Parenting: reared for success

by gabeatkinson / 17 January, 2013
Age-old parenting ideas – fostering such qualities as character and perseverance – are back with good reason.
Father and children

Values, respect, discipline. Not words you always hear in relation to parenting in the 21st century. Matt Sanders, a New Zealand-born psychology professor and parenting expert, uses these words a lot. For him, they are cornerstones of parenting, which he’d like to see respected as much as actually having children.

Good parenting aids a child in many ways, he says: language development, social skills, health, being active, achievement at school, problem-solving, mental resilience. The problem is to some people, parenting programmes – unlike ante-natal classes – carry a stigma. They say: I am a bad parent or, perhaps even worse, I am not a natural parent. “Taking a parenting programme is not an admission of failure,” says Sanders, whose Triple P scheme for parents of children up to 16 years old is now in use in 25 countries and employs 65,000 practitioners. “Kids don’t come with an instruction manual.”

Also, life is socially and economically trickier than it used to be. “People are often raising their families with less extended family support than in the past; many more are single parents doing it on their own. Early return to work means parenting is fragmented across multiple carers.” People are just expected to cope, he says.

Triple P began life as part of Sanders’s doctoral thesis at the University of Auckland in 1978. Before he transferred to the University of Queensland and increased the twang in his voice, Sanders studied aggressive preschool-age children in Auckland. At that time, home-based intervention was the norm – busier parents mean the web and TV are now increasingly preferred – but the programme has evolved into five key ideas: provide a safe, engaging environment; provide a positive learning environment; have consistent discipline; have reasonable expectations of children; and take care of yourself as a parent.

Familiar, probably, to educated, involved parents, but Sanders says parenting programmes shouldn’t just be for the highly vulnerable or those with extreme problems, though he accepts highest-risk parents would be much more likely to be involved if such programmes were destigmatised and involved the entire community. He says every $1 invested in an evidence-based parenting programme returns $6 in terms of fewer problems in children, parental depression and the like. The proof is in the statistics. He points to the world-renowned longitudinal Dunedin Study, which tracked kids who lacked self-control and poor emotional regulation at age three and could predict their likely health, wealth and criminality at age 33.


Our children need help. More are being diagnosed with behavioural and emotional problems, now as many as 25,000, according to the Ministry of Health’s latest health report. The proportion with diagnosed mental health conditions has nearly doubled in four years to 3.2%, alongside a 140% increase in antidepressant prescriptions in under-fours between 2009 and 2010. But in all these problems – such as ADHD, eating disorders, depression, anxiety – the role of good parenting is underestimated, says Sanders, and can actually help a child deal better with the condition.

Good practices also improve parental mental health and reduce stress and burnout. Sanders says perfection is impossible, and aiming for it makes parents overinvested, overprotective and fretful. Children must be allowed to make mistakes.

Matt Sanders
Matt Sanders: good parenting helps children in many ways, including social skills, health and school achievement, photo David White.

For those enamoured of the French way of parenting – the “cadre” of behaviour, eating only at meal times, the use of attend! (wait!) – Sanders has news: France is also now implementing Triple P. “There is no single French way of parenting,” he says, and no culture that has a dominance in parenting. But he does agree with the idea that a child rudely interrupting adults speaking should not be encouraged. “It’s a formula for children to be interruptive.” Instead, tell a child to wait till you have finished speaking then thank him or her for waiting. “It’s civilising children in a way with social skills that are more acceptable, because when kids are demanding and rude and take that to school, they’ll get into strife.”

Likewise, it is not okay for kids to be noisy and disruptive in cafes and restaurants. “It means they are not learning to be respectful to the needs of others. What you want kids to be is highly attuned to what are the skills you need for this situation.” He has no time for the argument that inhibiting any behaviour suppresses individuality. “To be honest, I think this is a nonsense. You can absolutely encourage children’s individuality, encourage them to be energetic and have the joy of life and still be civil and pleasant.” What parents are instead doing, he says, is encouraging children to be demanding, self-centred and entitled. “Permissive parenting is a formula for behavioural and emotional problems in children. We often deal with parents who are very lax and inconsistent.”

In terms of discipline, parents need clear rules. You can ask twice to do something if you have to, giving clear directions, then back it up with consequence – quiet time, time out or removal of privilege, for example. Don’t raise your voice or emotional intensity but speak firmly and decisively. Give them plenty of encouragement for doing the right thing. Be consistent, decisive, immediate.


