Brock prof tackles what it means to raise a child well

Everyone wants their children to live a good life, but there are many definitions of what that means.Some parents want happiness, wealth, recognition or influence for their children. Others want their children to have love, a connection to family or a desire to pursue service to others.Caitlin Mahy, Assistant Professor in Brock University’s Department of Psychology, will be addressing the question, “What does it mean to raise a child well?” at a Conversation Café taking place Tuesday, April 25 beginning at 7 p.m. at Mahtay Café in downtown St. Catharines.Mahy’s researches cognitive development in children. She focuses on two areas: the development of children’s abilities to think, plan and remember things for the future, called “prospective memory,” and “theory of mind,” where a child is able to recognize that other people can have beliefs about the world that are different than his or her own.Mahy sat down with The Brock News recently to provide insight into her work.The Brock News (TBN): Let’s start with that basic question: What does it mean to raise a child well?Caitlin Mahy (CM): One main value in North American society – but not necessarily in other cultures – is raising a child to be independent, to become an adult able to locate meaningful work, form relationships with other people and find meaning in their life as an adult. Another hope parents have for their child is happiness. I think an important question is: How do you raise a resilient child? A child who can be happy even when life throws some difficulties their way.TBN: How can your “prospective memory” research be applied in child-rearing?CM: This strong focus on independence means raising a child to be able to plan ahead, think ahead and remember to do things on their own. What we found in recent research, which is a bit surprising, is that parents’ reminders might not actually be that effective in helping their child to remember to do things. The research suggests that a child demonstrates thinking, planning and remembering abilities when they are cognitively ready, usually starting around four or five years old.Parents can push as hard as they want, but, depending on where the child is at in his or her cognitive development, it’s not going to produce the outcome the parents’ want; it’s probably just going to put additional stress and pressure on the child. Parents should engage in conversations with their children to gauge whether or not they’re ready to think into the future, plan and remember things. Of course, you can set your child up to succeed by giving them reminders, helping them plan ahead and modelling that behaviour yourself, but realize that it will take time depending on where they’re at.TBN: How can your “theory of mind” research be applied in child-rearing?CM: The goal is to raise a child who can interact with others. Knowing how a child understands other people’s minds and also their own mind really fits with a lot of priorities parents have for their children around social connections: making friends, finding a partner, having a healthy social life.In infancy, it’s very much parallel play; the child recognizes there’s another person there, but there’s not a lot of interaction. Toddlers start to interact and engage with others. Up until about the age of four, a child thinks that everyone should prefer what they prefer. After four or five, the child starts to understand that people have different desires and beliefs, which gives the child a richer appreciation of, and sensitivity towards, others.A child also develops a better understanding of emotions. For example, they learn that, in order not to hurt someone’s feelings when they open a disappointing present, they should at least pretend to like the gift by smiling or saying thank you rather than letting their emotions of disappointment show through. This is really helpful for the child to make friends and have smooth interpersonal interactions during the school years.Research has shown that parent-child conversations about people wanting or believing different things can be very helpful in moving children along. But, you’re not going to be able to engage in conversations with a two-year-old and expect them to have this appreciation. By the time the child is four-and-a-half years old, when they’re approaching that understanding, those parent-child conversations may get the child to the point where they can develop this richer understanding.TBN: You recently became a parent for the first time. Could you share with us some of your personal experience of what it means to raise a child well?CM: One hope for my daughter is that she finds a meaningful path, whether it’s in her work or personal life, the hope that she develops her own interests, understands responsibilities and has some sense of discipline, too.  One thing we do try and do at home is set limits and boundaries, I know that’s controversial with a lot of current parenting practices, which encourage the child to do whatever they want, never say no, but, for us, it’s important to set some limits. This is so that she knows there are things she can’t do for her own good, for safety reasons. But this approach is also enculturating her into society, where you can’t just do whatever you want all the time.My hope for her is that she finds happiness and that she can grow up and explore her own path independently. read more