1 Jun 2023

Parenting tips from a developmental scientist

From Nine To Noon, 11:32 am on 1 June 2023

Californian academic Dorsa Amir has access to cutting-edge parenting recommendations but she can still feel anxious about her own choices.

To offer some science-backed comfort to fellow hard-working parents, Dorsa recently tweeted a list of things you can worry less about.

Californian academic Dorsa Amir recently shared a comforting, science-backed list of things that parents can "worry less about".

Developmental psychologist Dorsa Amir

Developmental psychologist Dorsa Amir Photo: The Institute for Human Development

As a developmental scientist interested in how minds are shaped by culture, Dorsa researches how the world's children - "an incredibly flexible and sensitive life stage" - respond to different parenting styles.

She frequently works with the Shuar, an Indigenous group living in Amazonian Ecuador, where parents are looser with supervision than most Western parents.

Shuar children play and learn in mixed-age groups and grow up alongside extended family members and family friends. Returning to the States, Dorsa felt something like reverse culture shock.

In the US, children are much more "adult-controlled" and managed via "intensive intervention", she says.

Now, with her toddler at the playground, she sometimes feels judged her as a bad parent for being relatively "hands-off".

Yet children benefit from being allowed to "set their own agenda" a bit, experiment and discover things for themselves, and even take the lead sometimes, Dorsa says.

Child running through field

Photo: jonas mohamadi

Like many parents, she feels pressure to "entertain" her son so he doesn't get bored. But she also knows that boredom for children, is a "useful mental experience".

"It can really stimulate creativity and problem-solving. Structuring your own time, motivating yourself to do things, figuring out your interests… these are all things that as adults we practice every day … I think [boredom] does stimulate a lot of skills that end up being life-long benefits."

It's also important not to prevent a child from experiencing the 'negative' feelings and emotions that are an inevitable part of life.

'Negative emotions are not bad' is one of Dorsa's messages to parents: 'It's good for kids to experience what they feel like & learn how to process them.'

Parents can also model for children how to effectively cope with difficult feelings, she says, and offer support without diving in.

"We can have conversations with kids about how they're feeling and what they could have done differently. But also we can stand back a little bit and let them experiment themselves with those emotions and managing them on their own."

Some parents pressure themselves to be their own child's "zany, cartoonish friend", Dorsa says.

"There's so many ways to be a human and there's so many different ways to do it well … Figure out what works and if you're feeling a lot of anxiety and pressure to do things in a certain way … maybe cut yourself a bit of slack."