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Practical Wisdom in Parenting: Embracing Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Dilemmas of Parenting
Imagine as a parent that your teen tells you over dinner that they think your religious beliefs are wrong and that they are getting involved in a religion you are uncomfortable with. How would you react and respond?
Facing a dilemma like this means entering a realm of uncertainty, ambiguity, and disagreement because there is no “right” answer or simple solution. Solutions to these types of situations are uniquely dependent on the contextual factors of each parent-child relationship and even vary moment-to-moment within that relationship. So, even though there is a wealth of research on parenting and child development and over 150,000 parenting resources on Amazon, these types of dilemmas cause parenting books, manuals, websites, and other sources of advice for parents to “shrug their shoulders” and “raise their metaphorical eyebrows.” What parents need in times like these is practical wisdom.
The mention of wisdom may bring up thoughts of your most recent fortune cookie message, but the roots of practical wisdom can be traced back over two thousand years to the thinking of Aristotle who defined practical wisdom as the master virtue that guides all other virtues. As Aristotle saw it, “Virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.” Social Scientist Paul Ray, who presented his research findings on Cultural Creatives in the book of the same name, insists that Cultural Creatives are charged with bringing forward practical wisdom; seeing the common good and having the heart to will the common good.
Wisdom is currently being researched and defined by researchers at UW-Madison as a thoughtful, deliberate and ethical process for problem solving, judgment, and decision making in uncertain and difficult situations.Whereas most of the existing research on practical wisdom has focused on conceptual models of how individuals approach larger existential life challenges, practical wisdom may be particularly useful in a specific domain of life and expertise, such as parenting. The first study of its kind to explore the relevance of a practical wisdom framework within the realm of parenting was just completed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Wise Parenting Study was designed to explore not just what parents think but how they think through their solutions to parenting dilemmas that have no perfect or simple solution.
The Wise Parenting Study involved interviewing mothers who have adolescent children. The mothers were guided to think-aloud as they worked through hypothetical parenting dilemmas, (including the one at the beginning of this article), and personal parenting dilemmas they had faced recently. The study was designed to elicit how parents would react, define, and solve such problems if they occurred with their adolescent and it made visible that wise parenting involves a constellation of skills, mindsets, and habits that can be practiced. The next section of this article presents an exemplar response for each of the three hypothetical dilemmas in the study that parents were asked to work through.
Practical Wisdom Exemplars
Scenario 1: Your teen has a curfew on weeknights. They tell you that they want to go to a concert with friends on a school night and think the rule is unfair.
A mother of a 13-year female, who had one of the highest wisdom scores (x=63) and an 18 out of 27 on this scenario, initially responded by saying:
“You know, sometimes those scenarios are dependent on what’s going on in my daughter’s life at the time. If she’s, you know, if she’s just done really well in school then this could almost be perceived as a one-time thing that we would make an exception for because it’s a reward. On the other hand, if she lets me know she is going with friends who I’m not really comfortable with her hanging out with, that would definitely make me say no, it’s a rule and you have to abide by it. I, I guess the most important thing is, you know, these are situationally dependent. I’m not a parent who sets hard and fast rules and there’s no exceptions ever. I think you have to be flexible in your approach, but the most important thing is sitting down and having a conversation about why, not, not just offering some kind of answer. I got from my parents often when I was growing up was well just because. Because I said so. That’s not a good enough answer in my mind and I think you get a lot of resentment. I mean if I’m saying no to her about something she really wants to do, she’s going to be unhappy with me. And that’s just the way it goes. But if there’s some reason behind it, you know, and we could have a dialogue about it, it seems to be a smarter approach, and it’s been more effective, that’s been my experience with both of my kids, that when it isn’t an autocratic no because I said so, we tend to connect better.”
Notice how this mother weighs multiple considerations in an integrative manner and stresses how a challenge like this is dependent on the situation. She does not jump quickly to judgment but takes the time to meaningfully reflect on the negative experiences she had from her own parents that she does not want to reproduce in her relationships with her children. She expresses that her purpose is to relate with her children in a compassionate and principled way. This mother received high scores in reflection, purpose, problem framing, socio-emotional knowledge, parenting skills and knowledge, compassion, and integrative thinking. She had lower scores in mindfulness, and perspective taking, which did not appear strongly in this excerpt.
