Child development is so complex that there are practically no certainties. There are experienced, well-meaning, well-credentialed experts lined up on all sides of almost every major issue in parenting. This uncertainty and confusion of conflicting expert opinion can leave a parent bewildered. We can thank anthropologist Ronald Rohner, Ph.D. and his colleagues for identifying one of the few universal truths in child development. After more than two thousand studies conducted over almost five decades across many cultures, Dr. Rohner has concluded that children everywhere have a basic need for acceptance and affirmation from their parents and other important care givers. Children who feel rejected have more behavioral problems, have lower self-esteem, are more pessimistic, are more anxious and depressed, are are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems. Rohner’s bold summary of the research evidence is “parental acceptance-rejection by itself is universally a powerful predictor of psychological and behavioral adjustment.”
You might ask, “what are the best ways to show your acceptance to your child?” I’ve listed five powerful ways of expressing acceptance below.
1. Be affectionate.
Being physically affectionate with our children is one of the most powerful ways that we can show our acceptance. Especially with younger children, cuddles, kisses, having them sit on your lap, and comforting them are clear displays of affection and acceptance. With older children, while it is important to respect their increasing sense of physical boundaries, regular hugs and kisses still carry a lot of weight. Our words can also communicate affection, as in saying “I love you,” giving a complement, or praising a child on an accomplishment.
2. Always be on your child’s side.
This might seem confusing at first. Does always being on a child’s side mean that we have to believe everything your child says or approve of every action they engage in? No, of course not. Being on your child’s side means being his or her advocate. If your child is in trouble at school, being on his or her side might mean not immediately accepting the school’s story as accurate or representing the whole truth. You will give your child the opportunity to tell his or her side to you first. If your child has done something wrong, you stand by your child and support him or her as they face the consequences of their mistake. You also advocate by working to make sure that the consequence is appropriate for the infraction and not excessive.
James Garbarino, internationally recognized expert on child development and professor of psychology at Loyola University of Chicago, has the following perspective on always being on your child’s side. He says that it is extremely important to consistently communicate to your child the following “no matter what you have felt, no matter what you have done, and no matter what has been done to you, I will never stop loving you.” Garbarino points out that communicating this message to your child not only conveys acceptance, but it also helps enormously with the challenge of supervising your child. Once children enter their teenage years, we cannot supervise all of their activities. To provide adequate supervision you need to trust that your child will tell you what they have been up to. Conveying to your child that you will not stop loving them no matter what they have felt, done, or had done to them, you vastly increase your chance that your child will confide in you.
3. Whenever possible give your child your full attention.
Our children crave our attention. One of the most common causes of bad behavior is not giving our children our full attention. Children want our fully focused attention so much that they prefer negative attention to no attention at all. Children aren’t consciously saying to themselves, “he’s ignoring me, so I’ll misbehave and he’ll get angry and start paying attention to me.” They do it instinctively and the fact that misbehavior is so often ‘rewarded’ with intensely focuses parental attention leads them to keep doing it.
It is a fact of life for most parents that there are a lot of demands on a parent’s attention between work, household responsibilities, and other concerns. It is important, however, to provide our children with some time each day when we put down our phones, leave the dishes for later, turn off the TV and are fully present to play with our child and listen fully to what he or she has to say.
4. Accept your child’s feelings.
According to Haim Ginott, child psychologist and author of or inspiration for my three favorite parenting books of all time (see my blog post on 10 best parenting books of all time), parents should never reject their child’s feelings. Human beings are emotional creatures. Feelings of anger, fear, sadness, greed, and other “negative” emotions are part of our human nature. In Between Parent & Child Ginott says, “while we are not free to choose the emotions that arise in us, we are free to choose how and when to express them, provided we know what they are.” While we can find our child’s behavior to be unacceptable at times, his or her feelings should never be. One of our most important jobs as parents is to help our children learn to recognize what they are feeling and to help them learn appropriate ways of expressing and managing those feelings. Rejecting a child’s feelings not only interfere with the child feeling accepted, but the rejection of feelings trains the child not to be aware of what he or she feels.
It is also important not to make light of our child’s distress when he or she is upset about a seemingly insignificant situation. According to Ginott, “a child’s feelings must be taken seriously even though the situation itself is not very serious.”
5. Avoid criticism.
In my power of positive parenting blog post, I discussed Gottman’s Magic Ratio and the importance of positive parenting. To sum it up briefly, Gottman has found that in the most stable marriages spouses have roughly five positive interactions for every negative interaction. This 5 to 1 ratio he calls the magic ratio. Positive parenting applies this ratio to the parent-child relationship. One of the main negative interactions to be avoided is criticism.
Avoiding criticism does not mean having no complaints about your child’s behavior. A complaint is specific and focused on a behavior. A complaint says, “I am angry/unhappy/distressed about this thing that you did.” A complaint, unlike criticism, does not build a case against your child. A case puts together several situations that occurred at different times and says ‘you have a pattern of doing this or that undesirable thing.’ Another way of saying this is that a complaint, unlike criticism, does not generalize. Criticism says “you always” or “you never.” A complaint focuses just on one situation or thing. A complaint focuses on the behavior, as Dr. Ginott suggests we do. “It upset me that you did this or that.” Criticism attacks the person. “You are lazy/manipulative/rude.” A complaint further does not blame, nor does it speculate on motives.