How to Construct a Stronger Child

Are you a tiger mom or a helicopter dad? If so, you might need a new parenting philosophy, according to Harold Koplewicz, M.D., president and medical director of the Child Mind Institute.

In his new book, The Scaffold Effect: Raising Resilient, Self-Reliant and Secure Kids in an Age of Anxiety (Harmony Books, 2021), Koplewicz argues that parents should be more like (you guessed it) a scaffold. That’s the structure that supports a building under construction until it can stand on its own — and that comes down in stages as the building rises.

“Parents are there to protect and guide their kids, and they shouldn’t impede learning and risk-taking, which are essential for healthy development,” he says.

Pillars and Planks

To be effective, a scaffold must be sturdily built. In Koplewicz’s metaphor, a good parenting scaffold relies on three pillars: structure, support and encouragement. Structure includes house rules, but it also includes family rituals like Friday movie nights. Support covers empathy and validation, as well as more tangible support like tutoring and therapy if they’re needed. Encouragement means gently pushing kids to try new things and take risks, and then helping them deal with the inevitable failures.

Integrated into the structure are five planks: patience, warmth, awareness, dispassion and monitoring. Koplewicz says you stand on these planks to support your kids as they grow.

Photo by Charlie Simokaitis

Skyscrapers and Ranches

But scaffold parenting is not as simple as deciding what sort of adult you’re trying to build and then boxing your child into a ready-made scaffold. Instead, Koplewicz says, you have to adjust your scaffold to reflect the sort of person your child is growing into.

“You never know when the building may change, but your child has to be the architect,” he says. “We’re just the scaffold, and we have to adjust.”

That’s the opposite, for example, of pushing your child into sports when he’d rather be in drama (or vice versa).

“If you keep refusing to believe that they’re going to be a ranch and you want a skyscraper, not only are you going to be discouraged and frustrated, but the message you’re going to give to your child is going to really affect their self-esteem,” he says.

Scaffold Yourself

A scaffold can’t support a building if it isn’t strong. Koplewicz argues that parental self-care is critically important. In his practice, he has even written prescriptions for parents to plan hotel getaways during which they don’t talk about the kids for a few hours.

“A balanced scaffold means there’s meditation, there’s volunteering, there are hobbies,” he says. “You’re not just a parent.”

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