What kids need most is a parent close by

Some of my favorite statistics come from the 70-year Harvard study about what makes people happy. The first thing they found out is that going to Harvard has no bearing on whether someone is happy. Another conclusion the research supports is that kids who have warm relationships with their mother make more money. And kids who have close relationships with their father have less anxiety.

You will ask, what is “warm” and “close” and the truth is that it’s largely self-reported. But it makes sense to me since I would say I have neither with my parents. (And then I think, I wonder how much money I could make if my mom really loved me. But that’s for another post. Or a book. Or a eulogy.)

To give you a sense of what a good relationship with parents really means, look at this great post at Brain Pickings about praise. You probably already know that if you give kids lots of praise, like, “Oh! You’re so smart!” then the kids will be addicted to external validation and they will likely be lower performers because of it. (Of course, this is exactly the type of interaction students have with teachers who give grades, which is why kids who do well in school grow up to be people who wait for someone to tell them what to do.)

The thing I really liked about the Brian Pickings post is that the conclusion is that presence, not praise, makes a healthy child. One example is that a child does a drawing and then looks up at the parent. The parent says, “I see you’ve put a lot of blue in your drawing.” That acknowledges the child’s work, and displays interest in the child’s work without judging it. This gives the child the ability to judge their own work, which is an essential skill for living an engaged, passionate life.

The cover article of the Atlantic this month, Touch Screen Generation, is about video games and electronic learning and how it’s affecting this generation. (Note: the research is massively in favor of more screen time for kids than the American Medical Association recommends.) An interview with Hanna Rosen focuses on our inability to raise kids differently than how we were raised.

“There’s a crazy nostalgia that there’s one way to have a good childhood. We have an ambivalence about how we ourselves interact with technology and we thoughtlessly impact this neurotic thinking onto our kids. like technology is a dirty place that we go.”

What strikes me about the language she uses to get parents to let kids play more video games is that it’s the same language we would use to get parents to stop genital mutilation.

Nostalgia closes our minds and keeps us from adapting, and the ripple effect, through our kids, is too damaging. We used to think that we need to judge our kids in order for them to judge themselves. But what we really need is to be there for our kids, and model behavior for our kids, so they can learn to make decisions for themselves. Internal motivation is a powerful life tool.

So it doesn’t matter if I let my kids play unlimited video games, or do unlimited reading, or unlimited sewing, whatever. They need to choose what they do so they can connect with what it feels like to have internal motivation to do something.

I need to make sure that I’m nearby to show that I care, and that their choices matter. The closeness you give your kid, that is so important throughout their life, comes from proximity. And it’s exactly what you don’t get sending your kids away for eight hours a day.

I’ve been saving the picture above because I worry that what it shows us having a super fun day at my younger son’s New York City internship as a stylist, while my older sits on the side playing his video games. But the truth is, this is a great example of parenting that works. It’s me being with him while he does what he loves.

So often I find that the very moments that I think are parenting failures are actually parenting success. And it’s such a powerful piece of parenting knowledge to know that what my kids need most is my presence.


23 replies
  1. Karen
    Karen says:

    As an INTJ mom who needs a lot of alone time I worry constantly that I don’t do enough with my kids. A typical day in our house is everyone retreats to their own screen/book/game and does their own thing. They do seek me out every couple of hours or so to show me what they are doing or something cool they found online. After a couple minutes of conversation and a hug they are happy to go back to what they are doing. I am so very glad to hear that maybe I am not being the neglectful parent that I feel like I am being when I let them spend so much time on their own throughout the day.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I have this same issue, too. I worry that I’m really doing nothing. That somehow it’s not enough. My days look so similar to yours. So it’s really comforting to read your comment.


