on the sidewalk along with her children. This mom was really engaged in this activity. She was listening to the children’s observations, asking them open-ended questions and genuinely supporting their scientific inquiry process. When we applauded her for this, she responded by telling us that she really appreciated our comments because she felt that parents did not often get support and encouragement for their parenting skills. To her, it seemed like most communications directed at parents were critical and had long lists of things you are supposed to do.

Parenting is a big job, and just like any other endeavor that we adults undertake, a little encouragement can go a long way. All of us can support and encourage parents when the opportunity presents itself, and there are plenty of opportunities. The upcoming holidays, when families gather together and celebrate, can be the perfect time to notice your family members using amazing parenting skills. Just as important as noticing positive interactions with children is telling your relatives how well they are doing.

Michigan State University Extension has the following two examples of supporting and encouraging parenting skills:

  1. Last year, Kittie noticed her niece, Nicole, and her niece’s husband doing a great job of supporting their son, Jackson. He was trying to play with Mocha, a chocolate Labrador retriever who was at the family gathering. Jackson was eager to play, but had backed Mocha into a corner. Sometimes this can make a dog feel threatened and they react with aggression. Jackson’s parents noticed what was happening and went to him immediately. They were not only there to protect him, but they talked to him about the situation and explained ways to approach a dog safely. Later, Kittie had a chance to compliment Nicole, telling her that the way she talked to her son and helped him choose a safe way to engage Mocha made it easier for Jackson to understand how to interact with dogs. Nicole didn’t just stop her son, she also took the time to explain why the dog might need some alone time. This was appropriate encouragement because Kittie was very specific about noticing Nicole’s positive parenting.
  2. At another holiday gathering, Janet witnessed a conversation between her nephew and his son, Scotty. Scotty was about 5 years old and was racing through the house, begging to begin opening gifts right away. His dad took him aside in a quiet place and explained to him that presents would be opened after dinner and that he needed to calm himself so everybody could have a good time. He explained the expectations in Grandma’s house until Scotty was relaxed enough to be on his own. Later, when Janet and her nephew were talking privately, Janet took the opportunity to give her nephew parenting support by telling him how he handled the child’s behavior in an unruffled, respectful manner.

Both of these examples illustrate how other family members can use specific compliments to encourage and support the parents in their own family. We know reinforcing appropriate actions encourages people to repeat those actions, while criticizing inappropriate actions may make people feel stressed and hostile. Just like using appropriate praise with children, we are trying to avoid giving/withholding approval. Rather, it is about catching someone doing the right thing and letting them know you agree with their behaviors. As in the examples above, it’s always important to be specific about what you want to encourage, be sincere and make the conversation a private one.

This year, as the winter holidays approach, let’s think about what we appreciate about our families. Let’s look for chances to support the positive interactions we see and communicate our appreciation with a few authentic, kind words. It may make a difference in the life of someone you love.

For more information, read “The Parenting Imperative: Investing in Parents so Children and Youth Succeed” from National Human Services Assembly.

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