Parents are the Ultimate Spin Doctors

In politics, spin doctors making a living by interpreting or twisting ambiguous information in a particular way. Parents are assigned this role by young children, whether they want it or not.

As I watched a children’s gymnastics class the other day, the occasional 3/4/5 year old would tumble off a cushion and do a big whoompfy face plant on the thickly padded mats. They would instinctively look at the parent(s), implicitly asking “What does this mean?”.

And the parents provide the spin:

In some cases “Oh God, my fragile flower, are you all right? The child then starts to cry.

In some cases “You are so funny!” The child then smiles or starts to laugh.

In some cases no words but a look of stern Tiger Mom or Tiger Dad disappointment at the failure. The child says nothing, but goes away with a mixture of shame and determination.

In some cases the parent is reading the paper or looking away and the child draws his or her own conclusions.

There are a thousand variants and they all happen in the space of a few seconds, at that moment when the meaning of reality is apparently up for grabs. The intense period of spin parenting comes early in life, because children soon learn to spin for themselves. As a parent, particularly when your children are young, you can’t not do it – it’s part of the job. You just have to be aware that its always going on and to put out spin that will help rather than hurt your child in the long run.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Parents are the Ultimate Spin Doctors”

  1. And,there are a thousand gradations of each of the types of response. If the child has hurt her/himself, it can range from no response to a sympathetic “Ouch!” to “Call 911” for the same injury.

  2. There are also several variants on foot plants into padding, I’ve seen and reacted to several, in diverse ways. Some are funny, some are frightening.

  3. Yup. I have friends with two kids. The oldest was coddled and every time they cried or fell mom came running. Mom learned her lesson with the second one and the youngest is great and well-adjusted. The oldest is spoiled and living at home. Too bad we never learn to prevent what happened to the oldest.

  4. Staley’s comment brings to mind the saying, “Raising children is like cooking pancakes; make 3 and toss out the first 2.”

    I say this as an oldest child with (only) 2 children, both now adults.

  5. My faceplant moment was when my hillbilly mother took my older brother and I to a tent revival. Hellfire and brimstone didn’t bother us. She apologized profusely as we went home. The next day we climbed up in our tree where adults couldn’t hear us. We agreed that our mama took us to see a crazy man. That is much, much harder to bend around than any exercise routine. Trust was very conditional after that.

  6. Kids never whine/plead to the dining room table. A solid and total imperviousness to importuning (combined with a lighthearted interest in the child’s curiosities, and unselfconscious partication in its inventiveness) is the key to successful aunthood.

  7. Staley’s comment brings to mind the saying, “Raising children is like cooking pancakes; make 3 and toss out the first 2.”

    I like that saying. We’re only having one, so we are trying our hardest to avoid all the bad behaviors of those we have watched. All the feedback from school and others seems to validate the strategy. We’ll see when she’s a teenager, of course.

  8. As a former parent of young children, it used to drive me crazy when parents would say “that’s okay, it doesn’t hurt!” Of course it hurts! Why are they telling the kid to deny his or her own experience?

    When I was coaching soccer with little kids, if a kid fell hard or got kicked, I would say, in a light-hearted voice, “Boy, I bet that hurt!” Then the kid would wail, “yes, it hurts!” and I would say, “It’ll go away in a few seconds. So don’t worry about it and get back out there.” Or maybe, “well, you’ve got a scrape – I’ll clean it and band-aid it and you can play even if it does hurt.”

    You can teach kids to accept that pain is normal and not a big deal. And it works a heck of a lot better than, “It doesn’t hurt!”

    Obviously if a kid is bruised or bleeding, you don’t do this. But for ordinary minor bang-ups, it’s a good lesson.

  9. I remember The Nuture Assumption from way back — I was very impressed with the thesis, that peers have more influence than parents, until I had a child on the autism spectrum, who had no interest in his peers or what they were doing. It’s a very funny position to be in, to pine for your child to feel peer pressure. That’s not to say that aspects of The Nuture Assumption don’t fit many children, though.

    And good on Bloix, for modeling empathy so well.

  10. But can parents influence who their children’s peers are by choice of neighborhood? We were very fortunate when my son was a teenager to be able to leave an affluent midwestern suburb (in a metro area of about 3 million) for a small New England college town.* BIG difference in kid culture. That of the former was very materialistic and brand and gadget conscious, that of the latter was pretty much clueless with respect to brand and gadgets. Effects apparent in my son’s behavior and attitude within months.

    *Don’t ask why we moved there in the first place. It was a mistake and the story is not interesting to anyone else.

  11. I suspect I know Mom from somewhere else…nonetheless, the continual debate is what is the ratio of nature:nurture? I think it depends on the behavior of the child and which spousal unit is saying it!

  12. marcel, that is exactly one of Judith Harris’s (author of the Nurture Assumption) take-away points, that parents can and should “pick” their kids’ peer groups by choosing where the family lives.

  13. In the age of the helicopter hovering parent, it may come as a surprise that some kids survive, indeed thrive, in spite of their parents’ best or worst intentions. I am often amazed at how parents who are in need of some form of validation believe it is the child who looks for some approval.

    Children are born with all the genome may allow. And perhaps within the twists of that double helix may be some soul. Nature? Nurture? If you listen to what your child tells you, you just may learn something.

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