Scenario 2: One day you notice that your teen is upset. You ask them what’s bothering them and they say that they’re very worried about a friend of theirs but they promised the friend that they wouldn’t tell anyone and now they’re not sure what to do.
A mother of a 17 year-old male, who had the highest wisdom parenting score in the study (x=70) and a 27/27 on this scenario, initially responded by saying:
“Well, I encouraged him to think about what it was that was bothering him enough for him to want to talk to me about it and other times and you know he does figure things out on his own. I have seen when he went from middle school to high school that in the past he needed to talk about this even if it was a betrayal in confidence with me but I am trying to tweeze out here when would he ask me or would I, I would not get it out of him. I am not interested in making him tell me about his personal relationships with his friends. It usually is very typically with what you would expect and I have been through that. Unless he is indicating to me that he needs to talk about something, like if its life threatening or if someone could be hurt. So, I think there are conditions for the betrayal of confidence but I don’t think we have had anything happen that would make him feel regretful that I am aware of in telling me something or asking me something or whatever. I am also just not interested in getting in between friends and at this point I don’t want to, it is very predictable a lot of it is.”
This mother goes on to explain more about how she sees the situation;
“I see that it is very important to my son and his friends at this age to have loyalty. They have figured out what it means to be a good friend to someone and that is very important to him and his friendships are really important to him. So, I do support him in that, in having loyalty but I am here, I am also available and hopefully neutral if he feels like he can’t contain it or needs to process it or if some things do need intervention. It is tricky in trying to think about what it is that I want him to learn from this because I need to be aware that he is learning something from my response and what is it that I am modeling for him. I am not a grown-up 24/7. I am not, but when he comes to me I try to be one. I try and go what does it mean to be a grown-up? Let me get my grown-up hat on and then go into that space in trying to have good judgment and good listening. What I also understand is that whatever is happening with him that I am responsible. In everybody’s eyes this is what I have told him is that whatever is going on with you, you may feel like your own person at 16 but the truth is I am responsible for you until 18, so ask for help. And I have to trust him to know if that is something he is going to need adult intervention on… it is tricky because if he came to me and I took it out of his hands and did not allow him to reflect or consider for himself then it disempowers him. It would not model that I trust him to think about these things.”
In the above excerpts, the mother discusses how she has experienced situations like this before and that she respects her son’s judgment. She also acknowledges that her son owns the problem. She remains facilitative and open to assist when needed. She encourages her son to reflect on the situation, a higher order wisdom skill, and she also expresses confidence that her son can be trusted to determine if he needs to talk to her about it. She encourages healthy boundaries in not making her son share about his personal relationships, while balancing this with being there “neutrally” for him if he wants to share. She then weighs the conditions involved in deciding whether to betray a friend’s trust. She displays a higher level purpose in understanding her child’s perspective of how critical loyalty is to her son at his age, while simultaneously thinking about what she wants her son to learn from this experience. She acknowledges the very real legal aspects of being a parent, while realizing that given the particular situation she is facing she needs to “model trust” and not disempower her son by taking control of the situation. She also expresses compassion, support, and respect for her son throughout her response.
Scenario 3: One evening at dinner your teen tells you that they think your religious beliefs are wrong. They then tell you that they want to become involved in some religious practices you are not comfortable with.
