Picture this. You're a parent. You want nothing more than for your child to grow up to be successful and fulfilled.

But your kid is a kid. Sometimes, he or she gets hurt. Sometimes, he or she overreacts. There's crying sometimes--even tantrums, sulking, and meltdowns.

How should you respond, given that your goal is to raise a well-rounded, happy human? Let's consider two possibilities.

Option No. 1: Rush to his or her side, hoping to offer consolation. Your goal? Create confidence over the long term that no matter what goes wrong in life, he or she can always count on you. Also, make things a little easier on yourself in the short term.

Option No. 2: Maintain some distance, hovering perhaps to ensure that nothing really terrible has happened, but also insisting that your child work things out for him or herself. Your goal: create confidence that you hope will lead to greater resilience and self-reliance later in life.

They both sound reasonable, right? But it turns out, science reveals a clear winner in terms of which method will truly set your son or daughter up for success later in life.

In other words, while this is one of the most controversial topics in modern American parenting, one of these is the right thing to do--and the other is wrong. Here's the answer.

(Bonus content: For sound advice on this and many other parenting topics, download my free e-book, How to Raise Successful Kids: Advice From a Stanford Dean, a Navy SEAL Commander, and Mark Zuckerberg's Dad. You can download it here.)

The Suck It Up Method

We've seen this debate play out in sharp relief online over the past few months. On the one hand, for example, there's the argument summed up in an article on Scary Mommy called The Let it Bleed Style of Parenting.

Here's an excerpt to give you the gist:

Today we live in a culture of fear--fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of strangers, fear of failure--and our children are the biggest victims. We want to protect them from everything, to keep them safe and happy and wonderful, but all that's creating is a culture of helicopter parenting and a generation of children who can't think for themselves.

Instead, the author argues that it's time to teach kids to suck it up a bit, and "let them fail" from time to time, so they'll learn how to act like grownups.

Makes sense, right? It feels like we've heard this argument a lot lately. But it turns out there's another consideration.

The Always There for You Method

In response, a writer at Slate named Melinda Wenner Moyer, who happens also to be the mother of a 5-year-old, interviewed psychologists and looked at the actual research to determine whether "suck it up" or "run to his or her side" was the better parenting method.

The results flew in the face of what we read and hear in so much popular literature. "Run to his or her side" is a lot better than most of us instinctively think. 

For example, Moyer cites child psychologist Nancy Eisenberg of Arizona State University, whose studies find that "parents who respond to their children's emotions in a comforting manner have kids who are more socially well-adjusted than do parents who either tell their kids they are overreacting or who punish their kids for getting upset."

A later study she cited, which you can find here, "found that male college undergraduates who said their mothers punished them as young kids when they got overly upset had more anger-management issues than undergrads whose moms had been supportive."

(Caveat: This applies mainly to boys, she writes; girls who "weren't comforted as young kids had more anger issues only if they also weren't close to their mothers in college.")

Finally, Moyer reports that a third study, this one from 1983, found that "children who had secure relationships with their parents because their parents had been warm, nurturing, and responsive early in life were less clingy and demanding in preschool than were kids whose parents had been standoffish and unresponsive."

The Scientific Verdict

So does this mean we always have to run to our kids' aid, sit by their sides, and let them cry until their little lungs can't take it?

No, of course not. It does mean, however, that telling them simply to "suck it up" when they have emotional reactions to bad experiences likely does more harm than good.

"Children need to practice expressing emotions and learn to deal with them. That leads to resilience," Moyer quoted developmental psychologist Ashley Soderlund as saying. "The golden rule is that emotions are never the enemy, even when they are exaggerated."

And there's one more important thing to do: Model good behavior yourself, even if that means demonstrating that you sometimes lose control of your emotions, too.

"So, sure, lose your temper from time to time," Moyer suggests, adding of course that you shouldn't go so far as to become violent. "Kids learn how to emotionally navigate this crazy world by watching you--and it can be good for them if you occasionally scream or cry while you do it."

What do you think? Do the studies Moyer cited convince you, or do you think we need more of an emphasis on "sucking it up?" Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Published on: Jul 6, 2016
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