How to Parent like a Child Psychologist {plus an Enlightening Author Interview}

Remember when you first brought home your newborn? You were probably excited, worried, tired and hopeful all at once. Then after the first few days went by, you started having questions--is she getting enough milk, how do I swaddle, what do I do when she cries all the time...the list could go on forever.

You probably wished there was one simple book or manual that would just tell you what to do to be a "good parent." Of course, we know there is no such best book for new parents. Each child is unique and it takes time for you to understand his/her individual preferences and patterns.

newborn baby

But this is where research can help us. Each child is unique but all children tend to follow a similar (within a range) developmental path. What is this range and how do I know if my child is developing in a typical fashion? What about all the details of parenting--food choices, sleeping arrangements, tantrums, etc. How do I know if how my child is behaving is in the range of "typical."

These are parenting questions but they are also really research questions. Research has already addressed many of these and tons more. We parents, however, usually do not have good access to this research. It's stockpiled away in academic journals in university libraries like a hidden treasure. This is why I started this blog--to bring that academic research out into the light of day where it can be used by parents. I want each parent to feel almost as prepared as a child psychologist when making decisions about their parenting.

That's why I am super excited to introduce Tracy Cutchlow, author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. This book is a practical guide for parents but it is all based on academic research. Tracy is a professional journalist who has done all the hard work for us of compiling and translating that academic research into useful information we can use to answer our most-pressing parenting questions.

The Best Book for New Parents

The wonderful point that she makes in this book is that you can rely on your parental instinct AND use research too. It's not an either-or proposition. We can't all be actual child psychologists but we can do the next best thing--understand the research on a given topic and then put that together with our intuition to make the best choice for our unique child. This book is the perfect starting point on that path.

I had the privilege of interviewing Tracy and I wanted to share this interview with you all. I think you will find it enlightening, authentic and helpful...just like her book. Enjoy!

Don't forget her book Zero to Five is coming out in paperback on March 13 so you can grab a copy to throw in your diaper bag to read in between play dates or at naptime.

Interview with Tracy Cutchlow

Question 1: You mention in the book that you can never really be prepared for parenthood. I think most of us that have kids would agree. Is there one piece of advice (or research) that you would give an expecting parent that you wish you knew before you had kids?

Yes. Your intuition is not lost. It is just very quiet. You’re going to experiment a ton as you figure out who this little person is, who you are, and how you fit together. You’re going to react in ways that surprise you, just because your parents reacted that way or because other people are watching. And you’re going to do things you wish you hadn’t. Don’t become stuck on that. It’s all part of your own process of growth.

Pay close attention to what feels right to you and what doesn’t. That’s your intuition whispering. Listen, so that it can grow louder. Act on your intuition and you will find your way as a parent -- the way that works for your family.

Question 2: I loved the part in the book where you discuss envisioning your baby all grown up and the types of qualities you’d want her to have. How do you think this helps parents in their parenting decisions?

That’s a powerful exercise. It’s not about trying to determine who your child will be, which would be rough for everybody involved. It’s really about naming your values and getting clear on your priorities--like a lighthouse cutting through the fog of options.

For example, say you’re at a big open park. How far ahead of you can your child run? It’s kind of a touchy situation where we often feel unsure of how to react. For me, I value independence pretty highly, so keeping that value in mind, I’m able to let my daughter go farther than most would. If I’m over here and she wants to play over there, I’ll do things like have her point out to me how she would get back to where I am. We talk about how to recognize people who can help and what she would do if she felt lost. Which did happen one time! I lost her in the clothes at REI, and she just calmly went up to an employee and asked for help, and they found me nearby. She must have been 3; it blew me away. Anyway, yes, thinking about that value has definitely influenced the decisions I make as a parent.

Thinking about your values also helps you take a long-term view of your child. That releases you from the anxiety trap of placing so much importance on what you do or what your child does in any one moment.

For example, my daughter doesn’t do everything I ask her to do. Shocker, right? That’d be so much easier! But I deeply value her ability to know what she wants, what she likes, and what her body is telling her. So like today when it’s cold out and she strips off her coat, I’m able to say, “You know your own body.”

I’m released from making a big deal about my own opinion or being annoyed that she didn’t do something I wanted her to do, or spending another second worrying about whether she’s cold. That’s the long-term view kicking in, that value being more important than whether she wears a coat for the next hour or not.

There have been times where I’ve overridden her, certainly. “You know what, I just don’t feel good about this. It’s snowing; you’ve had a cough. My job is to keep you safe. You must wear your coat this time for us to stay outside.” She knows I mean it, because it’s so rare that I do that, and it’s not a problem.

Question 3: What do you see as some of the most prominent challenges for parents of kids ages 0-5 today?