      • Kristin
        Kristin says:

        Wow, I feel the same way. I think my kids just want to do their own thing but I feel very guilty about letting them go all day. So sometimes I go and interrupt them and try and make them do something else just to get a little variety into their day. My husband is big on having variety. But doing this only irritates all of us because it is not what anyone wants to do. I am so insecure about this! I hope to calm down eventually. Just completed my first year with my son and starting with my daughter also. Half of the problem is also convincing my husband this is ok. Anyway, the proof of concept is in my son, whom I’ve seen blossom this past year. I think maybe I just need some meditation or yoga to calm me down about just doing nothing. But I did want to also say that I don’t entirely agree with the praise theory. My son’s school preached this and never gave compliments. We also followed this same path since it seemed right. Then one day my son was complimented by a stranger and he was so grateful! He told me that finally somebody thinks he is good at something. He has historically had low self esteem and I do wish he had been complimented more in school for a job well done. I think if someone is truly good at something, we should let them know. It’s a fine line we walk with that and the best policy is to use judgement when giving out praise.

        • Michelle C
          Michelle C says:

          I feel the same dilemma Kristen and so the standard I use for giving praise to kids is: “If I said this to an adult would it seem natural or weird and condescending?”

          So for example, when my husband did his first Ironman triathlon I was there at the finish yelling “Woo hoo, that was awesome baby!” or to a friend who is a fabulous baker: “This is an amazing dessert, can I have the recipe?” Both of these feel natural and authentic. OTOH, I would never clap and jump up and down for an adult who finished all of their vegetables at dinner, for mowing the lawn correctly, or even getting an A in their graduate coursework.”

  2. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    Some of my girls’ favorite times are sitting and watching shows together, but we don’t actually “just” sit and watch. At the same time, we are pausing to laugh over something said (like when we watch “Community”), tweeting something that made us laugh, posting some photo to Instagram, or I may be editing photos in Photoshop for upcoming blogs.

    If someone quickly passed by us they may see three people engaging in totally separate activities, but in reality, we are THERE together, and there is nowhere else we want to be in that moment, but TOGETHER, engaging in things we love.

    BTW: I love this post’s shot.

  3. mbl
    mbl says:

    Yippee! The Brain Pickings post references Carol Dweck. Love her book Mindset.

    The book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers is really great and completely in line with this entire post. Except, as I griped about on the Kaitlyn post, it does not follow to the logical conclusion of recommending homeschooling. It is bizarre. It notes that hsing works well with their theories, but is so impractical that it is not worth mentioning. I think the book is from 2005, so maybe a newer edition would revisit that.

    The authors are big on modeling for your child and giving direct instructions when the child is not yet mature enough to make a “good” decision. But they are huge on working with nature and the importance of allowing time to work its magic. Just as we need to remember to apply this with things like math or reading readiness.

    The book really questions our obsession with “socialization” and playdates and tells parents of only children to chill out and not worry about finding sibling substitutes. Yay!!! It isn’t marketed towards parent’s of spectrumy kids, but I found it really, really helpful. Especially the part about “collecting your child”–making sure your child knows that they have your attention and you enjoy their presence. It makes no bones about the fact that it is hard work–but supposedly pays great dividends.

    I’m totally rambling, but this post is so completely in line with my parenting philosophy de jour, that I am gushing. Sorry about that.

  4. Carmen
    Carmen says:

    I don’t even have to write after reading your posts. You’ve already said it. The mother-father thing, so true.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This post is a good example of why I like and read this blog.
    After you experiment, refine, and figure out all this parenting stuff, you’ll have the opportunity to give advice and have some fun as a grandparent. :)

  6. lisa richmon
    lisa richmon says:

    I thought the Harvard study said the best predictor of happiness is a good relationship with siblings?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The results of the study are actually very very specific. For example, it’s if you are friends with your siblings at age 40 then the second half of your life will be happy. And if you had a caring relationship with your parents, the first half will be happy.

      Here’s another very specific tidbit: If you grew up in poverty, you are likely to be happy if your parents made you do chores.


