Little scientists

Think of children as pint-sized psychologists, says parenting expert Erica Reischer, AM’96, PhD’00.

When Erica Reischer, AM’96, PhD’00, and her husband enrolled their new puppy in an obedience class more than a decade ago, she discovered a sneaky truth: the class was as much about training the couple as the dog. “Its focus was teaching us how to think like a dog, how to interpret what dogs do, and how to interact with her so that she would learn positive behaviors,” Reischer says.

She incorporated that same philosophy into her new book, What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive (TarcherPerigee, 2016). “The main way in which we can change our kids’ behavior is through changing our behavior,” says Reischer, a psychologist who works with children and families.

As a student in the Committee on Human Development, Reischer immersed herself in research on how children learn and grow. But when she became a parent, she had no time to return to her stacks of dog-eared material from graduate school. She wrote the book she wishes she’d had then, one that promotes a pragmatic, research-based approach to parenting.

Fundamentally, Reischer views parenting as a skill you can hone with time and practice. “My real goal,” she explains, “is to talk about how we can have happy families and parents who enjoy parenting.” Her comments below have been condensed and edited.

What was it like to become a parent after studying early childhood development?

A friend of mine who also has a PhD said, “Well, I was a perfect parent until I became one.” When you have kids yourself, and you have that emotional connection, you realize this is not as easy as it all sounds.

You suggest parents focus on kids’ behavior without trying to correct their feelings. Why is this important?

A lot of times, parents without realizing it start telling kids what they should think or not think, or what they should feel or not feel. When people are telling you what to think or feel, it almost never works and in fact is kind of alienating.

This comes up in small ways. Say we’re going to go to Grandma’s house, and our three-year-old says, “I don’t want to go. I don’t like Grandma. She’s scary.”

A lot of parents would probably say, “Yes you do. You love Grandma and she loves you and she’s not scary.” It seems like a reasonable response, but we’re ignoring what our kids feel. In a worst-case scenario, if we do this kind of thing over and over, they’ll just stop telling us how they feel because it doesn’t get them anywhere.

What we really need to be paying attention to is our children’s behavior—words and deeds. If our daughter thinks Grandma is scary and doesn’t want to go—that’s all okay for her to think and feel. What’s not okay is for her to be mean or impolite to Grandma.

When we can be aware of our thoughts and feelings, and make choices about what we’re going to do about them, that’s the secret sauce.

What advice do you give most frequently?

One thing I find helpful is the idea of seeing your kids as little scientists. If we see our kids are doing something we don’t like and think to ourselves, “They’re being defiant!” that’s going to trigger some feelings in us. Whereas if we see that same behavior not as defiant but as curious—curious about what we’ll do if they ignore us, curious about what will happen if they disobey us—it gives us a lot more patience to respond in a constructive way.

Kids are doing experiments because they have to figure out how the people in their lives work. I sometimes say, “Pretend your kids are wearing little white lab coats, and carrying little lab notebooks, and making notes all day long about what works and what doesn’t work with you.” Because they’re going to come back to that and say, “If I want something, whining works in public but not at home, so when I want the lollipop in the store, I’m going to whine.”

When parents say, “My kids are always whining” or “My kids always interrupt me,” you can be pretty sure that’s because it works, at least sometimes. Kids are smart.

How involved should parents be in their child’s activities and schoolwork?

I think, generally, less is more. If it’s the kid’s schoolwork, it’s the kid’s schoolwork. You should be very careful not to imprint your ideas, your methodology. Even though that might make the project better, objectively speaking, it completely misses the point of the project, which is for the child to learn, and for them to maybe make some mistakes.

If your kid asks, “What’s the capital of Texas?” instead of saying “Austin,” which is kind of doing it for them, you might say, “How would you find that information?” Lead them there and help them there.