Smarter Parenting: Just Think About It

There’s a radical idea surfacing in the world of psychology, and it may turn out to be a game changer when it comes to parenting in America.


That’s right, thinking. But not just thinking – smart thinking.

Imagine what might happen if we stop parenting by thoughtlessly developing habits over time and instead institute fundamental changes in the way we approach our roles as parents. Suppose we all thought more about what we’re doing and used the knowledge we gain in our thinking to do things better.

In a new book by Art Markman titled “Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done,” this renowned college professor and researcher says human beings are “habit creation machines,” and this propensity may be hindering our ability to solve problems, live more creatively and be productive.

Habits aren’t necessarily bad. We’re meant to develop habits – most of them good – to allow us to act in our daily lives without continually having to stop and think about how to do every little thing.

But Mr. Markman, the Annabel Irion Worsham centennial professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, says many of our habits are “self limiting” – they do us more harm than good.

In parenting, those poor habits could have serious consequences.

On the one hand, habit informs our ability to fold laundry, pack school lunches and execute our morning routines. But we also develop bad habits in parenting that prove we’re not really thinking things through.

“For example, we know mealtimes are so important for our families,” Mr. Markman says. “Research shows us that eating together as a family is the time when we create opportunities to learn about each person and to foster communication.

“But over time, due to lessons or sports practices or other activities, we develop habits about mealtime and before you know it, everyone eats on their own and this is an opportunity lost. It becomes a habit, but it’s not smart.”

In the same way, Mr. Markman says, thoughtlessness about children’s media consumption also creates habits that have consequences.

“Media is a profound source of knowledge for our children. Parents have less and less control over the information that is coming in, and this information really matters.

“Even though it’s a pain to regulate and manage the sources of information through which our children get information, we have to do it because the knowledge they gain has a huge influence on their behavior,” he says.

As with all areas in life, the key to changing our parenting habits is simply to step back, assess our routines and take the time to think about what we’re doing.

There is nothing simple about this. “Habit change is difficult because the whole point of habits is that they allow us to do things mindlessly,” Mr. Markman says. “But in parenting, as in all things, we need to be mindful.”

Mr. Markman says the more we understand about how the brain works, the smarter we can be as parents.

“The more you know about smart thinking, the smarter you can be and you’ll also be able to help your children to think smarter, without them even knowing,” he says.

There is a difference between smart thinking and intelligence, and Mr. Markman isn’t advocating the hypercompetitive attitude that has turned learning into a contact sport. Rather, he encourages parents to be more mindful in all the ways we act with and for our children.

“There is great value in spending some time understanding the impact of doing things mindlessly,” Mr. Markman says. “This is true in all walks of life. Most of us think for a living, but we aren’t doing it effectively.”

Huh. Thinking about parenting and acting mindfully to rear smarter children. Can such a radical notion really catch on?

(© 2011 Marybeth Hicks)

Marybeth Hicks is a columnist for The Washington Times and founder and editor of Ontheculture.com.

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