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UNDERPARENTING

Last month I wrote about overparenting. There is the other side of the coin: underparenting.

I’m not talking about frank neglect of the child. Heaven knows we see too many neglected and abused children who are born into chaotic and grossly dysfunctional families and are not provided with even the most basic of care.

But some parents give their children perfectly adequate basic care but, nonetheless, do not spend enough time or the right kind of time with their children. Underparenting is not a trivial matter. When good parents don’t spend enough time or the right kind of time with their children, the consequences can be most serious.

Some parents FAIL TO STIMULATE THE YOUNG INFANT. These parents may provide the physical care so Baby is fed, diapered, bathed, etc. But the parents think that Baby belongs in the crib all other times.

These parents do not talk to the baby or sing or play little games. In order for a baby to learn language he or she needs plenty of face-to-face contact with loving parents who talk almost continuously.

Some parents don’t realize they should start this process of interaction at BIRTH because even newborns need to be stimulated. Some parents don’t understand the importance of talking in an animated, excited way with exaggerated facial expressions. Other parents don’t realize they should talk during the time they are interacting with the baby, naming objects and telling the baby what they are doing (“Here is the clean diaper. Now I’m putting it on. Pretty soon Erica will be all ready to nurse!”)

Parents most often fail to do this kind of stimulation out of ignorance–they simply do not know how important it is to their baby. This failure is often seen in very young mothers, especially those who are single and lack support people to show them how to do it. In some instances mothers are depressed and literally cannot “give” anything to the baby because their own energy is so depleted. Sometimes babies spend much of their time in the care of women who do not adequately stimulate their charges either out of ignorance, cultural beliefs that babies are best left alone, or because there are too many babies to care for.

Babies that are not stimulated by this important parent-child interaction may experience language delays. Worse they may not feel connected to the parent figure; they learn early on that people don’t meet all your needs and that the world is a lonely place.

Some parents FAIL TO PLAY WITH THEIR CHILDREN. Babies and toddlers need to be shown how to play. Many parents supply the toys but never get down on the floor to play with their child. Some parents are too busy but many, again, simply don’t know they are supposed to do this.

Some parents FAIL TO READ TO THEIR CHILDREN. I have written several columns on the importance of reading to babies and young children. If you want your child to succeed at school, reading is the key. If you want your child to learn how to read, you must read to the child. How often? Every day. How much? Even 15 minutes a day will give the message that reading is important.

Some parents FAIL TO PAY ATTENTION TO THEIR CHILD’S SCHOOL WORK. I don’t know how this happened but there has been a shift in parents’ beliefs. When I was in school my parents always wanted to see my work, talked about school a lot, praised my good work, encouraged me to try harder in the not-so-good areas, and went to every parent-teacher conference. I did the same with my children. But parents today seem to think that once the child is in school education is the teacher’s job. Wrong! A child’s education is dependent on the PARTNERSHIP between school and home.

Some parents FAIL TO GIVE THEIR CHILD A SENSE OF THE FUTURE. All children need to feel comfortable about themselves and feel they have a future. Those children who do not feel connected to other human beings and who don’t feel there is a future are the children who get into trouble.

So all parents who care about their children should check out their parenting to be sure they are providing their children with the right kind of stimulation, appropriate play experiences together, lots of reading, a commitment to a partnership with the child’s teacher to ensure the child is learning, and a sense of the future.

Parents sometimes ask me how to find the TIME to parent right. I know how busy parents are today and I realize there are single mothers who barely have time to breathe.

But let me make two points. 1) The right kind of play and stimulation does not require every minute of a parent’s time. It just takes an interest and commitment to learn these few important parenting strategies and to give children some of this important interaction every day. 2) Parents are not the only ones who can provide these essentials. Relatives, child care workers, older siblings all can do this. Busy parents have to learn to ask for this kind of help realizing how important it is to avoid underparenting.

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