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Principles for parents: Raising socially-conscious, healthy kids

Felix Montino
Play therapist Dr. Jodi Ann Mullen said the primary way young children communicate is through play, so parents need to listen to that.

The people who influence a person’s growth the most are parents and other caregivers, and one author offers 20 principles parents can follow to provide their kids with what they need to succeed in the real world. She joins us on "Take Care."

Dr. Jodi Ann Mullen, a licensed mental health counselor and play therapist, wrote the book, “Raising Freakishly Well-Behaved Kids: 20 Principles for Becoming the Parent your Child Needs.” She is also a professor of counseling and psychological services at SUNY Oswego.

Mullen’s 20 principles are based off what she has learned from her own kids and children she has worked with. One of the most important points she makes is that her advice is not about just getting one’s kids to behave a certain way; it is about providing what those kids need and paying attention to all the forms of communication that kids offer.

“We forget that children’s behavior is also communication,” Mullen said. “As parents, if we have a way to read that communication, understand that communication, there are lessons that our children are teaching us about what they need.”

Once those needs are respected, children will realize they do not have to act out to communicate, Mullen said.

“If we are meeting their needs, if we’re understanding them and they feel understood and loved and respected, then they don’t have to act and they can show you that other side of themselves,” Mullen said.

The first two principles Mullen establishes are love and respect, which she said has to be present throughout a child’s development to provide continuous support. These include not getting into a power struggle with one’s children when they say they do not want to do something.

“As they progress through development, we can maintain that respect for them, and that is paramount to having a good relationship with your child,” Mullen said.

"When you show respect to a child, then they can show respect, one, back to you as an adult, but also to other people."

Mullen stresses in her book that her principles are not specific instructions. Rather, they are meant to understand the values and the “why” behind parenting methods, as everyone parents differently. She said she wanted to provide advice that any parent, regardless of culture or background, could use as a guide to get the result they want.

“The principles allow parents the flexibility to take that and make it work for their family, make it work for them, and I think that flexibility is needed,” Mullen said.

Principle five is “listen to me,” which Mullen said has to do with paying attention to nonverbal forms of communications, from gestures to play and facial expressions.

“We have to throw out the whole idea about that they’re going to communicate to us verbally, especially when they’re younger,” Mullen said. “When children are saying listen to me, they’re not necessarily saying listen to my words.”

When parents say things like “use your words,” that is forcing the child to communicate at a level at which adults communicate, which short-changes the communication opportunity, Mullen said. Those cues continue as the child grows older, so that acknowledgement throughout their life helps bring the child to an optimal place of growth.

Another goal of Mullen’s book is to help parents raise well-behaved, thoughtful and “social-conscious” children. Mullen said this involves using techniques that prepare the child for handling the outside world, like giving respect so they can show respect to people around them.

“When you show respect to a child, then they can show respect, one, back to you as an adult, but also to other people,” Mullen said. “They learn what that feels like.”

Mullen touches on the importance of consistency and stability for children, which she said does not always have to include behavioral traditions like going to church. It can mean something as simple as keeping a commitment to not punish the child if they tell the truth.

“Those are things that can even be consistent. … [It] doesn’t necessarily have to be behavioral or action aspects of consistency and stability, but just who you are as a parent has to have that piece of it,” Mullen said.

Two other principles are “tell me no” and “let me try.” Mullen said these two may seem contradictory, but it is all about knowing what circumstances are appropriate for which principle. Telling a child “no” helps prepare them for those that the world will give them, she said, as well as to protect them.

“It sets parameters and boundaries for them … that then prepare them for handling situations that will develop,” she said.

“Let me try” relates to giving the child opportunity to try new things and feel a sense of personal achievement, helping the child develop new skills. Parents often make the mistake of trying to protect their children by not letting them try new things, Mullen said, which is well intentioned but not the best approach.

“Oftentimes, we’re getting in our own way because we don’t want our child to fail, we don’t want our fail to maybe get hurt, we don’t want our child to be stuck frustrated,” Mullen said. “And when we get in the way of that, we also get in the way of opportunity on the other side.”

The overarching message Mullen wanted to send was for parents to analyze their own practices, identify which principles they are already following and work on those first. If a reset is needed, she said, parents need to be honest with children about that process to further show respect and honesty.

“If you can do that, it sets them up so that they know what you’re trying to do, which is become a better parent,” Mullen said. “They might not like it at first … but I think ultimately that children are able to see the other side of that.”