A mother of a 15-year old male, had one of the highest wisdom parenting scores (x=66), and a 27 out of 27 on this scenario. She initially responded by saying:
“Hmm, well I would probably want to do something like, I don’t know, generally, I like to be on neutral territory when we talk about something more serious like this and I would try and get that particular teen alone instead of just talking about this with the whole family because maybe we’d get some more information, so either we’d take a walk or go do something or whatever and then I would, I would try and get a lot more information. I would want to ask him, you know, all about it and hopefully he would tell me more about how this started and why and what his reasoning is and kind of get his whole layout first. In my, in my situation what would be an extra step is that if that happened, then I would, you know, I would really want to talk to his dad about how he felt about it…
I would certainly want to research it before, you know, before, I mean if it’s a different faith with which I’m familiar, that’s one thing. That’s probably not as much of an issue with me for him to explore that other faith. If it’s something concerning, I might exert more control over that until he’s a grownup, which isn’t really that long. I have a, another one of my parenting things is I try and be really aware of what I have actual control over and what is enforceable which is why I really, I…I guess, I really respect other faiths and I don’t have, I don’t think it has to just be one way so unless there was something really concerning I would think, especially, you know, if I had a relationship and trusted you know whoever got him into this, you know, I might go a few times and see how it was.
I’d really have to do a lot of research myself, even though it’s not me doing it, I would still want to know more and know what need this is feeding for him and if it was something that was decent, like I don’t know, let’s say Presbyterian or Judaism, I might be like, oh you know that’s really neat and good for you. I mean that’s not what my dad would say…Well I feel like if, if my son came to me now and said that he was really interested in a particular religion, that would be a change from what he currently is at, so, to me, I would wonder what the psychological importance was for him, just as a parent.
You know, like here do you like this because, I don’t know because it makes you feel powerful or because you are hoping, you know to have an impact on the world or you know, whatever? I mean just that kind of thing, I would, that would factor into it a little bit because generally I want things that will help my kids become, you know, the people, people that they’re comfortable with and people that they want to be and if it was something that was supportive of that.”
The mother was then asked, “and why do you think that is your approach in this situation?
“One of my tenets is you cannot control how people perceive what you say. So, because there are two parts to communication and you can’t control theirs. I think…it’s kind of different how I grew up and I was happy with how I grew up. I grew up Catholic and very involved in church and I have no problem with that. But I would say that I am more embracing of other faiths and perspectives than, for example, my parents. Not to put them down, just, you know, just different and I guess for me the bottom line is respect because you, I try and show my kids that, and it’s kind of tough, it’s like you want them to, to feel confident in who they are and to be able to stand up for what they think is right, I just don’t want, for you to be right, other people don’t have to be wrong. And, to me it’s respect, it’s respect for other people and the understanding that you’re, you know, it’s really not your business what they believe, it’s your business what you believe and just let them take care of themselves. I don’t know for right or wrong, that’s sort of what I think. And I do love and logic parenting, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that…But I try and do that when I can, it’s just really hugely helpful to me to be able to let go of the stuff I can’t control and, you know, and just it’s just different.”
This excerpt reveals the depth of thinking that this mother catalyzes around a challenge that is very difficult to solve. This mother discerns the challenge as one that she would not want to make a quick or reactive decision about. She begins by strategizing about how to have this conversation on “neutral territory” and how she wants to “get a lot more information”, which illuminates her humility in not assuming that she knows everything in the situation. She also demonstrates respect by trying to understand her child’s perspective and to seek out the perspective of her son’s dad. She explores the nuances of the situation and considers many possible ways of framing the problem.
Furthermore, she clearly states what she feels she has control over and reasons through when she would exert control in a situation such as this. She also seems to have the developmental needs of her teenager in mind around when to exert her control in the parent-child relationship. This mother states her own open-mindedness and respect for other faiths, and curiosity about her child’s faith exploration. This leads her to want to learn more and support her child in this process. She strongly expresses a goal of wanting her child to be open-minded and respectful of other faiths as well. She also presents a great amount of socio-emotional knowledge of her child and explains the close facilitative relationship that she has with him. She is very reflective about her own religious upbringing and understands what can happen (rebellion) if she is too over-controlling.
Practical Wisdom In Parenting Overall Analysis
Similar to how Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”, over history the arc of parenting continues to bend further towards connection, love, empathy, and joy. And, despite some aspects of parenting being culturally relative, there is now enough scientific evidence and personal experiences to support some aspects of practical wisdom that may be useful to all parents.
