The Wise Parent Study – Interview With University of Wisconsin Researcher

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The first study of its kind, The Wise Parent Study out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and its research insights were pioneered by David Metler, Kindred’s Contributing Editor and Families for Conscious Living board member.  As Metler shares in this interview, wisdom is currently being researched 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 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.

In this interview, Lisa Reagan, Kindred’s editor, talks with David Metler, MS, about the study’s findings and how these insights support conscious parenting.

Read the article and overview on the study, including exercises, from Metler here.

If you are interested in participating in further study on Wise Parenting with Metler, join a closed Facebook discussion group on The Wise Parent Study here.

LISA REAGAN: Welcome to Kindred, an alternative media non-profit educational initiative of Families for Conscious Living. This is Lisa Reagan and today I am talking with Dave Metler. Dave is a PhD candidate and author of The Wise Parent Study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Metler’s research focuses on the ecology of the child with a central focus on the intersection of well-being, social justice, and practical wisdom. He is a contributing editor to Kindred and you can read his stories including a feature on the Origins of Attachment with the Great Apes in Rwanda and a Birth Song video called “For All the Men Who Wish They Could.” So, welcome Dave.

DAVE METLER: Thanks, Lisa.

LISA REAGAN: I love that birth song.

DAVE METLER: I do too. It is very true.

LISA REAGAN: So today I want to talk to you about The Wise Parent Study,which is the first study of it’s kind and I am just going to let you take us in because I am so excited about the grounded insights that have come out of it and how it helps us to shift further and deeper into this New Story and holistic understanding of what we’re trying to articulate and maybe intend when we say we want to parent consciously. What is that? So, thank you for this awesome study and tell us about it.

PHRONESISDAVE METLER: Sure. I do think a lot of the Old Story is really focused on control and having the right answer and with the research I just completed, we actually took a very different approach and we’re trying to find the New Story in parenting. I think that the new story is really centered around practical wisdom.

Practical wisdom in parenting specifically is a very useful set of skills and processes that parents are equipped with and every parent has at least some background in and can improve in various ways on these types of practices and that they’re very helpful in dealing with a lot of the uncertainty and ambiguity that parents face daily. I think that it is actually quite liberating and maybe terrifying at the beginning. I think that is part of the Heroes Journey is just embracing how terrifying it is to be truly present and to just welcome some of the uncertainty and unrehearsed adventure of parenting.

Because just like anything in life and parenting is one of the most emotional relationships and the most special and beautiful relationships we could have and I do think our study was really focused on seeing the ways in which parents try and approach dilemmas, situations in which there really are not right answers. These types of situations actually come up quite often.

So what we did is focus in on parents of teenagers and trying to see what are the major dilemmas that parents are facing with teenagers. We actually found that they’re numerous and they’re pretty diverse and they happen quite regularly. This is not once a year, some parents are experiencing these daily or multiple times a day. Dilemmas in which books or manuals or websites, sources of advice, really don’t have and really could not have the right answer because what parents are facing are very complex dependent challenges.

So each parent is going to actually have, you know, the best solution within themselves, but also drawing upon possibly their partner or extended family or even other experts or people that they would rely on. I think that truly is the ecology of the child. Parents are not in this alone. Although I do think that the empowering thing is that parents are really the experts. They are the wisest in relating with their child because most parents spend the most time with their children more than anyone else in their child’s life and a lot of wisdom is based on socioemotional knowledge and it is very relational. Knowing your child so that you can make the right decision around some type of dilemma within the moment or taking the time to work through to find the best solution for everyone in a situation.

So what our study did is we actually interviewed parents of teenagers and we ran them through a couple of hypothetical scenarios that across a varied range of dilemmas. One of them is around rules. You know, a teen having a curfew and whether or not the parent would break the rule given the different contextual particulars of their situation and it has been said that practical wisdom is knowing when to break the rule. All rules over time in parenting become negotiable in some way and that’s something that parents of teenagers especially, especially those of late teenagers are really trying to figure out is when to negotiate these rules as their kids become adults.

Secondly, we looked at interpersonal challenges around let’s say that a teenager has a challenge with a friend confiding with them, but they don’t know what to do and a parent has to figure out how to navigate that. Finally, we had a dilemma around religion. You know, the teenager decided that they wanted to practice a different religion than their parents and how would a parent work through that type of situation. So after this part, we had parents talk about dilemmas that they had currently faced and the ways in which they worked through them and reflect on some of the things they wished they had done differently and also some of the things they felt like they did in a very wise way.

