The good enough parent

The good enough parent
Dr David Carey discusses how to foster good behaviour in children


Children are not born with a neural template to engage peacefully with others. This is a skill that must be learned by interacting with the environment, aided by parents and caregivers, including, often very importantly, teachers.

If we take some time to look at this process, we will discover the things we can do to ensure our children grow to be socially competent throughout their lifespan.

Words are important. We have words to describe our emotions. ‘Sad’, ‘happy’, ‘angry’, ‘annoyed’ and ‘thrilled’ are just some of the words we use to describe what essentially a neurochemical process is. However, inside the human brain there are no ‘emotions’, just chemical and electrical exchanges which stimulate certain sensations that we eventually label with our words as emotions. This labelling process is important because the more words we have to talk about our emotions, the less likely we will be to have to act them out. However, we are only human, and from time to time we will lose the run of ourselves. Words are also important when we have to apologise and strive to do better.

It must be remembered that children aren’t born with these labels inside their brains. They are put there by the adults in their lives. Often they learn them the hard way: Dad yells, ‘I’m so angry with you right now’ or he says, ‘I‘m so happy you cleaned your room’. The tone, volume and facial expression he uses help the child link the emotional words ‘angry’ and ‘happy’ to certain states of feeling and behaviour. This is how children learn to label their own emotions. There are things we can do to help speed up this process and make it easier for the child.


Something a parent can do to teach children emotional control and self-regulation is to model these things by deliberating setting up a scene in which you become frustrated and talk yourself out of acting in anger. Let’s say, for example, you want to teach your child how to control himself when he gets annoyed. You can do this by setting up a scene whereby you pretend you have lost your keys, just before you have to go out shopping. You say aloud, while the child is near you: ‘Oh no, I can’t find the keys. This always happens to me, it’s so annoying. Where did I put them? OK, calm down, stay calm and think. Wait, I put them on the table by the door. No, they aren’t there. Oh God, what am I going to do? Wait, stay calm. If you stay calm, you can find the keys. There is no need to get angry and upset and start to shout. Take a deep breath. Yes, that’s it; I left them on the kitchen table.’

This sort of one-person role play is known as portraying a ‘coping model’, a model of how to deal with stressful situations by thinking them through. It demonstrates to children that self-talk is important in learning self-control. Remember, you are the model from which your children learn. Don’t always demonstrate mastery; be sure to demonstrate how to cope with stressful situations.

When the child is able to pay attention for three to five minutes, you can play a word game. Say ‘happy’, and ask the child to show you a happy face. Then say ‘sad’, and see if the child makes a sad face. The game progresses like this over several weeks, with you adding more and more feeling words. You are building what is called a ‘feeling vocabulary’ in a playful way. Take turns with your child to say a feeling word and show the feeling face.

We can extend this little game over time to doing the same thing with body posture. We say a feeling word and then show how we stand and look when we are feeling that word. You will have to model this for the child, at first. It isn’t easy to act out all the bodily postures associated with emotions. The game is playful, it’s fun, and it teaches something important – that words can be used to describe feelings and we can understand how someone feels by looking at his or her face and body. Children love games and this is an excellent teaching game that develops emotional intelligence.

While creating a body posture for every emotion can be difficult, help is at hand on your television screen nearly every day of the week. Used with forethought, cartoons are a great teaching aid. Cartoonists have a talent for displaying emotion in the body that goes along with the words the character is saying. To get the child to identify a character’s emotional state, mute the sound and play the cartoon, beginning with one the child is very familiar with. Ask the child to tell you how Bugs Bunny, Elmer, Wile E Coyote or some contemporary cartoon character, such as SpongeBob SquarePants, is feeling at the time their body is moving. Stop the DVD if you are using one. Have the child look. Look yourself. Maybe you can comment about the position of his arms or hands or the fact that he is jumping up and down. Make sure you notice the facial expression also. If you choose carefully, make a bit of a game of it and don’t overuse it, the child will enjoy and learn at the same time.

There is another activity that can be used with children older than three. It’s a sorting and categorising activity that integrates nicely with pre-mathematics skill development. Cut out or print out photos of people with different facial expressions from newspapers, magazines or websites. Ask the child to name the emotion they are showing. Start simply with photos of happy and sad faces. Gradually add other emotions as things move on over several weeks.

The activity can be extended into sorting and categorising. Ask the child to put all the happy faces in one pile and all the sad faces in another, then ask him or her to count the pictures in each pile. How many are there? Keep it simple so the child can succeed at the counting.

You don’t need a lot of time to play these activities with a child. A few minutes is often enough. Remember not to force it, and if they don’t have any interest just leave it. The point of all this is that once we realise that the brain needs to learn social and emotional developmental skills we can create activities to promote this learning.

Importance of play

Play is the work of childhood, according to educator Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), the founder of the kindergarten. Children have a natural capacity to play. It is through play that children learn how to learn. It is through play that they learn how to get along with others. It is through play that they learn how to control themselves and self-regulate. Yes, play is the work of childhood.

Unfortunately, play has become more and more regimented by adults. Children have little time for free, playful exploration of the world around them. Play has become team sports, ballet, tennis lessons, horseback riding, chess clubs and other adult-directed activities. All these things have their place in the life of the child, but none of them is a suitable substitute for what can be learned by free play. Even in our Infant classrooms we do not provide enough time for play.

My good friend, Joyce Marangu, who runs a kindergarten teaching programme in Nairobi, Kenya, used to tell me how she learned what the diameter of a circle was by watching the goat tied to a tree in her mother’s garden. The goat would eventually wear out a circular path as it made its way round and round the tree. Of course the rope would sometimes get tangled and the goat couldn’t move. Joyce would be told to go out and free the rope so the goat could move again. She was only a child but she quickly discovered that the distance from the tree to the circular path was always the same no matter where the goat was trapped on the tree. When she got into school and was being taught about circumference and diameter it all made sense to her, as she remembered the tree, the goat, the rope and the circular path. She says maths was easier from that point on.

It’s a good story and illustrates the fact that complex skills can be learned accidentally through play. Imagine a child rolling down a gentle slope. Isn’t he learning about the effect of gravity on the human body? Think about a child rolling a marble off a table top. Isn’t he learning the same thing? What about playing with boxes of different shapes and sizes? How about wondering why balls aren’t as stable as cubes? So many of the basic concepts that will later be translated into the complexities of maths and science can be felt and discovered through play.

The Good Enough Parent by Dr David Carey is published by Red Stag and is available now in all leading bookshops and at