Today’s guest blogger is Lara Mayeux, PhD, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. Lara studies peer relations among children and adolescents. Her specialty is popularity, which is a hot field of research; she co-edited a book of theory and analysis titled Popularity in the Peer System. The book is aimed at academics, but Lara is also a mother who here connects research and mother love.
Today I taught a graduate class on attachment theory, and at the end of a particularly intense discussion about maternal sensitivity and fostering emotional security in children, one of the students looked at me and said, “It must be really hard to be a developmental psychologist and a mother.”
My initial reaction was Yes, yes, it is, it’s the hardest thing. Thank you for letting me admit that. Being a developmental psychologist—an academic one, meaning teaching courses in the field and doing my own research as well—means that I’m aware of many of the (seemingly thousands) of ways I can screw up my own two little girls.
But it also means that I understand the opposite—the ways in which I can try to facilitate healthy development and positive outcomes.
I think about these kinds of things every day—little moment-to-moment techniques like pointing and labeling objects for my 18-month-old so that she can grow her vocabulary, and big-picture decisions like focusing on positive discipline and avoiding corporal punishment. There is a sense of confidence and peace, I think, that comes with being a parent who’s familiar with the science of parenting. (Not that the peace is never broken, or the confidence never shaken. I have a four-year-old.)
I think ahead a lot, too, to issues we’re likely to face when the girls are 10 or 15 or (what!?) 21, and how my husband and I might handle them. I think about the kind of individuals I want to help the girls become. My own research focuses in part on the various ways that children and teens hurt each other in the pursuit of status. I see a lot of behaviors in my work with teens especially that make me wonder if their parents have any idea. It reminds me that my daughters will make thousands of little decisions over the next 75 years that shape who they are, how people view them, and how they feel about themselves—and that while I can, I want to help guide those decisions, to be a support, a sounding board, and a safe place to land for my girls while they navigate those choices.
And if I had three wishes for my girls, it would be these:
1. When given the choice between pursuing relationships or popularity, I hope they choose relationships. Recent research shows that children, and adolescents in particular, often prioritize being popular over other personal goals like maintaining friendships, pursuing romantic relationships, and academic or athletic achievement. The allure of status is seductive for teens, but it often comes at the price of more meaningful connections. I don’t care if my girls are popular. I do care that they establish lasting friendships with peers they can trust.
2. That their relationships with their dad and me always matter more to them than their peers relationships do. Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate discuss this tension between parent-attachment and peer-attachment in their wonderful (if scary) book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, if you’re interested in a great review of this science. It’s perfectly normal for peers to become socializing agents for teens, but it doesn’t have to come at the price of strong ties to parents. Kids who feel closer to their parents than they feel to their peers are more likely to resist peer pressure, delay sexual experiences, and prioritize academic achievement.
3. That when they see bullying in action, they’ll stand up for the victim. One of the biggest reasons that bullying remains a pervasive problem in our schools is that kids just don’t stand up for each other. But research has shown us that when another kid intervenes in a bullying episode—even just to say “Stop! This is mean!”—it usually stops the bully from continuing the assault. Can you imagine what would happen if every kid knew this? Can you imagine the ripple effect of millions of children actually taking care of each other like that?
So those are my top three, at least for right now. They might change six months from now. They’ll certainly change as my girls transition from early childhood to school age to adolescence—or as research continues to refine our understanding of how to raise capable kids.
What are your top three?