What our study did since it was the first study on practical wisdom in the realm of parenting is that there was a grounded theory approach. We had to work from the ground up to try and figure out what parents actually are doing. What are their heuristics? What are their thinking processes? How do they work through these types of challenges? What emerged are nine dimensions of what we are calling practical wisdom. This is very exciting because it really extends on what has been previously done especially in this field since there really has not been any research behind practical wisdom, although it has been a very popular term. I think it is something that is going to lead to even further work that can solidify further ways in which these types of parenting processes, these nine dimensions look like in action with these groups of parents and across different cultures to further understand what practical wisdom actually looks like and also give parents some ideas for practice so that they could become just more equipped with tools to face the uncertain and ambiguous challenges that they are facing with children.

LISA REAGAN: Okay. Wow.

DAVE METLER: Okay.

LISA REAGAN: Let me ask you to do a couple of things.

DAVE METLER: Okay.

LISA REAGAN: I want to just make sure everybody is keeping up with the terminology. So, first of all, you are doing this out of the human ecology department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So can you take a moment and tell us about human ecology and what is the ecology of the child as you have talked about in your writing have to do with this? What I want to do is to help our listeners just how far into frontier territory we are going here. If anybody feels like I do after talking with you and reading with this study, I feel relieved and I can feel these little tender hooks of the taboo around dominator, authoritarian model of parenting that is the modern way of parenting style now, loses its grip on us and the guilt tripping and the ability to hold guilt in yourself starts to dissipate. There are reasons for that. It is because we are leaving behind a paradigm consciously now and moving into this space with you and with this language and so I just want to take a moment and talk about the language, especially human ecology, the ecology of the child, and then of course practical wisdom.

Practical Wisdom Parenting ProcessesDAVE METLER: Sure. Yeah, I think it is great to clarify because I am conscious of how wordy the academic world can get and I want to make sure with things like this around practical wisdom are pretty cutting edge that there is a common understanding. So I think it is really very wise to look for some of the lingo so that we can continue working together and figure out what’s coming next in this. So the school of human ecology, I will try to keep this short but succinct. It started in 1903 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the school of home economics.

So the idea was really trying to prepare women to be social change agents in their families and communities. So the school is very unique, because it has four different departments within it, consisting of human development and family studies, design studies, consumer sciences, and then civil society and community research. So all of them really connect to the family and the community are the core arenas so to speak of social change and social justice work and also beginning as a school with very feminist roots. The human ecology perspective is very based on relationships and relationship building as the greatest indicator of social change is just the strength of relationships within families and within their larger context.

So human ecology began and it is framed around ecological system’s theory because if anyone was interested they could research Urie Bronfenbrenner, who is really the founder of this ecological systems theory and I think that the model looks at the way in which humans have bidirectional relationships with their larger ecology. So I think it is really important to understand bidirectional relationships so that not only do we have an impact on our larger environment, on our families, on our communities, on schools, on neighborhoods, on the larger culture that we are embedded within and societal institutions and structures, but also those have an effect on every individual.

So this relational approach to understanding systems thinking is really I think a wisdom approach in itself. It is trying to understand not just the way that other traditions are silhouetted like psychology is very focused on individuals or sociology is very focused on the macro, seeing the large picture. Human ecology actually synthesizes a number of fields that have existed for centuries and tries to really look at ecological systems and the ways in which change within one aspect of the system effects another aspect of the system. I do think that you said that this is a way that we can think about whole living systems that actually should be relieving in many ways and empowering for parents because I think that the understanding that I have gained here at the school is around the ecology of the child, that it does take an ecology to raise a child and I think that a lot of current narrative is around parents.

The pressure is on parents. If parents mess up their children, then they should feel guilty and it’s all the parents fault. I think there are ways in which parents are responsible and have a huge impact on their children, but I do think that it is important to keep in mind all of the other factors and parts of the context that are going to impact the child including media is considered to be the third parent these days. Ways in which societal institutions, our culture, grandparents, the child’s peers, things even on a genetic level like epigenetics. There are ways in which children are being affected, I guess the APPPAH phrase is that “Womb ecology becomes world ecology.” There are ways in which children are embedded within a much larger social political context and parents are a significant part of that context, but it’s important to keep in mind that there are a number of other key stakeholders within the ecology of a child.

I do think that parents from hearing that might feel a mix of emotions because it really is something that I think with time will especially feel quite relieving. There is an impact that parents have, but also there are a lot of things that are somewhat out of their control and in dealing with that uncertainty of things that are out of your control, I think that it actually is a call for parents to come together and not just parents in the more traditional sense, but I define parent as anyone who is raising children. I think that includes everybody, at least in indirect ways. But also, thinking of the environment as a parent and you could get into that. I think that it is really trying to understand this larger systems thinking and seeing the ecology around the child and not just one piece of the ecology.

