I learned a lot in grad school, but parenting taught me so much more...

By Juliana Sanchez

I’ll never forget the moment that I realized I had let go of nearly everything I learned in graduate school in my parenting.

I was with my family and another child psychologist mom and her family. We had just finished Saturday morning soccer and were at a brunch place with four hungry kids between us waiting for our table. It’s the best part of the week - the chance to sip coffee and eat waffles and have some adult conversation while someone else cooks and cleans.

My daughter, then age three, started climbing somewhere inappropriate.- or maybe she was upside down about to bang her head on the floor. I asked the little monkey to stop, and she didn’t. Then I counted 1…and she stopped.

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Another similarly sweaty soccer mom said, “How did you do that?”

I was busy getting something out of the ginormous diaper bag for my daughter to color, and my friend started talking to the mom. She noted that we had PhDs in psychology and used a lot of behavioral strategies with our kids.

The other mom asked, as her kids pulled their dad’s glasses off and jumped on and off the bench what our number one parenting advice was. My friend said “structure and routine.” I couldn’t help myself, I interjected a big “NOPE, that doesn’t work for us.” My friend was shocked, and honestly so was I.

I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I had changed.

When you are in a doctoral program in child psychology, you learn a lot about emotions, thoughts, and behavior. And you learn a lot about how to change thoughts and behavior. Reward systems like sticker charts, earning prizes, and setting up positive and healthy routines at home are key. You learn that children feel more comfortable with boundaries and routines. And all of that is valid and true and correct. Consequences, routine charts, positive behavior systems, and earning prizes certainly have their place in our home.

What I didn’t learn was the importance and power of connection.

I am pretty sure they taught it to me. Looking back, it was always discussed, but I glossed over it. Probably because it wasn’t something I could do actively, like making a routine chart. That satisfies my “check the boxes” personality.

Connection seemed so intangible. And unnecessary. Of course I was going to be connected with my children – I’m an educated and loving parent. But there is a reason my professors taught it as fundamental – connection is the most important part of parenting, and the one that is easiest to skip.

Babies are calmed by being held. As kids get older, they need that same level of connection – it just looks different. A toddler in the middle of a tantrum over having the wrong color cup for her milk sometimes can be calmed by a hug, eye contact, and “You really want the blue cup, don’t you?” A child who is frustrated with a challenging homework assignment sometimes needs to hear “This is a hard assignment. You feel very frustrated.”

For my kids, about 80% of the time, that verbal validation calms them right down and we can work out the problem.

As they get older, my kids are learning to internalize it and work it out themselves. Recently, my son and daughter were fighting over the TV. “Mom, I am really frustrated that I don’t get to pick a TV show today. I’m really mad. But I know it’s her turn, and I’ll be able to pick tomorrow. Ok, I just needed to get that out.” I did nothing but listen and they worked it out.

Research shows that spending 15 minutes a day of quality time with a child is enough to reduce problem behaviors. But they key is the quality of the time. No phones, no multitasking, no teaching, no questions – just following the child’s lead and playing. It may feel weird to you, but it’s exactly what your child needs.

My friend Allison was complaining the other day that her son was pushing her buttons a lot. Then she floored me when she said “but it’s our fault. Things have been overscheduled and I know he just needs some quality one on one time to calm down.”

My friend has great instincts. And she didn’t even need graduate school. She just paid attention to her kids.  

And if you do take the time to connect, those may become your favorite times of the day. It’s a chance to put aside your way too long to-do list and get inside your child’s ever-growing mind.  When you find out what they wish for, what happened at school, what they dream about, and what they are curious about. You’ll be glad you made the connection–trust me.

Juliana Sanchez is a pediatric neuropsychologist who has worked in hospitals and schools with children with illnesses, injuries, and developmental disorders. She lives in Florida with her husband and two children who are special in their own ways.

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