Screen time is one of the biggest challenges for parents today. It’s probably the one challenge that spans ages 0 to 5. The guidelines are no screen time before age 2, then make it social: watch with your kids. But that’s rarely happening. Parents want the break from their kids. In my view, the real issue is that parents need far more support.

kids and screen time
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When you have many hands making light work, when you get enough sleep, when your oxygen mask is on first, patience for your child is so much easier to come by. Our society isn’t set up to support parents right now. Right now it’s like you’re supposed to get yourself enough sleep and be in charge of self-care and be all the hands doing all the work and be patient and engaged with your child. iPad, please.

Related reading: A Day in the Life of a Child Under 4: New Guidelines for Sleep, Movement and Screen Time

I believe that we need to be very intentional about building our support networks. I’ve written about this on my site, Zero to Five, and in the Washington Post:

What’s just as glaring as the time our kids spend on screens is the time we parents spend on screens. Our near-constant distraction is almost certainly harmful to our kids. We can feel our addiction, and it doesn’t feel good even to us.

Willpower isn’t strong enough to limit ourselves when it comes to screen time, and there are neuroscientific reasons for it, but you already know this if you’ve ever had your phone within reach while driving. Or if you’ve angrily told your child to hold on one more sec and quit trying to grab your phone or close your laptop. We’re learning more about how social-media algorithms ensure our addiction and keep us in a loop of negative emotional reactions. The intent is positive and without malice--to drive engagement--but the result is creepy. It’s unsettling.

All of this is worth all of us taking a very long pause.

What do you want your morning, afternoon, and evening to be like? What entertainment do you want to surround yourself with? How do you want your relationships to feel?

Download this free printable called, In Our Home to help remind yourself of the priorities around relationships and tecchnology in your family

It’s easy to make fun of concern over the latest technology because every generation has been concerned over the latest technology … and we all turned out fine. The New Yorker had a funny piece about Paleolithic parents fretting about their kids’ use of fire.

The truth is, you can’t lump all screen time into one bucket like that. Think of technology in terms of the individual ways you use it. For each use, does it give you energy or drain your energy? Are you using technology to create and connect and discover, or are you using it to distract from feelings?

When it’s the latter, that’s a serious message we’re sending ourselves and our kids. I believe we need to be very intentional about fighting the urge to use screen time in that way.

The steps to thoughtfully manage screen time--and emotions--are definitely a part of my book, Zero to Five.

Question 4: You mention the importance of make-believe and other play for kids’ learning. There is so much pressure nowadays for parents to put their kids in more academic-focused programs or preschools. How can we encourage parents to see play as a valuable part of learning?

It is hard. I was reading at age 3, and I kind of expected that of my daughter, but I let it go. Then, as soon one of my friends’ kids was reading, it was hard not to want to jump into action. (Yes, I need to take the advice in my own book about not comparing kids.) So we just need to recognize that comparative or competitive urge, and let it be without acting on it. Then remind ourselves of the long list of benefits of play--and act on that. Some things I think about:
Life is long. Children in Waldorf schools and in Finland don’t learn to read until age 7, and they catch up to other kids by age 11. Then they’ll be reading for the next, what, 80 years? There’s time. Not everything needs to happen right now.
What are children missing out on? Think about how a child confuses the letters b, d, and p, because their excellent spatial-thinking abilities tell them that’s the same shape. You can train their brains early on to see the letters in only one direction, but I wonder what flexibility it hinders. It’s actually important that children think in the creative way they do. Their brains are designed that way to allow our species to survive in unpredictable future environments. There’s no true benefit to training them to think in structured adult ways earlier and earlier. Especially given the creativity they’ll need for their own unpredictable futures--creativity we’ll all need. We’d do well to think more like children.

play-based learning

Learning encompasses the whole person. My daughter attended an outdoor, play-based preschool for two years. If they’d had a kindergarten, she’d still be there. It’s amazing what she learned about the natural world, experimentation and asking questions, emotional awareness and regulation, and being with others. She left with her curiosity in full force. Now she attends a kindergarten that we chose because testing does not drive the curriculum, the kids get three recesses a day, and the philosophy encompasses both project-based learning and social-emotional awareness. I want her to be in the kind of environment where the brain learns best. I know that goes way beyond academics.
Play is how children learn. The benefits of play include language development, executive function, social interactions, emotional self-regulation--all highly correlated with later academic success. So a play-based school is actually the best choice for academic success. You just can’t see it yet.

Related reading: Top Questions to Ask on a Preschool Tour: A Parent's Guide

More important than the labels of “play-based” or “academic-focused,” though, is what actually happens in the classroom and how teachers respond to emotional situations, so ask about specific scenarios when you’re considering a school.

Logic says to follow the way the brain really works. Brain-development research tells us that learning happens within relationships, that taking breaks and moving the body gives the brain specific boosts for learning, and that play is how children learn. When a school ignores brain-development basics to squeeze in more worksheets and tests, they’re teaching to children’s ears instead of their brains. It’s so ingrained, though!
Go back to your values. Make thoughtful choices that align with them. Don’t just go with the flow. Swim strong in your own direction.
Tracy Cutchlow is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.

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