I grew up in Bogota, Colombia and when my oldest son was just three years old I moved to Storrs, CT to accompany my husband while he pursued his PhD at the University of Connecticut. My husband and I both always placed great importance on education and we both wanted to be good parents who could pass that value along to our son. Finding myself in the midst of a very different culture in the U.S. I was presented with the need to improve both my English and my parenting skills for my first born son. In a big stroke of luck, “Boom!” I found a flyer that offered parenting classes in English. Can you imagine? That flyer changed my life forever. I was thrilled that I could solve both problems simultaneously! And it was that flyer that allowed me to meet Joe and Ruth Freeman, parent educators, who were important teachers for us and became lifelong friends to me and my family.
According to my Latino cultural patterns, attending a course that taught techniques and skills to be a better mother sounded very rare to me at that time (13 years ago). My family always used physical punishment as a tool for raising children. I realized that I had to change that practice completely. In the parenting classes I attended, and I had to attend a few before I could really get it, I learned that the most important thing is to pay attention to children’s positive behaviors and ignore the negative ones. This was the idea that presented the most challenges to me. I always tended to look at the mistakes that my son made and I did not see the successes of his behavior. It was confusing because I thought the way to help him become a better behaved child was to punish him. I am an engineer and research is important to me. I was amazed to learn in parenting class that there is much research that indicates that punishment does not help children behave better. It was hard to believe because punishment is so common in my culture.
Thanks to this new idea for me, my son’s challenging behaviors such as tantrums, blow-ups and refusing to follow directions started to decrease. At home, I started to scream less and less. And over time his behavior got better and better. It didn’t exactly make sense to me but I was so relieved to have less conflict in our house and see my son calm down as I was able to calm down. It wasn’t easy, but it meant a lot to me to become a calmer family.
Another important lesson I learned from attending classes with Ruth and Joe was about the importance of sharing quality time with my son. This meant dedicating 20 to 30 minutes each day in order to play or chat with him. This teaching was difficult to establish because everyday life leads parents to forget the importance of sharing that time with our children. My oldest son is now entering his final year of high school. We still have disagreements and I still nag him too much, but he is a passionate student who has excelled in his studies both when he was in the U.S. and back here in Bogotá . He is an accomplished computer programmer and has traveled to other countries to participate in programming competitions. He is fluent in English and recently place number one in the pre-test of our national student exams. I know it isn’t all due to parenting. I know that he has natural gifts and talents, but I also know that focusing on his strengths and avoiding yelling and hitting gave him room to become the amazing young man he was meant to be. It was enormously difficult, but my husband and I are both grateful we were able to protect him, at least to some degree, from some of the harsh parenting we both experienced as children.
After a few years my second son arrived and he has been more fortunate because I had already consolidated the idea of positive discipline, obviously without physical punishment. My younger son seems to have benefitted from my more positive approach to parenting. It may also be his nature, but he is a peaceful boy who does not display tantrums and disobedience. He is confident in social situations and makes friends easily. I think focusing on his positive behavior from the beginning has made his life (and mine) much easier.
Ahh!! I forgot to talk about another great challenge which is to be back in Bogotá at my family’s side and to see that they did not agree with my parenting methods. According to my parents and siblings, I was spoiling my children. Over the years I am grateful that my parents have seen and understood that using physical punishment with children is not the best approach. I am so grateful that I came across that flyer years ago in the far away town of Storrs, Connecticut and was introduced to what research has discovered about what really helps children thrive.