Your Aunt Maria says that all you have to do is set boundaries. Your uncle says that it doesn’t matter what you do, kids will just turn out the way they are going to. People are often bombarded with a wide range of parenting suggestions with varying levels of legitimate research and science supporting them.

The following are different theoretical perspectives on how to raise emotionally and socially competent child. In addition are brief guidelines for what a parent can do to support a child using that framework. The rest of the articles on this website give more in-depth approaches to support your child’s development using best practices from developmental psychologists, play therapists and NAEYC- a national early education teacher’s organization.

I believe that children develop well when all of these parenting styles are taken into consideration together.

Biology and Environmental Response:

Children’s emotional and social abilities are driven by biology. Caregivers must be aware of the general stages and individual innate differences in order to provide developmentally appropriate responses. There are universal emotional/social stages in all children such as attachment to the mother/primary caregiver, separation anxiety, and general sociability. Also, children have unique, innate temperaments such extraversion, fearfulness, etc. Try to be aware of the developmental stages all children go through and your child’s personal temperatments and respond in ways that support those. A lack of responsive care can actually rewire the brain to have long-lasting social and emotional problems.

Psychoanalytic Theory: Competence, self-regulation, and healthy relationships with others give the “ego” strength.  Try and set up situations where a child will be successful socially. For example, model words for a child to say in a conversation. Can I play with the blocks when you are done? Give children plenty of dramatic play time so they can work through their emotional fears and practice perspective taking. For example, they can pretend to be a doctor if fearful of the doctor. Their social/emotional successes boost their confidence and it becomes an upward spiral.

Behavioral Theory: A child will behave well in order to obtain social rewards. For example, if he shares his blocks, others will likely continue to play with him.  Some past behaviorists believed that a child was an empty vessel that you conditioned to behave well like a Pavlovian dog. To get a child to behave well, you just reward or punish his behaviors to shape the child in the direction the adult wants him to go. The danger of this is that rewards and punishment are used to pressure a child in ways that is developmentally inappropriate for the child. Rewards at this age might also take the joy out of doing things for its intrinsic value. Children in my class just do things without candy or rewards. They often do things because they have internal control and desire. Other times we do this using social rewards.  For example, if you follow rules at circle, you can get chosen to lead a fun activity.

Social Learning Theory: Children learn how to behave by observing others. Adults serve as role models. Children can also learn what not to do by seeing another child suffer negative consequences from unacceptable actions. Please see the attached video on the famous study done by psychologist Albert Bandura on the impact of modeling.  Children who watched an adult model being aggressive towards the doll were far more likely to later show the same aggressive behavior.

Cognitive Development Theory: Theorists Piaget and Vygotsky believed that children innately want to learn. They do so by acting on their environment and by actively engaging with others. Children begin by socialization with parents and then broadening their social circle by interacting with other children. Children need plenty of time for socio-dramatic play to develop socially/emotionally.