Why Parents Need to “Be Kind” to the Ones That They Love
“Be Kind,” by Halsey and Marshmello, makes me think of parents who struggle to be kind to their children. I have encountered these parents directly working as a family and early childhood therapist, as well as their shadows and ghosts in the therapy room when working with the adult children they have affected.
Failure to be kind to your child is rarely due to lack of love. It tends to come from fears, and an old belief that if you aren’t hard on a kid, they won’t be able to face the world (again with the fear). I hope this post can help parents still holding these beliefs and fears understand why it’s so important to emphasize kindness.
Early childhood specialists are now much more aware that kindness and warmth are shown to be a key factor in positive outcomes for children. Note that kindness and warmth may be expressed differently in different cultures. For example, many western cultures highly value verbal praise, whereas others show affection in different ways. Being firm and setting limits has benefits as well, but must be balanced out with positive regard. And firmness should not cross the line into frightening a child.
Though authoritarian parenting has been a common parenting philosophy and technique for centuries, and many of my clients experienced such parenting philosophies themselves: there is zero valid research that shows instilling fear, shock, and shame yields positive long-terms outcomes. There is a general consensus among early childhood experts that authoritarian parenting leads to poor outcomes for children.
Here’s a bit about why, from a neuropsychological perspective: triggering a fear, shock, or shame response causes a human to produce cortisol , a stress hormone, in their brain.
Cortisol is helpful to give you a boost if you are running from a bear, or any other situation where you need to be alert to save your life. But it is not ideal to constantly be stimulated with cortisol on a daily basis. Especially if your brain is still developing. This is because too much cortisol can upset your limbic system – the system responsible for regulating your emotions and emotional responses. Cortisol especially effects the “white matter” or myelin sheath in your brain. You can think of myelin as like the rubber coating around your electronic power cords. It helps the activity in those cords/your brain cells conduct activity smoothly. To get graphic: when you are intensely negative with your kid, you’re like a rat nibbling at the charging cord to an electronic device. Too much nibbling on that cord is going to cause the system to short-circuit.
Sure, most of us mess up every now and then and have unkind moments with our kids. Occasional minor outbursts are not going to ruin anyone, especially if we make amends. But we need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that this is correct form.
Correct form, in most early childhood therapist’s opinions, doesn’t mean you just let your kids run wild, praising them excessively. It means that you shape their behavior a through a combination or positive regard for good behavior, limit setting, and differential attention for undesired behavior (lots of attention when they’re on the right track, less when they veer off).
If they are misbehaving you limit that behavior by taking away the enabling object, or taking away your attention by leaving the room or giving them a time out (effective when clearly, nonemotionally, and consistently given, such as in the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) Method. You give them a clear direction and a clear boundary-setting outcome if they don’t listen and follow directions. You don’t limit-set by scaring them out of the behavior. This may work temporarily, but the toll it takes on their limbic system isn’t worth it.
If you are looking to raise emotionally intelligent, emotionally regulated, empathetic and respectful children, I encourage you to be kind to the one (s) that you love.
If you are looking for more training as a parent about how to balance kindness with limit-setting I highly recommend exploring an evidenced based parenting practice, or elements of one, with a family therapist. Here is a comprehensive list of some of the most validated practices out there: https://www.unodc.org/documents/prevention/family-compilation.pdf
I am certified in PCIT, which is recommended for children age 2.5 – 7, but can start as early as 12 mos old. PCIT has significantly strengthened my ability to balance kindness and loving attachment skills with the clarity and firmness to set boundaries both professionally and as a parent myself.
If you are finding it is hard to control your temper with your children, I recommend you seek individual help yourself to learn some skills for your own emotional regulation. Often reactivity as a parent is passed down through generations and you may need help breaking the cycle. Parenting is tough, and you deserve support to feel proud of your ability to connect with the ones that you love.
Also Note: I’m not sure how Halsey is as a parent to her toddler. That said, she has shown kindness to her community through her activism. She has been outspoken and philanthropic about many social issues including, getting help for mental health issues, suicide prevention, feminist issues, LGBTG+ issues, climate change, and racial justice. In 2020 she launched the Black Creators Funding Initiative (BCFI) in effort to create more equity in the arts and other creative industries.