Ten FAQs on parenting … and the answers

In the course of her work, consulting psychologist Dr Jennifer Smith talks with many parents on all aspects of child development and parenting. 

In a specially prepared article for KidsLife, Jennifer combines theory and development with the realities of parenting, as she lists 10 questions most frequently asked by parents….and the answers.

  1. My 10-year old son is very temperamental. How do I know if his behaviour is normal?

    One useful way to consider the normality of his behaviour is to complete standardised questionnaires that assess temperament. To get an overall picture, it is a good idea if both parents and his classroom teacher complete them. Once completed, they can be scored by a psychologist or a qualified teacher.

    Often the ‘raw’ scores are translated into ‘standard’ scores so that the examiner can compare them to those of other children in his age group. The comparison is based on the assumption that while each child in your son’s age-group is unique in detail, in general, children from similar cultures tend to behave quite similarly. If your son’s standard scores are significantly higher than those of most of his same-age peers, we can conclude that his behaviour, as measured by the questionnaires, is ‘abnormal’.
  2. My daughter is a lot like my husband in temperament. Would it be fair to say that she has his genes?

    Your daughter certainly does have her father’s genes. In fact, while she shares 99.90 per cent of her genes with all humans, she shares 99.95 per cent of her genes with each of her parents. Because she shares almost all of her genes with her parents, one may think that it is easy to attribute particular behaviours to particular parental genes. Yet, because of the way genes are expressed, it is unlikely that scientists will ever discover any one gene or any group of genes that can explain particular behaviours.

    Moreover, even if a number of genes for particular behaviours were ever discovered, it would be very difficult to decide which parent bestowed the DNA gift. This is because sex cells that combine to create your daughter are created by a random criss-crossing of male and female genetic material. The genes stay the same (from mum and dad, and their parents and theirs again, all the way down the inheritance line) but they are patched together in a unique way.

    One way to think about this is to imagine a jeweller making a necklace by choosing some beads from a male jar and some from a female jar. Once the beads are strung together on the same thread it would be extremely difficult to determine which bead came from which jar. The genes in sperm and egg cells are patched together in a comparable way.

    It is therefore, almost impossible to attribute a particular behavioural gene (if there were to be such a thing) to either mum or dad. In my experience though, mums tend to assign the difficult behaviours to dad’s side of the family, and vice versa.
  3. Given that we are unable to detect genes for behaviour, can an eight-year old leopard change its spots?

    Some children have a genetic predisposition to be temperamental even though it is impossible to identify the gene. Your son cannot change his genes, so, no, he cannot change his spots. But he can change the way his spots express themselves in behaviour. This can happen because humans have a unique ability to learn, and all learning takes place through environmental experiences. At your son’s age, parents are his primary environmental instructors.

    Parents can either create an environment that reinforces his temperamental behaviour, or they can create one that discourages this behaviour. Neuroscientists refer to this ability to learn as brain ‘plasticity’, from the Greek word, plastikos, which means ‘to be moulded’. Parents, above all, play a significant role in helping their children to alter the way their temperament is expressed.
  4. My nine year old daughter is argumentative. How may we, her parents, have reinforced the way her leopard’s spots are expressed?

    Humans learn in two main ways. One way is through explicit (precisely and clearly expressed) instruction that requires attention and a conscious effort. The other way is through implicit (implied though not definitely expressed) instruction.

    This type of learning is a powerful determinant of our behaviour because it is relatively automatic; that is, it doesn’t require conscious attention or processing. Although we cannot recollect what we have learned, the learning shapes much of our behaviour. For example, if we consistently shout at our children when they are non-compliant, the repetitive experience implicitly encourages children to learn that shouting is the way to deal with frustration. Parental behaviours therefore have a powerful influence on what children learn. Nature, (genes) provides the brain structure and behavioural tendencies. Nurture, (primarily parental experiences) fine-tunes these tendencies.
  5. How can I help my son to modify his temperamental behaviour?

    One way to help children learn to control their temperamental behaviour is to set specific limits for specific, important behaviours. In particular, children can benefit from limits that are associated with safety and important social conventions.

    Unfortunately, as the limits themselves are unlikely to deter inappropriate behaviour, we also need consequences for behaving in particular ways. A useful analogy for this is restricted car parking. Most of us would be less compliant with parking regulations if it weren’t for the negative consequences that are tied to a transgression. Ultimately, the parking penalty is the deterrent. Based on past experiences with parking fines, we make considered choices about where we will park. Importantly:

    a. The penalty fits the misdemeanour–it’s fair.
    b. We know the rules. We have fair warning of the limits and the consequences.
    c. We are not verbally or psychologically abused if we choose to transgress.
    d. We have no choice but to pay the penalty. There is no room for: philosophising, discussion, plea- bargaining, and promises of future compliance.
    e. The system tends to work well when it is well monitored.

