I’m going to cut right to the chase and say something a bit controversial about raising kids.
If my kids’ resumes are filled with athletic and academic achievements but they can’t love or relate well to others, I’ve failed as a parent.
I’d rather raise children who can’t read and write, or play any sports at all, but who love well, than to have academic and athletic overachievers who are unloving, narcissistic, and self-centered adults.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m an academic. I also love sports. Of course, I want my children to be smart and coordinated, but I’m afraid we’re living in a culture today raising academic and athletic overachievers, but emotional underachievers.
What Does It Mean To Raise Successful Children
When Christi and I first became parents we were overwhelmed by all of the books written on sleeping techniques, discipline strategies, parenting styles, and on and on, many of them contradicting one another. We were also surprised that, no matter what kind of parents someone was or how successfully they raised their own kids, everybody (including those who never tried it) had an opinion on how to raise successful kids.
I read and researched many of the techniques and considered everyone’s advice. I still do. Who doesn’t want to raise successful kids?
But I needed a filter. It became all too complicated.
I’m sure you agree. Real-world parenting is about the countless choices we make to give our kids the best chance to develop and succeed. But too often we’re lured by the newest and most popular book or technique.
Now, I hate the either/or debate. I truly desire to raise both emotionally and cognitively healthy kids. But the trend in many homes is reflective of the educational system and society at large—to put more pressure on our kids to develop IQ (intelligence quotient), often at the expense of EQ (emotional quotient).
Yet, what I came to learn through my doctoral studies and counseling with families is that when it comes to raising successful kids, there is one primary factor, across all domains of research (psychology, sociology, neuroscience) necessary for raising healthy, successful children—and that is, emotional safety.
Though there are many more I list in my book Safe House, here are 8 reasons emotional safety matters.
Consider that emotional safety is linked to children who:
- Have higher levels of self-esteem, self-worth, and self-competence [i]
- Have higher academic skills, attitudes, and achievement [ii]
- Are more likely to enthusiastically engage in challenging tasks [iii]
- Are more efficient problem solvers during preschool [iv]
- Later show higher levels of career commitment and performance [v]
- Are more likely to engage in more health-promoting behaviors, such as maintaining a healthy diet or engaging in exercise, and avoiding health-related risks, such as smoking, drinking, and drug abuse [vi]
- Are more likely to maintain faith in God, particularly if the parent adheres to the faith practices [vii]
- Have more satisfying romantic relationships in adulthood [viii]
I don’t know about you, but if these can be said of my kids, I’ll be a satisfied parent.
How Can We Be Emotionally Safe?
I know parenting is hard, but it actually may be simpler than you think. Research shows that it’s the posture from which we parent, not the techniques that matters most.
One neuroscientist summarized the research this way, “In attachment, we need to be open to our child, feeling that safety in ourselves and creating the sense of ‘love without fear’ in our child.” [ix]
I find it fascinating that scientific research reveals that the condition necessary for the brain to grow is defined by “love without fear.” [x]
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” [xi]
Did you catch that? According to the Bible, the less safe our kids feel, the more imperfect their love.
The same is true with us.
As our kids model after us, we have to ask ourselves:
- Am I an emotionally safe parent?
- Am I parenting from a posture of love?
- Are emotional boundaries present in our family?
- Are family members allowed to talk? Get mad? Express negative feelings without condemnation or neglect?
- Do I take responsibility for my own actions?
- Am I showing my kids how much I love their mom/dad?
Here’s what I do know: They’re watching—and research shows, it matters.
[i] This is found in more than 60 studies on the topic. The table of findings can be found in Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, p. 155-160.
[ii] Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, p. 237.
[iii] Matas, L., Arend, R., & Sroufe, L. A. (1978). Continuity of adaptation in the second year: The relationship between quality of attachment and later competence. Child Development, 49, 547-556.
[iv] Grossman, K., Grossman, K. E., & Zimmerman, P. (1999). A wider view of attachment and exploration: Stability and change during the years of immaturity. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (p. 760-786). New York: Guilford Press.
[v] Blustein, D. L., Walbridge, M. M., Friedlander, M. L., & Palladino, D. E. (1991). Contributions of psychological separation and parental attachment to the career development process. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 39-50; Felsman, D. E. & Blustein, D. L. (1999). The role of peer relatedness in late adolescent career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 54, 279-295; and Scott, D. J. & Church, A. (2001). Separation/ attachment theory and career decidedness and commitment: Effects of parental divorce. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58, 328-347.
[vi] Huntsinger, E. T. & Luecken, L. J. (2004). Attachment relationships and health behavior: The meditational role of self-esteem. Psychology and Health, 19, 515-526 and Scharfe, E. & Eldredge, D. (2001). Associations between attachment representations and health behaviors in late adolescence. Journal of Health Psychology, 6, 295-307.
[vii] This is found in many studies. The seminal studies include Granqvist, P. (1998). Religiousness and perceived childhood attachment: On the question of compensation or correspondence. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 350-367; Granqvist, P. & Hagekull, B. (1999). Religiousness and perceived childhood attachment: profiling socialized correspondence and emotional compensation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36(2), 254-273; Kirkpatrick, L.A. & Shaver P.R. (1990). Attachment theory and religion: Childhood attachments, religious beliefs, and conversion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29(3), 315-334; Granqvist, P. (2005). Building a bridge between attachment and religious coping: Tests of moderators and mediators. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 8(1), 35-47; and Powell, K. & Clark, C. (2011). Sticky faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[viii] Feeney, J. A., & Noller, P. (1990). Attachment style as a predictor of adult romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(2), 281-291; Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511–524; Hazan. C., & Shaver, P. R. (1990). Love and work: An attachment-theoretical perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 270-280; Heavey, C.L., Shenk, J.L. & Christensen, A. (1994). Marital conflict and divorce: A developmental family psychology perspective. Em L. L’Abate (Org.), Handbook of developmental family psychology and psychopathology (p. 221-242). New York: Wiley; Levy, M. B., & Davis, K. E. (1988). Love styles and attachment styles compared: Their relations to each other and to various relationship characteristics. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 5, 439-471; Simpson, J. A. (1990). Influence of attachment styles on romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 971–980.
[ix] Siegel, D. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, p. 206.
[x] Porges, S. W. (1998). Love: An emergent property of the mammalian autonomic nervous system. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23(8), 837-861. Also see Siegel, D. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
[xi] 1 John 4:18, NIV