What about perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, those non-cognitive markers of likely success and happiness – how do we encourage these in our children? We can teach children to be less impulsive by making them wait, Sanders says, delaying gratification. We can encourage curiosity, for example, by modelling it to the child. If a child asks about an insect, extend it the bush and wider nature. These skills are learnable.

“Over time we have this enormous capacity to socialise, to civilise and to create children with the emotional skills that they need to become more resilient, to have better self-control.” Providing predictability and consistency instils these traits, he says. Some parents are obsessed about the intelligence of their children, but brightness is not just about genetics, says Sanders. It is the capacity to observe, be curious, solve problems.

So, how do we encourage a child’s ambition without fuelling ultimately unachievable dreams? Or falling victim to the notion – as surveys suggest – that students’ ideas of how clever and able they are have risen markedly in the past few decades? You want your child to be a goal-setter, says Sanders. If a child says she wants to be an astronaut, the sensible parent should ask questions. How would you do it? What would it be like if you got there? Often if parents clarify career goals, children will sort them out for themselves. Teachers and grandparents are also great for reality-testing, Sanders says.


Grandparents need guidance, particularly on discipline, he says. They are now involved in childcare big time, says Sanders, a father of two and grandfather of three whose own father was a school principal and involved in the Playcentre movement. “One of the things grandparents find difficult to do is provide feedback to their own kids when the children are difficult.” Do you intervene? “You have to. Because if you are looking after the children and they’re in your home and the parents are at work, and you’ve got a couple of preschoolers who will get into arguments and fights, the issue is to intervene in a way that the parent is happy with.”

Grandparent and grandchildren

Triple P, which is owned by the University of Queensland, is working on a programme for grandparents (plus one for older teenagers leaving home). Parents and grandparents need to know how to discuss children better. “There are a lot of assumptions made about what grandparents are willing and able to do that are not always checked out.”

For mothers who actually enjoy going back to work, Sanders has sympathy. Parents of preschool-age children are never more likely to be depressed, particularly if they have more than one child. But if you have more skills as a parent, he says, life will be less stressful and have less conflict and you’ll get more enjoyment out of work. Worried parents make for distracted employees. As for social and economic policy based around the role of parents, Sanders would like financial incentives for programmes. Paid parental leave is a good thing, he says. New Zealand offers 14 weeks, while Australia offers 18 weeks. He is less enthusiastic about Australia’s $5000 Baby Bonus payment for having a child. “In some ways that’s a mistake”, because parents can spend it on what they want. But he would like to see the role of parenting valued more. There is much government rhetoric about supporting families, he says, but just compare the amount spent on prisons.

The fundamentals of parenting haven’t changed in the past 30 years, he says, although the internet and technology bring influences parents don’t have complete control over. But the same rules apply – children don’t have a “divine right” to the internet. He’s not a fan of digitally monitoring children, however; it’s better to equip them with a set of values. Sometimes the oldest ideas are still the best.

Tough medicine

A US best-seller focuses on non-cognitive skills as the secret of children’s success.

Encouraging children through the hoops of school exams will lead to success later in life, right? Probably not. You might improve your children’s IQ score by developing their cognitive skills in maths and English, but you won’t necessarily teach them how to succeed in life.

A new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, says the evidence is mounting that children will get better qualifications, a better job and a more fulfilling life if other traits are encouraged. Curiosity, perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, self-confidence and self-control are far more likely to lead to success. US journalist Paul Tough’s book, already a bestseller in the US, says these traits, known as non-cognitive skills, might be more familiar to us as “character”.

Tough says the idea that success depends on finely honed cognitive skills developed early in life is a recent one, arriving as a result of a report done by Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1994. The idea launched billions of dollars of products aimed at children up to age three, such as activity gyms and Baby Einstein DVDs. It set off public policy changes in the US to tackle the belief that the underprivileged did badly at school because of a lack of verbal and mathematical stimulation. The cognitive hypothesis was compelling.

Paul Tough
Paul Tough: qualities such as curiosity, perseverance and optimism breed success.

Sure, we need to practise some skills and the earlier the better – kicking a rugby ball, reading books. But psychologists, educators, economists and neuroscientists have been uncovering powerful evidence that non-cognitive skills stand us in better stead throughout life. And traits such as optimism, resilience and social agility are learnable, Tough says.

Character is related to values, so changes over time, he says. Victorians admired chastity, thrift and piety; American frontiersmen respected courage, self-sufficiency and grit. But attempts to teach “character” are fraught, he says: the right fears it’s political correctness, the left fears it’s Christian virtue. Focus instead on cultivating character strengths that help a child live a meaningful, fulfilling life.