Join Kindred's Founder, Kelly Wendorf, on a Parenting As A Hero's Journey Virtual Retreat!
Join Kindred’s Founder, Kelly Wendorf, on a Parenting As A Hero’s Journey Virtual Retreat!

LISA REAGAN: Yes, that is very relieving and I know Darcia Narvaez’s work out of Notre Dame in more specific terms of biological imperatives of the child in order to meet their neurodevelopmental needs is to have this village around them that helps to care for the child and makes sure that parents and mothers are not desperately burned out and at clinical risk of depression like they are in the United States where we don’t have any parental leave, of course. So, tell us what you’ve found in these nine leaves coming out of this wisdom tree that’s on the page if you go to Kindredmedia.org, you can read samples from this study and interviews with some of the parents and more about it. So, tell us about these nine components.

DAVE METLER: Sure. Well, we did some qualitative and quantitative analysis. So there are great examples within the article of the some of the exemplars of ways that parents responded. I just want to remind everyone who is listening that nobody had a perfect score and no one had no score. So I think one of the major take aways is that wisdom is present in everyone in different degrees and in different contexts, and I think that is really hopeful.

What we have found are nine dimensions of practical wisdom and these dimensions are things that can be practiced and improved upon. So very quickly, I think it is important, and it is in the article, but to have a really simple definition of practical wisdom and to make sure to differentiate it from the many other types of wisdom and ways in which that it can be defined. I think for our purposes and the way that we research practical wisdom was based on Aristotle’s understanding of phronesis, which is really trying to find, in the simplest way, the right thing to do in the right way with the right means. This is something that will change by the moment. In one moment, this might be the right thing and a day later, a lot of things have changed. It is really something that is embracing of the adventure of parenting in that there is no path not even in the same day will you have the same response to some challenge or thing that comes up.

The nine dimensions though include things that I think are pretty common, things like reflection and mindfulness I feel like have gotten a lot of attention and just having parents thinking about their parenting and thinking about things that they want to change or things that are going well and being able to reflect on that with some other person that they trust is really important because I think there is always blind spots and ways in which it is important to have feedback from someone other than yourself and then mindfulness is something that has really been focused on I think in the popular media as a significant parenting practice of being present with your children and being able to be… the skill of awareness of your own awareness is the way I understand it and being able to really focus in your attention on what you want to.

So you have control of your attention and a couple of other categories, purpose identification is really about parents being able to understand their larger purpose within the moment that they are handling some type of challenge. So a lot of parents who answered in a less wise way would have lower purposes, possibly more self serving purposes and maybe they just felt good grounding their child or punishing their child. But their longer term purpose I think would be something and a wiser response would be something that would be more in line with their child development towards the person that they want to become.

Some of the ways that parents have to make decisions is sometimes in the moment and sometimes they have time to reflect a little bit longer, but trying to keep in mind that this is a young person that is someday going to be a bit more independent and need to be able to face these challenges, face their own challenges, so how do you actually prepare them for adulthood in some ways. Another thing was perspective taking, really understanding the child’s perspective but also the perspectives of others involved in whatever the scenario is. Problem framing is another dimension.

Being able to understand that sometimes how a challenge initially appears is not necessarily the actual problem and so some of the wiser responses really did some searching. It was more problem finding then it was problem solving and I think that is a really radical thing in our problem solving culture. A couple of the other categories quickly are around social and emotional knowledge. This is what I was talking about before about parents really being the experts and maybe their teachers and their other caregivers as well, but really having this relational knowledge, but I do think that having that book and manuals will fall short of knowing your child. They know things more in general, which can be useful and that’s the next category, parenting knowledge and skills. Sometimes it is helpful to know the research of what is regular for teenagers.

You know, I think there is some knowledge around things like puberty that are important to know or rebellion, that teenagers might not be trying to put you down personally when you don’t want to practice your religion, they might just be rebelling and trying to find their own voice and their own views and so it is really knowledge of child and adolescent development and some of the skills of being able to have a dialog with your children, being able to have the skills of active listening and skills of just getting feedback from your children. I think that is very hard and parents can get really defensive.

