New feature: Ask Dr. John – Exploring the wild world of parenting

Applying research to the practice of parenting.

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When I was 4, 5 and 6 years old, my father’s mother came to live with us. I don’t remember much of anything about her, except for what she did when my parents went out, and I was left alone in her care. She would be perfectly pleasant while I was awake, but then, after I had fallen asleep, she would come quickly into the room and start hitting me with a belt. Sometimes, I would wake up from a sound sleep to the stinging feeling of that belt. Other times, some part of my subconscious would hear the turn of the bedroom doorknob, and wake me up to prepare me for what I knew was coming. Most of the time, I would go into my room to sleep, but I just lay there awake, terrified.

It was around this time that I developed a bedwetting problem, which I now know can be a sign of anxiety. My parents – and even some of my aunts and uncles, when I slept at their houses – would sometimes spank me for it, I suppose thinking that they would punish the behavior away. Instead, my bedwetting (and the regular spankings that accompanied it) persisted until my grandmother moved out of the house.

My father and mother both had fairly horrific upbringings. My mother was regularly beaten by her father to the point of abuse. My father’s father was an alcoholic police officer who used enlightened parenting tactics such as punching and burning him, and once made him watch as he put a gun to his mother’s head and pulled the trigger (the gun wasn’t loaded). When I was 9 years old, my father was laid off from his job, and sunk into a deep depression which never lifted. I lost my father at that time. My mother did her best to keep the family together, going back to school and getting a job as a teacher, but she had lost her husband, and was overly stressed by our poverty. By the time I was a teenager, I felt like I was alone in the house. I briefly experimented with drugs and alcohol, but I was brought out of that sinkhole by religion and education. I put my nose into my books, and got myself to church, and decided to take my life into my own hands.

My wife Erin with Jesse, left, and Josiah, right.

Now, I am a grown man, and I am married to a fabulously intelligent and beautiful wife (Erin), and am the proud father of two incredible boys, Josiah who is 13 years old, and Jesse who is 12.

When I became a parent, I experienced the normal panic – oh my God! I’ve got this little baby, who needs me to take care of him. I couldn’t fully rely on my own upbringing to figure out how to be a good father, so I watched parents who had well-behaved children for information, and I immersed myself in the research. Academics have personal reasons for studying the things that they do. My research about parenting began as a quest to be a great daddy.

My name is Dr. John D Rich Jr. I am associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University. I earned my Ph.D. in Educational Psychology in 2004 from Temple University. Prior to that, I was a United Methodist minister for about six years. Before all of that, I attended Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania, out of high school. While I was there, I met Carol Robidoux. What I remember most is her free spirit and open mind. She fit right in with our group. Now, I see that she is an editor at this amazing website! And to think that I knew her when she was just a little person like the rest of us!

Recently, I put out a request on my Facebook page for parents to reflect on the content of an article I was writing. Carol, who is a Facebook friend, replied, and invited me to consider writing a regular column for her site. I am honored and delighted to have such a wide forum of readers. I look forward to engaging in some energizing discussion as the column evolves.

My Mission for This Site

In my quest to learn as much as I could about being a good parent, I learned about something called the “intergenerational transmission” of parenting practices. Basically, this terms refers to the tendency to raise our children using the same parenting techniques and strategies as the ones our own parents used on us. When I read about how commonplace this was, I realized that both of my parents really tried very hard not to repeat the patterns of abuse that they experienced when they were raising me. I also realized that it was up to me to improve upon the parenting that I received. Through it all, I believe that (so far), I have done a decent job. My children are good students and athletes, and are kind and generous people.

Do I make mistakes? No. Just kidding. Of course. Sometimes, I can feel myself getting angry about something, and I can hear my father in the background (he hardly ever hit us, but he did know how to yell and criticize). Sometimes, I can hear my father’s way of talking to me come out of my mouth. Most of the time, I can feel when my upset is taking over, and I ask my wife to handle the situation so that I can leave the room.

My experience as a parent, combined with my practice as a researcher, is something I want to share. Research about what good parenting looks like, what effective discipline is, and the importance of giving your child as much warmth and empathy as you can, is very consistent. That research has been extremely instrumental in helping me navigate the journey of parenting that is so challenging and so rewarding.

What I notice, however, is that most academic work, even though it can provide incredible insights into how we can all be better people in the world, is written only for academics! This is why I created my website at drjohnrich.com, and why I am writing this column.

Everyone can understand the theories, but not the jargon. The purpose of this column is to introduce interested parents to the great research out there about parenting, without relying on the fancy words, and to discuss what that research has to say about everyday life. Every profession works diligently to craft precise language to describe the key findings of that profession. Unfortunately, precision often leads to exclusion. Case in point: When parenting researchers talk about child self-efficacy, or a sense of agency, or intergenerational transmission, they are attempting to describe complex phenomena with concise phrases. The drawback is that people who are not part of “the club” of insiders don’t know what the special words mean.

We all want to be good people, and to be good parents to our children. This is why I am so excited to write this column – I have been given the chance to write for people who want to learn and grow. I am convinced that the effort to understand and apply what we academics know about effective parenting can reap exciting benefits for you and your children.

I wish to express my gratitude, once again, to Carol Robidoux for this amazing opportunity to share what I have learned and practiced in my career and in my home. We all strive to be the best we can be in our lives, and we want to raise our children to do the same. To that end, I encourage and look forward to your comments, questions, and insights as this column grows. Thank you for joining me in exploring and thinking intentionally about our parenting.


 

Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, husband and father of two sons. You can learn more at his site, dr.johnrich.com. Got questions? He’ll help you navigate. You can reach him directly at info@drjohnrich.com.