    If your child is to have fair warning about a particular limit and penalty, it is important to state it by capturing his attention through eye-contact. It is also critical to state the fair warning calmly and confidently, without aggression. Next, it is useful to leave the context – walk away so that your child can quietly make a self-conscious choice about his preferred action in light of the limit, the consequence, and previous comparable experiences. If you follow through on the warning while maintaining your grace and dignity, your leopard is likely to learn to modify the way he expresses his spots.
  6. We seem to have an argument every time I ask my daughter to stop playing a game on a computerised gadget. Why is it so difficult for her to stop?

    The problem with digital games is that the software is designed to keep children playing. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the games seem addictive. First, life beyond digital screens is comparatively dull, visually and aurally. Responsibilities like homework tasks involve just white paper and a blue pen or pencil, and there are no bells and whistles as an accompaniment. In addition, screen activities are action-packed whereas, thanks to the relative safety of our country, there is little action in the real world.

    It’s therefore not difficult to appreciate why a necessity such as sleep seems like a waste of fun time. If these reasons don’t provide sufficient incentive to keep playing, there’s more. In contrast to reality, the games offer consistent, reliable, immediate rewards for relatively little effort. Outside of cyberspace, however, activities like chores just have to be done. In this light it is understandable that your daughter would rather keep playing than engage in activities as lack lustre as homework, or chores, or sleep.
  7. How much screen time is enough?

    Because the technology has developed ahead of the research, there is little data to inform the recommendations about an optimal amount of time a child should spend engaging with computerised games. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children (aged two-12 years) should have no more than one to two hours of media exposure a day.

    There is consensus that Australian children between 10 and 13 years of age spend about 27 per cent of their time in front of screens. Research indicates that this screen time is often pillaged from sleep time. In other words, many of our children suffer a chronic sleep deficit and the critical outcomes associated with it. In fact, children of the current generation have on average, one hour less sleep than children of the previous generation.

    Bearing all of this in mind, children might have one to two hours of screen time a day, but it would be wise to ensure that the activity takes place after all other commitments are honoured. Also, the activity shouldn’t run into the bedtime schedule. To set limits on access to digital distractions, it would be useful to write down a schedule for commitments and screen times that your children can use as a reference. The limits are futile if they are not associated with a negotiated consequence for transgression. Perhaps you could discuss with your child what the penalties might be if he doesn’t comply with the schedule.
  8. My daughter complains that she is being teased and bullied at school. Could this be the reason for her temperamental behaviour at home?

    While there is no research evidence to suggest that a difficult day at school should result in a grumpy mood at home, many parents do report that this seems to be the case. Dr Paul Ekman, a recognised expert in this area, suggests that emotions are usually intense, short-lived and identifiable. By contrast, moods comprise prolonged, low-grade emotions. Although it is usually difficult to pin down their cause, a mood often arises from an intense emotional experience.

    The problem with moods is that when we are in one, we tend to perceive the world in a way that reinforces the mood. Consequently, we react to ordinary situations with intense emotionality that befits the mood. If your daughter is in an irritable mood, she is likely to be hypersensitive to her home environment. Her anger will be easily triggered, and it is likely to be more intense and prolonged than an emotion that is activated when one isn’t in an irritable mood. Parents, particularly mums, are often in the firing line because:

    a. they’re around a lot
    b. children intuitively know that their love is unconditional.

    For these reasons parents make good emotional scapegoats for children who arrive home in a grumpy mood.
  9. What should I do about the teasing?

    I suggest that initially you differentiate between bullying and teasing. Teasing is usually milder than bullying. It involves spontaneous, derisive remarks or gestures. If your child responds emotionally, teasers may derive pleasure and continue to tease for the sheer amusement value. This could increase the victim’s response, so that a spiral of teasing and counter-teasing ensues.

    To prevent this cycle of mutual offence, I suggest that your child follow these steps:

    1. Make eye contact with the teaser.
    2. Stand up tall.
    3. Say,’ whatever’.
    4. Walk away immediately, so as not to be drawn back into a power struggle. Ignore all further comments.
  10. What should I do about bullying?

    Bullying, by contrast with teasing, is usually premeditated rather than spontaneous. Bullies feed off a power imbalance between bully and victim. Sometimes the imbalance is physical–the bully is older and or stronger. The bully is often a ringleader whose power is reinforced by his sidekicks. Sidekicks vicariously tap into the ringleader’s power. Often the ringleader and his sidekick are confident and verbally powerful-masters at smart, malicious calls. And sometimes, particularly when girls are involved, the bullying is psychological–by exclusion and devious nastiness. In all cases, the bullying is intentionally spiteful, repetitive, and oppressive for the victim.

    If you discern that your child is being bullied rather than teased at school, I recommend that the school is immediately contacted. Victims of bullying can seldom help themselves because of the oppressive power imbalance. Most schools recognise this and consequently have policies that effectively deal with bullying.

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