Finally, compassion for yourself and also for your child. I think this is parents being able to deal with these challenges not with anger, maybe initially anger, but being able to be reflective and find a way to work through these situations with love and with respect. Lastly and I think most importantly and I think this is one of the most ground breaking parts of the study is trying to understand integrative thinking and the way that all of these dimensions are actually balanced and are weighed in a particular situation because I think as individual dimensions, they are helpful, but in reality parents are weighing different perspectives, they are trying to understand the actual purpose. They are using mindfulness as a skill. They are using parenting skills and knowledge. They are using their socioemotional knowledge. All of these are kind of intertwining in some kind of dance. Then, parents have to come up with some kind of solution. So how do they do that? That is really what the final dimension is about is how do parents integrate all of these, you could say, pieces of the picture and come to type of solution that is the best for them in that situation.

LISA REAGAN: I just want to reiterate that these components or dimensions, as your calling them, of practical wisdom in parenting are not coming out of a place of “this is what we recommend” like you would normally see in a parenting magazine. “This is how you should parent.” This was an observation. These are observations through research that you have been able to tweeze out now so parents like myself who have no idea what I’m doing can look at this and go, oh, okay, I was probably doing some of these things here and employing this perspective taking. It has given me language, by the way, that applying to parenting is definitely coming out of, again, a new story. There was just the relationship of the child and maybe we should talk about this a little bit, but this approach, this wise parenting approach seems to be based on a lot of trust.

DAVE METLER: It is true. I do think that there is a great quote and social change happens at the speed of trust and I think you’re right, Lisa. I wanted to highlight what you said in that this is very different then what I feel like is the old story. There are right answers and they are in the experts. They are not in the parents. You need to find an expert and they will tell you what to do. You know, find whatever is the most common parenting manual or book of your time and follow exactly what they say. I think what practical wisdom is trying to do is make visible what parents are already doing. It is actually just highlighting the wisdom that parents have and I think as you highlight that wisdom, parents not only become aware of their own processes and the way that they deal with challenges and the way that they just deal with everyday life with their children, but they also can figure out ways in which they could practice and become better in these types of processes.

So I think that is a really huge difference between the way in which a lot of things which are geared towards parents are packaged in that this next book or this next workbook is the answer that you’ve been looking for and I think that one of the really significant things about practical wisdom is that it really is this reorienting to trusting yourself. I think parents trusting themselves, but also trusting their larger ecology and I do think that is a work in progress. It doesn’t just happen. I do think that trust is something that will effect children and children who are trusted by their parents or by their teachers or by anyone within their ecology, it is something that is really magical to be trusted by adults when you’re a child is kind of at the core of anything that would be furthering social change.

LISA REAGAN: Well, thank you for that wonderful entry into the next questions, which is to help us to draw the lines between where we are, talking about parenting and our one on one relationship with our child and then what you do also study, which is the relationship between practical wisdom and social justice. So how did this come out into our world, this approach?

DAVE METLER: Yeah, I think, I really I love this question because it is a chance for me to really improvise because this is at the edge of my own fascination and where I see things heading is the intersection around practical wisdom and social justice and well being. I think those three are synthesizing. I think that one of my favorite quotes that I will start with is by Cornell West is “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” I love it because it really re-centers social justice around love and love being the core of social justice and I think that is in line a lot of ways in which people throughout time have approached social justice in ways that have been the most successful.

I think what connects love with social justice is actually what Kindred has been talking about with the new story is this relationship between present mindfulness being a practice that will lead to more presence and then as you become more present, I think that there is opportunity for more genuine connection and as you have more genuine connection and you have more genuine presence, I feel like that is love. That is at least a huge component of love is connection and actually being present with somebody. I think for parents this is really hard to do. I think that parents, every one in this study and every one that I’ve ever met loves their children. It’s just a universal. But I think what’s hard is a lot of parents are either in the future or they are in the past. So parents who are in the future are worried. They are anxious. The future is uncertain. They are actually doing a lot of their parenting out of fear.

Then parents who are in the past are really sometimes stuck within the maladaptive patterns from their own childhood and are parenting from a place of fear and possibly insecurity or any number of unconscious patterns that they have picked up themselves. So I think it is very rare that there are these moments and possibly days maybe for longer periods of time than that where parents are truly present in the present moment with their children, where they feel that amazing moment of being connected and where they feel that it’s love in everyday moments. I think that’s the real connection to social justice is that I think parenting is a very political act and I think it’s a very significant act and I do think it is one of the most powerful ways in which people will effect the larger world is the decisions that they make around parenting and the way that they treat their children.

