Occasionally I beat myself up. “Why did I say that to her?” “What was I thinking when I made that face?” Thoughts that pop up out of nowhere and are hard to dismiss. Although I can dwell endlessly on wishing I had a do over, I can also, as they say, try to make lemonade from evaluations of interactions that are clearly souring my thoughts. Instead of ruminating, I can assess what went wrong and consider alternative responses so that next time I do not make the same mistake.
When it comes to my parenting, wishing for do-overs was and still is common. If only I had said this or done that. Lying in bed in the morning or while driving home from work, my thoughts drift to what I could or should have done differently.
Increasingly child-rearing experts are researching these same cognitions and labeling them in interesting ways. I find the term meta-parenting cognitions coined by Holden and Hawk (2003), and their definition of the term to be intuitively appealing. I believe that more research needs to be conducted to flush out what is going on with these cognitions, and in the name of full disclosure, I have done some of this research with my colleague Dr. Kami Merrifield. While we await more empirical evidence of what these cognitions are and how they work, curious parents may find the following descriptions of meta-parenting interesting. I also believe that an explanation of meta-parenting cognitions gives the term “mindful parenting” some heft.
The researchers Holden and Hawk define meta-parenting cognitions as, “a class of evaluative parental thoughts concerning the child-rearing domain that typically occur before or after parent-child interactions.” In short, these are thoughts that parents have about their children and their parenting behaviors.
You may note that these authors published this article fairly recently. Developmental scientists and child-rearing researchers have been describing parental thoughts and cognitions for decades. Historically, conceptualizations of parent’s thinking were relatively static or unchanging. Consider terms like “parental goals” and “values” which we tend to think are deep in our DNA, stable and unchanging.
More recently research on parental cognitions and associated parenting behaviors has adopted a dynamic view. Thoughts are flexible and depend on any number of factors, such as child characteristics, parental mood, or the situation (at the mall or at home). Newer takes on these cognitions suggest that they are not automatic or reflexive, but rather, as Holden and Hawk describe them, “effortful.”
These authors identified four components of meta-parenting cognitions. As is often the case with anything psychological, these components do not occur in a particular order and their distinctiveness is for clarity and research purposes. The reality is that these different kinds of thoughts may be intertwined and difficult to neatly distinguish from each other. Regardless, I find these categories interesting and also worth considering when evaluating my own thoughts. I will return to this idea of a mini-self-intervention in a moment after considering the different cognitions.
The components of meta-parenting are as follows:
Anticipating refers to just what you would think, both long- and short-term. As parents, we anticipate that our child will be a stellar soccer goalie when she grows up. We anticipate that he will attend our alma mater and learn to play a musical instrument better than we ever did. We also anticipate how our child will respond when we ask him to clean his room or when we offer to snuggle. I have always believed that short-term anticipation is the best form of discipline, or not having to discipline, because if you can think ahead you can steer and “correct” children’s behaviors before there is a fight, a defiant act, or a tantrum.
Assessing and problem-solving are the next two components. Parents can assess or evaluate their child’s behavior (Why did she do that?), or their own response (Why did I do that?). Assessing assumes the parent is aware or mindful of what is happening. Answering the “why” question, or performing a good assessment, is the basis for eventually changing either the child’s or one’s own behavior. Problem-solving is generating possible solutions, identifying or modifying alternative strategies, or seeking advice from others.
Last but not least is reflecting which can be captured in the statements I started out with, or a reconsideration of behaviors. The examples I offered above regarding my own thoughts involved situations that were perhaps embarrassing or guilt-ridden. As a parent, there will be plenty of those. I like to believe that we can also reflect on moments of joy, love, and pride, or moments when we are clearly effective as parents.
For our purposes here at Guiding Curiosity I think these components of meta-parenting are worth considering periodically. Essentially the results of these parenting cognitions can serve as evaluations of how we are doing as guides for our children as they take in the wonders around us. What sorts of interest do you anticipate your child developing over time? Can you anticipate when he might stop and look at something closely or ask a question? Does your anticipation result in creating opportunities for discovery? Are you good at assessing what really captures her attention? Are you good at assessing what frustrates, distracts, or interferes with learning? Do you problem-solve how you might make things more interesting, or modify strategies to maintain interest or delve further into a topic? Finally, do you reflect on your and your child’s achievements? Do you reflect on the meaningfulness of the time spent together?
With anything involving parenting, the success of meta-parenting depends on time and energy. It also assumes that parents love their child deeply and want to do the best job possible. If you have read this far, I am guessing that the latter assumption is a given. Meta-parenting is not something you have to learn how to do. You are probably already engaging in these various thoughts. In presenting this material the hope is that now that you know there are different aspects or ways of doing it, you can do it with more awareness. Thus, you may not need more time and energy than you are already investing and with focus you may be able to think more effectively.
Even if you become an expert at meta-parenting, however, there is no guarantee that occasionally you will not stop and think “That was really dumb, how could I have….?”