      • Jrw
        Jrw says:

        Does it say anything about the adult life of children who grow up in middle class homes or affluent homes and their relationship to chores/work/responsibilities in the home? I thought I read that study said the two most important predictors of happiness was a warm childhood and having had responsibilities in the home from a young age. I really struggle with that. We unschool and love everything about it except I would really like my children to work with me on the daily housekeeping that a family brings, but my six yr old is so resistant to it. It’s the one thing my gut is telling me to force, like what she learns about is her business, but helping around the house is the family’s business so she needs to bear down and do stuff she doesn’t like. It’s not going well…any help???

          • Jrw
            Jrw says:

            Wow, that was fantastic. My six year old is so resistant to rewards and punishments – she refuses to be bought or forced. It’s like she requires us to live the higher law and as hard as it is, reading pieces like this make me vow to live up to the challenge. Thank you for passing it on.

        • Dawn
          Dawn says:

          When my girls were younger we made a game of household chores. For example, the days we did laundry I would put prizes at the bottom of their baskets of clean clothes waiting to be folded. Mostly sticker sheets or children’s jewelry. I had a “treasure chest ” and on some occasions they were given the opportunity to pick something out of there for a job well done( dollar stores are your friends). In this house allowance didn’t start until the age of twelve and that was more of a money management project until they were of age to hold a part time job. Have your children work alongside of you. If you’re dusting give the child his/her own cloth and have them dust the lower areas. Praise them and encourage them to want to do more. Things like “Wow, you can dust very well, someday you can do this by yourself.” Followed by a trinket from the chest. I used this example because I really don’t like dusting and since my daughter was ten she is the dusting queen. I haven’t touched a can of Pledge in six years.

  7. Becky Eastham
    Becky Eastham says:

    This is so true, the number one question asked in our house is, “where’s mom?” They don’t need anything, they just feel better when I am here. I love that all I need to do, is be there.

  8. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    Thanks for helping me feel like a good mom today. I’m working on a magazine website on my laptop while my toddler makes messes nearby and my 4- and 6-year-olds alternate having a tea party together and playing on their iPad. I just took breaks to join the tea party and then stop a fight over the iPad. (And read this blog. :) INFJ mom who really enjoys time when we can all do our own things near each other.

  9. Julie
    Julie says:

    What!? What about “quality time”? LOL

    I believe my kids would much prefer quantity time and figuring that out was a huge shock. I had totally bought into the quality time thing. This is not to say that we don’t also do things together, but yes, they like to spend a fair amount of time doing their own things with me in the next room. It is about availability.

  10. Heidi
    Heidi says:

    okay, i love all your stuff. your perspective isnt mainstream and your posts always give me something to think about. my stepkids are my inspiration for homeschooling almost more than anything else. they are allowed to do anything they want all day long and in my opinion they manage their time very poorly. 10 yr old plays violent video games 16 hours a day every single day, doesnt eat for 2 days sometimes. is that really okay? 12 year old lays in bed all day with her smart phone watching youtube videos nearly all day. is that really okay? my kids, 6 and 2 live completely different lives right here in the same house. is unlimited video game play really a great idea? help!

    • Kristin
      Kristin says:

      Heidi — That sounds like a nightmare to me. I don’t think I could stand watching that either all day every day. However, some days that would be ok to me. I know that if I let my son do Minecraft as much as he wanted, he would do it ALL the time with a few brakes here and there. He probably wouldn’t even eat. For that reason I schedule things during his week that he has to attend, like piano lessons, an art class, and some kind of sport (right now it is difficult to find one he likes but we are still trying — sometimes I convince him to run around the neigborhood or ride a bike). I stay home so I am also able to go check in on him, remind him to eat, and have conversation with him. He is not a teenager yet (he is only 10). I wonder if I will have any influence once he gets older.

  11. Nita
    Nita says:

    I work outside the home and my husband and I school our older child while our others are in school during the day. We spend a lot of time with our kids. One of our main routines is hanging out in mom’s room, watching a show together, cooking together or playing cards. My daughter that’s home schooled – even though she is a teen, she and I select her curriculum go over her work together. It means I don’t get to veg out on the computer until everyone is sleeping, but that’s quite alright. They are only kids once.

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