I see that connection very strongly in some of the dimensions of practical wisdom of parents being able to, the beginning of anything with practical wisdom is actually discernment of just perceiving that a situation requires more than an automatic or quick response. Because all of these dimensions are very conscious and intentional and I think that most of life, you know, just like brushing your teeth can become really automatic or habitual over time. So to become present in a new moment, so to speak, is the new story. I think that’s where we have our greatest opportunity for connection, for love, and to further social justice.

LISA REAGAN: Well, I love that you’re able to draw the relationship piece out into the world and make it practical again. It is a practical grounded part. I shouldn’t say that parenting is a heroes journey that we are referring to, the listener can go to parentingasaheroesjourney.com and there are a number of authors and presenters there exploring this no path parenting process and how to orient yourself and understand that you are operating between stories and this has all new language and by the way, Dave, I am now recruiting you to present this year. You’ll see Dave there. You’ll see him there. But in the mean time, at the bottom of your article on Kindred, there are exercises that people can go through and they are designed with each of the nine dimensions with practical wellness in mind.

DAVE METLER: Sure, well, practical well-being. I think one of the most incredible things I have been learning this year with this whole human ecology, I think really most of my adult life I think I’ve been trying to figure out how to maximize I guess my impact on the world and also to balance that with taking care of myself as well. I think that what I’ve found is that it’s really important to understand how to make progress towards very lofty and large possibly idealistic goals like transforming childhood or working towards social justice. How to make progress towards those in everyday moments. How do we spend our time everyday and I think one of the most important things we can do is we can build habits. We can build practices slowly over time that will further our practice wisdom abilities but just our ability to experience our lives more fully in our connection and in our larger purpose.

So the end of the article presents some exercises for practice. The exercises at the end of the article I think could be very useful to parents if they want to find a way to practice. So this isn’t just another article that you read. It has some ideas for practice and I think that there could be some more ideas as well for practicing these processes of practical wisdom. So there are just ways in which parents can work together, you know, on their own time whenever, you know, this can be something that they do when they think it would be most impactful. It is just some ideas for how to work on these areas because all of them are learn-able and practice-able and I do think there are skills and just like any other skills or habits, they take more of a regular type of focus and attention to build them.

LISA REAGAN: Right and I think it is a wonderful discovery when you can go there and see you’re probably already many of these and now you have an idea of your own internal process and what that looks like and what are you going through. When you’re standing there in the moment with no path in front of you and your teenager in the middle of one of these, as you said very common, but very intense dilemmas or situations. So is there anything else that you would like to share about the wise parent study?

DAVE METLER: Well, let me think. I do imagine that the article and even this interview are really the beginning of a dialog. I would love to hear ideas from anyone who is listening or who is reading this article. It is completely on the edge of where things are at in academics and we’re trying to figure out here where to go next with it. So your feedback and just even trying to have conversations around this would really be something that I feel like would be exciting but also is part of furthering the practice and just even the dialog and the conversation around parenting and the new story of parenting.

LISA REAGAN: There is a wise parents closed group that everyone can go to on Facebook and you can either put that in our search bar or you can go to Dave’s articles on Kindred, the wise parent study article and it will have a link. You can just click on the graphic there on the page with the wisdom tree and it will take you right to the group. That will be fun. I look forward to being in that forum.

DAVE METLER: Thank you.

LISA REAGAN: Okay. Alright. I am really again so grateful again for this wonderful work and I look forward to seeing where it goes as well and I look forward to hearing from parents and professionals about using the awareness of these skills and again just the empowerment piece that it brings to us as individuals with the piece that you articulated about trust, trusting ourselves. Look what is already happening within us. Look at what we’re already capable of and our bringing into the relationship with our child and it’s not just the intention of trying to consciously parent, but some really well defined and develop-able skills that we already possess. I think that is really empowering.

DAVE METLER: I agree.

LISA REAGAN: Thank you very much, Dave.

DAVE METLER: Thank you, Lisa. I do think that it’s just been wonderful to continue to get further involved with Kindred community. Kindred community does represent to me the ecology of the child. I think that is the Kindred community. I think it is inclusive of parents, teachers, community members, grandparents, environmental forces that are not human that are effecting children and I am just glad and I feel really grateful to continue to work with everyone in the Kindred community and keep bringing the new story.

LISA REAGAN: Well, we’re here. We’ve been here, it’ll be 20 years actually this year for Families for Conscious Living, and we’re just kind of getting started. There has been a lot of just go out and be pioneers and explore the frontier and report back from so many people for so long and I really feel like we are finally getting coherence and visibility and what we are trying to articulate for this many years. Thank you so much again Dave. I look forward to talking to you again soon and thanks to all of our listeners and supporters for coming on.

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