The Architecture of Parental Support—Understanding Scaffolding
In 1976, American psychologist Jerome Bruner originally used the word scaffolding as a metaphor for the best way to educate a child. His theory was about collaborative learning, that a parent or teacher had to guide the student while he learned a new math skill, for example, and then, once the child has achieved mastery of it, the parent or teacher stops instruction of that task and moves on to the next.
We’ve taken Dr. Bruner’s core scaffolding idea of an authority figure guiding a child toward independence and expanded and redefined it into parental support and guidance not just in an educational context, but in a child’s emotional, social, and behavioral lives.
The metaphor of the parental scaffold is visual, intuitive, and simple.
Think of it this way: Your child is the “building.” You, the parent, are the scaffold that surrounds the building. Your purpose as the scaffold is to provide support and structure, not prohibit your child’s growth in any particular direction or style.
Every effective scaffold has vertical posts or pillars as well as horizontal planks—the combination makes the whole structure safe and secure.
The scaffold rises at the same pace as the building.
It is wider at the early “stories,” providing that solid foundation that allows for strength and growth. It becomes less important as the building rises ever higher.
If a piece of the building falls off, the scaffolding is there to catch it and make fast repairs.
Eventually, when the building is finished and ready to stand completely on its own, the parental scaffold can come down. It might come down one section at a time, since all parts of the building might not be completed at exactly the same time. And, as needed, parts of the scaffold can go back up.
The framework of all your decisions and efforts as parents are the three pillars of your scaffold: structure, support, and encouragement. By relying on these pillars, you will boost your kids’ confidence, self-esteem, and coping skills, so that they develop into adults who support, encourage, and provide structure for themselves. You scaffold a child so that, eventually, he’ll be able to scaffold himself.
Structure encompasses routines, communication style, house rules, ways of thinking—all the underlying infrastructure of your scaffold. Crucial to a child’s sense of security are predictable routines in the home, like bedtimes and homework hours, family bonding rituals like Sunday brunch or Friday movie night, consistently setting limits and consequences for breaking the rules, and parental availability and attention, regardless of whether a kid seems to want it. By building a structured home environment when your children are young, you will be role modeling stability, a necessary component of being a successful adult, and setting up a secure bond between you and your children that will strengthen and grow as they become adults.
Support with emotional empathy and validation. A child’s feelings need to be heard and acknowledged, not judged or dismissed. If parents tell children, “There’s nothing to cry about,” it invalidates their emotions and makes them doubt themselves on a fundamental level. What they feel is not wrong. It just is. Children who are taught to name their emotions and discuss them openly with their parents learn how to process difficult feelings, which will help them bounce back from rejection and failures. They’re less likely to develop psychological issues—anxiety and depression—that might otherwise plague them into adulthood and negatively affect their relationships and careers. Providing support also means intervening when necessary. If your child needs a tutor or a therapist, don’t wait until a situation becomes dire before bringing in professionals. Last, giving support means offering instruction. Your child may need help learning a range of skills—from preparing for a test to making a friend. Your role as the scaffold will be to coach and instruct, but never to take over and do the work for your child. Although you can outsource tutoring your child in math, you shouldn’t hire someone to give him instructions about life skills and values. The strongest support comes from the parent directly.
Encouragement is gently pushing your child to try new things and take risks. When kids fail, as they inevitably will, encourage their future boldness by talking through the “why” of what happened. Empowered by the knowledge of what went wrong and what they can improve upon, kids will be excited to get back on the bike, stage, or field again. If you don’t encourage your children to risk failure, you’re teaching them to be afraid and dependent.
Throughout the process, you will need to role model and teach positive behaviors, giving corrective feedback and boosting your child’s sense of competence. Role modeling doesn’t breed dependency, it encourages independence. In our patient population, we see a lot of pain and suffering that could have been prevented if parents focused on the scaffolding pillars.
The planks of your parenting scaffold are patience, warmth, awareness, dispassion, and monitoring. You will stand on these planks to support your kids as they develop into the kind of adults you can be proud of. We use them at home with our own kids and have trained thousands of parents to do the same, with great success.
Patience. Stay steady, even when you have to teach the same lesson, over and over again.
Warmth. Model empathy, affection, and kindness. Show your love and compassion, even when setting limits. It may seem counterintuitive that being warm will foster independence, but the scientific evidence proves it.
Awareness. Tune into your child’s emotional and practical needs and motivations—as well as your own.
Dispassion. Stay calm, no matter how upset you are or how challenging parenting can be.
Monitoring. Keep close tabs on what’s going on with your child and make sure your support is benefiting her.
As with a literal architectural scaffold, this supportive grid is erected through certain specific construction strategies. In the realm of parenting, there are ten strategies that allow you to best provide structure, support, and encouragement and that use your plank skill set. If you adopt our strategies, you’ll raise your kids to be strong, competent adults. The chapters that follow detail the how and why of these strategies, but here is the thumbnail view of each.
Secure Yourself First. Self-care is an essential scaffold parenting skill. If your scaffold isn’t secure, it won’t be strong enough to catch bits and pieces of the child’s “building” when they fall off. It won’t be stable enough to guide the building’s upward growth. If the scaffold is shaky, one good crisis could topple the whole complex—scaffold and building—to the ground.
Draw a New Blueprint. A blueprint in architecture is a technical drawing, a plan, of a structure’s design. Any construction project starts with such a plan. Our brains are the blueprint for our behavior, drawn by millions of years of evolution. Some aspects of the brain blueprint, however, are outdated and don’t make a lot of sense for modern life. To build a scaffold that works for parenting now, you have to scrap the old, outdated blueprint, and draw a new one with an open plan that’s less claustrophobic, with plenty of space for additions and room for growth.
Lay a Solid Foundation. The parent-child relationship is the foundation, the base, upon which you will build your scaffold. If the foundation is poured from a concrete mixture of emotional availability, positive reinforcement, clear messaging, and consistent rules, your child will rise and grow securely from that solid base. If the foundation is poured from a shoddy mixture of emotional distance, negative reinforcement, ambiguous messaging, and inconsistent rules, your child will struggle to rise and grow from an insecure base.
Hold Steady. Even if you have secured yourself, drawn a beautiful blueprint, and poured a solid foundation, there will be times in life when your scaffold, as well as the child’s building, is rocked by circumstances beyond your control. If the scaffold isn’t steady during those unfortunate, unforeseeable circumstances, your kids will be vulnerable and exposed to emotions and experiences they aren’t developmentally equipped to deal with. But if you tighten all the screws and batten down the scaffold, you can guide kids through tumultuous times, so they emerge confident, safe, and secure, and ready to face the next challenge.