High scoring mothers were able to approach challenging scenarios in a reflective and calm manner. Despite these challenging situations often being accompanied by strong emotions, many of these mothers used their emotional reactions to inform their judgment without distorting it in order to make decisions that were in line with their long-term parenting goals (Schwartz, 2011; Small, 2013b). This emotional awareness highlighted parental capabilities to recognize, label, and understand the way that their own emotions affect their decision making in challenging parenting situations. As hypothesized, higher scoring mothers did approach the hypothetical situations with a more open mind, greater attention, and an ability to manage strong emotions.
Higher scoring mothers more often identified the goal of their problem solving efforts as being linked to their parenting and personal values and incorporated these values into how they approached the dilemma. They consciously explored and balanced possible aims in order to find the best one for the specific circumstance. Also, higher scoring parents were found to be conscious of the way that their own self-interest could hinder their ability to see all possible aims and many parents strived to work past this limitation.
Many of the highest scoring mothers in the study did consider multiple angles of an issue, going beyond the initial way a problem presents itself, and exploring all of the possible frames of an issue before trying to solve the problem. They were able to identify what they did know and what they needed to know, drawing upon both factual knowledge and procedural knowledge (Baltes & Smith, 2008), to see the correct frame of the challenges they faced. They also seemed to have a better understanding of what they could and could not control in the problem situation (i.e., whose problem it really was). In addition, many high scoring parents expressed how they consciously framed the problem while keeping in mind that many problems are continually evolving and may require different solutions as they unfold.
Numerous parents were very adept at taking perspectives other than their own so that their solution to the parenting challenge maximized a variety of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extra-personal interests instead of just their own interest (Sternberg, 1998). Higher scoring parents were found to actively seek out other perspectives than their own and to approach their child with compassion, respect, and patience in trying to truly understand their perspective.
Finally, the highest scoring parents were able to integrate and balance intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extra-personal interests to arrive at a solution that is best for all. The processing of these parents revealed that the dimensions of this new construct do not occur in isolation and may be best understood as a holistic and complex constellation of skills and habits that can be improved through regular practice. This finding may inspire collaboration among current parenting interventions that target one specific dimension that was studied such as mindful or compassionate parenting interventions. A holistic approach to parenting education could include the simultaneous practice of the dimensions studied and highlight the integration of these dimensions in the way parents process through challenging childrearing situations.
More specifically, the study found that wise parenting involves 9 dimensions that make up the process of how parents think through, deliberate about, and solve parenting dilemmas. They are defined below and ideas for practice within each dimension are offered. Even though there may be no particular order in which these dimensions arise in real time, in practice it may make sense to begin with reflection and conclude with integrative thinking. Parents may benefit most from practicing practical wisdom with some type of parenting community of reflective practice, which could consist of just a significant other or other parents.
Parenting With Practical Wisdom Skill Building Exercises
Reflection involves the parent’s discernment – the capacity to see the significance of a situation, and the need to step back and take time to attune to the unique context of the situation. This may involve a conscious state of “floating” within the situation to perceive the relevant details of the context of the incident. It also involves the capacity to consciously reflect on and deliberate the issue rather than responding automatically or hastily.
- Take a few minutes to list previous challenging incidents or situations you have faced with your child. This practice will enhance your ability to discern the significance of situations that require practical wisdom in the future.
- Choose one specific incident that you will practice applying the practical wisdom framework on through each dimension of wise parenting.
- Beginning with reflection, think about why this particular incident was significant and challenging? What happened and what was so challenging about it?
Mindfulness involves a parent’s ability to be conscious in the present moment of the incident in a way that invites curiosity and withholds initial judgment about the situation by detaching from automaticity and initial emotions to process through the challenge in a deliberate way. Mindful parents also listen to their child in a non-reactive way, trying to keep an open mind instead of rushing to judgment.
- When you complete your reflection, try a simple mindfulness practice such as taking three deep breaths and with each breath saying to yourself “I am breathing in, I am breathing out”. Notice any thoughts you have and embrace them with curiosity.”
- Now, embrace the incident you chose with curiosity, non-judgment, and an open mind. What are parts of the incident that make you curious? Practice initially withholding judgment of whether the situation is good or bad and just be curious about it to open your mind to imagine all aspects of the situation.
