Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Parenting Tools

D is for DNA of successful parenting: Executive Functioning

black-family-dinner1by Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

The family dinner, structure and routines are all associated with optimal child development, but they couldn’t happen without a parent’s organization, ability to execute a plan and values-informed judgments. These sentinel cognitive capacities are related to the DNA of success in modern life—and they are key parts of every parent’s executive functioning.

I consider executive functioning to be the DNA of parenting because it determines so much of how we run our lives, including prioritizing dinners, creating structure and maintaining routines. It’s our cognitive CEO—it allows us to plan ahead, problem-solve, meet goals and make discerning judgments. The evolution of the prefrontal cortex (packed into that big forehead of ours) made these analytic skills possible. And of course, some of us are better than others at developing them to our advantage in parenting children and running an orderly home.

No wonder only highly functional families seem to pull off the magnificent achievement of family dinners, consistent chores, prompt bedtimes, and media control! How else could parents manage grocery shopping, preparation of healthful meals, wise decisions about evening activities, carpools, and kids’ compliance with chores, rules and other responsibilities? Parental executive functioning makes possible authoritative parenting, boundaries, skillful negotiation between spouses and effective leadership in family matters.

Family dinners have become symbolic of wholesome family life. Articles in newspapers, journals and websites document their importance in contributing to child health. Researchers find that regular family dinners are associated with less alcohol abuse, drug use, eating disorders and depression in teens and lower obesity and better reading preparedness in preschoolers.

Are these fabulous findings related to a secret sauce in the dinner per se or the fact that kids are at home with their families benefiting from routine? Probably both, but let’s tackle the dinner part first. Communal eating as a family and tribe goes back as far as recorded history. Eating food together means we are looking into each other’s eyes (an opportunity for empathy!), enjoying nourishment as a group (allowing us to associate gustatory pleasure with family in our emotional brains!), and learning about each other’s lives (even our teenagers’ lives on occasion!)

One study documented that family dinners predict reading skills in young children better than parental bedtime reading. It was speculated that children’s language capacity was enhanced by their parents’ rich vocabulary and the interactive way that they answered their children’s questions and delved into their interests.

Now let’s unpack the magic of routines. Don’t you love it when you see your child automatically perform the duties that used to be a struggle (e.g. seatbelt buckling, clearing their dishes, getting ready for bed, etc.)? As creatures of habit we benefit from the fact that “the neurons that fire together, wire together”. Neural connections are  created by what we do, learn and get rewarded for. The learning process helps create super-highway paths in our brains so we can switch into an “automatic pilot” gear, ideally helping families move through morning and evening routines more smoothly if they are practiced consistently enough.

Routines help organize our children’s lives and give them a sense of predictability and security. Practicing routines over and over helps kids learn math facts, basketball skills and good dental hygiene. As parents establish certain good habits in their kids, they can expand the scope of their responsibilities. Some kids can actually make the family dinner, clean it up and self-govern themselves all the way through their evening routine!

Imposing the structure that allows children to practice routines should be considered one of a parent’s favorite tools because conditioned responses (“automatic pilot” functioning) do some of the heavy lifting of socializing kids. With young children, if we follow the daily sequence of bath, teeth-brushing, books, songs /blessings and kisses/hugs every night and exit their room at 8 p.m., then they (and their brains) will expect this routine and do it fairly automatically. If we vary the routine a lot in response to protests and whining, we are rewarding these behaviors and welcoming chaos into our evening.

It shouldn’t be surprising that research has demonstrated that family routines and rituals predict better grades, social competence and even better management of chronic illness among children. The parent with a high level of executive functioning is more likely to produce a kid that learns those same skills.
Still, in the hurly burly of modern family life, it can be really tough to figure out priorities around the “dinner-structure-routine agenda”. It requires “big picture” analysis of what’s most important to children’s health, development and long-term welfare. It takes well-developed executive functioning!

Here are some typical questions that parents bring to me in consultations:

• “Are regular chores really worth the trouble of star charts, squabbles and continual re-negotiation?”
• “Is there an advantage to conducting young kids’ morning routine the same way everyday?”
• “Since my husband travels a lot, we like to loosen up the rules and enjoy our quality time when he comes home. However, the kids turn to beasts afterwards—wanting fun every night. Is it worth giving up one of our favorite pleasures for a bedtime routine?”
• “If my teenagers can get on selective sports teams, is it really that big a deal that they eat food in the car and skip the table time so that they can get right to their homework?”
• “Should dinners together be enforced even when the kids tend to fight the whole time?”
• “My kids are juggling impressive amounts of homework and after-school activities. Even though I think they’re kind of spoiled, should I really figure out a way to inject chores into their schedule too?”
• “Because my spouse and I disagree about how much structure kids need, we seem to lapse into inconsistent structure and fighting about it. Should imposing evening structure and routines really be a top priority item, especially with grades and rudeness causing us such grief lately?”

The short answer is “yes” to all of these questions. To master these challenges, parents will be employing their executive functioning skills and the tools described in my posted articles entitled “A is for Authoritative parenting” and “B is for Boundaries”. Even if grades, rudeness and sibling quarrels are also on the “to do” list, parents need to be good CEO’s, authoritative and maintain good family relationships to be effective with just about any other childrearing agenda.

Teens need routines as much as younger children do. And they need almost as much sleep! (I’ll provide more data on that later with the “H is for Health maintenance” tool). Routines change over time as children take on more responsibility for managing their homework, media and chores, but parents will still need to monitor and enforce the rules when the kids hit the bucking bronco stage of adolescence.

Parents of teens may not be the omnipresent shepherds they are for their younger children at bedtime, but hopefully they’ll still take advantage of the sacred moments around bedtime for relational closeness—yes, even for teens. However, some of the kisses may get swapped out for a good foot massage. If you don’t try to talk or pry too much, sometimes those foot massages can act as truth serum.

Millennial living is busy and stressful. Family dinners and evening routines can go out the window with the demands of jobs bleeding into every hour of the day and the almighty kid activity schedule mattering more than family togetherness. You can see why parents’ executive functioning seems to be a key to just about every aspect of running the home and making a priority of relationships.

Making family routines and rituals a priority usually involves sacrifice. These days parents have to exert tremendous self-discipline to be unplugged at home, follow their own rules watch out for some of those impulses that are so tempting—like falling asleep in your child’s bed during story time, watching a special (but late) show together on TV, and getting lost in email-land which can throw off the evening schedule.

Privileged people have a zillion important meetings, athletic work-outs, lessons, appointments, commitments and obligations (for themselves and their children). Poor people are overwhelmed with getting the money to put food on the table and pay the bills. Middle class folks are doing a bit of both. While people everywhere seem to say that they’d like to have more family R & R and dinners at home, they cite the obstacles mentioned above as insurmountable barriers.

What is the solution? Constantly honing that parental executive functioning! Making family dinners, structure and routines happen requires huge doses of it. It’s hard to emphasize the importance of the DNA of parenting too much—it creates the architecture of family life.

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