It will be of no surprise to many that self-discipline is often a better predictor of good grades than IQ. Everyone knows of young people who seemed to be gifted academically but failed because they were not emotionally or psychologically equipped to complete a course. Tough cites the marshmallow test, in which children were left alone with a marshmallow and told they could have two later if they didn’t eat it in the meantime: those who waited did far better at university entrance exams years later.

Personality tests largely concentrate on five traits: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience and conscientiousness. The last is a good predictor of workplace success. Conscientious people – those who exert themselves even if there is no potential reward – get better grades, commit fewer crimes, stay married longer and live longer. However, too much self-control can be as bad as too little – such people are compulsive, anxious, repressed. Other researchers say self-discipline is not enough to ensure people will stick with the job and succeed; this demands what might be called grit – a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission. Unfortunately, no one really knows how to motivate people well, says Tough. Different personality types respond to different motivations.

Supporters of private schools might be pleased at Tough’s findings on character, but he says students from such schools often lack grit and a sense of gratitude and self-control. The schools protect them from the challenge and degree of hardship they need. What they get is connections and credentials, and rather than achieving their potential, they are often given “a high probability of non-failure”. Building character is to risk failure, he writes.

As for the other end of the scale, everyone knows that difficult events in childhood can affect how we turn out as adults. But just how much surprises. A large US medical insurance study, called ACE, asked a wealthier, whiter, older group about childhood trauma such as abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, and matched it against present-day health. Those who scored highly on the trauma scale had far more health problems as an adult, including addiction, depression, obesity and chronic illness. Even those who didn’t drink or smoke had higher rates of heart disease. “The adversity these patients had experienced in childhood was making them sick through a pathway that had nothing to do with behaviour.” That factor was stress.

Our bodies regulate stress through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, says Tough, and overloading that system in infancy and childhood through poverty and hardship can have long-lasting effects – physical, psychological, neurological. For example, long-term stress compromises children’s ability to regulate their thoughts and the functioning of other cognitive skills such as short-term memory.

A particularly effective antidote to the ill-effects of early stress is not pharmaceutical or educators but parents, Tough says. This might sound warm and fuzzy but it’s backed up by cold, hard science – there is evidence that warm and responsive mothering in particular can almost entirely negate environmental stressors.

Mother and child

Some of it’s to do with rats – mother rats that groomed and licked their off spring produced pups that were more social, were more curious, were better at mazes, had more self-control, were less aggressive, were healthier and lived longer. But there’s growing evidence the processing of stress hormones in humans can change the ways genes “express” themselves. Parents – with the right help – can actually reverse such negative traits, quickly and perhaps even as late as early adulthood.

Other traits can be changed. Habits and character are the same thing, he says, citing William James, the US psychologist. Whether or not intelligence is malleable, students do better in tests if they believe it is. Optimists tend to focus on achieving a result whereas pessimists tend to dwell on problems, but “mental contrasting”, in which you concentrate on a positive outcome as well as the obstacles, is likely to be more successful. Tough cites a teacher of chess who helped her disadvantaged students achieve national results. She talked about losses with them, such as how to think outside the box and how to inhibit their usual responses. In chess, no one but you is to blame, so you must take responsibility for your mistakes and learn from them.

Teenagers in particular have a tough road. Two systems are developing in teen brains at the same time: one emotionally reactive and focused on sensation-seeking and one to regulate these impulses. Unfortunately, the latter system often doesn’t mature until the twenties. But the evidence suggests if you take adolescents seriously, believe in them and challenge them to improve, they can become happy and successful adults.

HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED, by Paul Tough (Random House, $34.99).

Top 10 tips for parents

  • When your child wants to show you something, stop what you are doing and pay attention. Spend frequent, small amounts of time with your child doing things you both enjoy.

  • Give your child lots of physical affection.

  • Talk to your child about things he or she is interested in and share aspects of your day.

  • Give your child lots of descriptive praise when he or she does something you would like to see more of.

  • Children are more likely to misbehave when they are bored, so provide engaging activities.

  • Teach your children new skills by first showing the skill yourself, then giving them opportunities to learn it. Speak politely and prompt your children to speak politely. Praise their efforts.

  • Set clear limits on behaviour. Let your children know what the consequences will be if they break the rules.

  • If your children misbehave, stay calm and give them a clear instruction to stop misbehaving and what you would like them to do instead. Praise your children if they stop. If not, follow through with an appropriate consequence.

  • Have realistic expectations. All children misbehave at times.

  • Find time each week to let yourself unwind or do something that you enjoy. It is difficult to be a calm, relaxed parent if you are stressed, anxious or depressed.

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