Purpose Identification refers to the ability to align the parenting goals or purposes that one wishes to ultimately achieve for the child’s long-term development with the way the parent resolves the current incident. Wiser purposes tend to be principled, consistent with a parent’s ethics and values, and unselfish.
- Now, take some time to reflect on your goal in this incident, and your long-term parenting goals. Remind yourself of your highest aim as a parent and how you did/could act in this incident in a way that aligns with that goal.
- Post your parenting goals somewhere you can see them often to remind you of your larger purpose.
Perspective Taking involves a parent’s ability to seek out, understand and value the child’s perspective and the perspectives of others who are involved in or affected by the situation. Perspective taking also involves the ability of the parent to understand the limits of their own perspective.
- Within the incident that you chose, try and list all of the perspectives that would be relevant in finding a solution that is best for all.
- Imagine the incident from your teen’s perspective. Maybe even write “their side of the story”.
- Find the time to look your child in the eyes and truly “see” them.
Problem Framing entails a parent’s ability to clarify the problem as well as recognize the multiple ways it can be conceived. This may involve taking time to better understand the situation before asserting that one knows what the problem truly is; identifying who owns the problem and what aspects of it can and cannot be controlled; going beyond the initial representation of the problem and acknowledging that the way a problem first appears may not be the only way to view it; and recognizing that problems can be multi-faceted, evolving, and may have no perfect answer or solution.
- Identify the way you framed the problem in the situation, and then practice coming up with alternate ways of looking at the issue. Zoom in and out of the incident and imagine many ways of framing the situation.
- What do you see as the real problem in the incident?
Socio-emotional knowledge is the ability to use emotional knowledge of the child and the parent to guide thinking and behavior. It also involves recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge and the need to seek additional sources when necessary.
- Now, imagine your child and think deeply about how they might be feeling in this situation and how you are feeling. Think about how these emotions fit into your larger understanding of your parent-child relationship.
- Also, what may be some of the limits of your knowledge in the incident you chose?
Parenting skills and knowledge includes more formal types of knowledge such as knowledge of child development, parenting, parent-child relationships and how parental roles evolve over time.
- As you look at the incident you described, what types of formal knowledge and parenting skills did you rely on?
- What is your parental role in this incident and what knowledge of socio-emotional knowledge, child development, and parenting is this based on?
Compassion for self and child involves having an empathetic frame from which to view the parent-child relationship. The compassionate parent exhibits respect and unconditional love for the child, comforts them when they are in distress, and forgives them when they transgress.
- As you look at the way you initially reflected on the incident, find the ways in which you expressed compassion for your child.
- What are some ways you could be more compassionate?
- If you found the incident very challenging and do not think you handled it well then how can you extend compassion to yourself? What is your “inner” talk?
Integrative thinking involves the ability to simultaneously consider and weigh multiple ideas, perspectives and goals and their relationship with one another. It includes the ability to recognize the role of context (e.g., historical, cultural, and situational) and the ability to integrate opposing ideas and reconcile them. The wise parent integrates the other eight dimensions of wise parenting in a balanced way that aligns with a parent’s long-term childrearing goals.
- Now, take a look at all of the different aspects of the incident that you reflected on above. You have a zoomed out picture of the context of the incident. How did you pull it all together and find a solution to the incident that is best for all?
- What might you have done differently?
- What did you learn from going through this practical wisdom practice process?
As John Dewey once said “we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” And, practical wisdom opens up tremendous opportunities for how we think about approaching the most powerful role we have in relation to another human being: parenting. Practical wisdom positions parents as the expert within their particular parent-child relationship, which can be initially anxiety provoking but ultimately liberating and empowering. This is Parenting as a Hero’s Journey (http://parentingasaherosjourney.com/.) Parents facing their parenting roles consciously know deeply that there is nothing certain or easy about parenting. Parenting is the most challenging, meaningful, and beautiful role we could ever have and our greatest opportunity to create social change. It is a role we can approach wisely.
Featured Photo: Shutterstock/A. and I. Kruk