The Real Purpose of Parenting by Dr Philip Dembo – Maya’s book notes

The following are the notes I took while listening to the audio version of the book. This is not intended to be a comprehensive summary nor is it objective. I hear and write, through the lenses of my current knowledge and interest levels. If you read something that fascinates you in my notes you might enjoy reading this book for a deeper understanding.

Childhood is about learning the skills required for adulthood. As parents, our role is to mentor that process not to guarantee the happiness of our children neither during childhood or beyond. Preventing a child from having a full range of complex experiences from which to learn, including failing and frustration, will lead to their underdevelopment.

We learn through experience. Through doing. Every experience has the potential to teach us something. But we cannot focus on the experience if we are continuously being judged. We edit ourselves to get ‘good’ feedback from our parents and peers. This reduces our willingness to engage in experiences where we might fail, which could be anything new or complex. This limits children very quickly to a narrow range of activities that they know they can get positive feedback and praise for.

Continuously praising our children can inhibit their growth and self-esteem just as fast as criticism.

So swap the ‘well-done Jenny’ for neutral feedback questions like; what did you do? and What did you think? ‘Tell me about your day’, instead of ‘how was your day’ which invites self-processing. To avoid judgement during their telling you, use statements like; ‘tell me more’ and ‘then what happened’.

At the end of the telling, highlight the learning from their experience by asking your child questions about how they feel about the event and if you think they could change the process, without suggesting next time will be better to ask ‘is there something you wanted to say/do that you didn’t get a chance to’ or ‘next time this happens what else will you say/do’?

Maturity requires trial and error to find our real strengths and have enough practice to develop these. That is, learning is a series of adjustments, with failure as the compass for progress. If we make it about doing it well, children will limit themselves to experiences they can already do and thus never exploring alternatives.

The truth of our experiences and the decisions we make about what to change next time create real self-esteem. Truth defines us accurately which allows us to confidently move into new activities to learn more. Dembo argues that we develop into more capable adults if we know our skills are lacking and can make adjustments to improve at our own pace. Compare this to being over-celebrated making us unsure if we should change anything and lose that praise so we plateau and waste that improvement time leaving us underprepared for further learning.

America’s success at all costs attitude, which he attributes to the Dr Benjemin Spook books on child-rearing, is creating huge unhappiness. Success is an expectation of improvement which does not allow for reality and the truth of who we really are. Most of us are pretty bad at everything we do with at best a few areas of real competence.

Judgements and comparisons, including positive ones, are unmotivating and diminishing and do not allow real self-esteem to develop resulting in;

  • low self-esteem,
  • being afraid of growing up,
  • being afraid of trying anything new.

Overpraise and celebration show the child what is expected and that everything else is bad. Then the parent’s feelings and reactions become more important than the experience itself and our reactions, this creates hesitation for further action and exploring new behaviours that we can feel good about. It becomes all about pleasing our parents rather than growing into ourselves.

The psyche is a processing centre that blends our values, morals, intellect, personality and spirit into our identity. From that blending comes a process that allows us to view the world through our interpretation; our conscience.

As parents, we used to think that teaching our children right from wrong was enough for them to navigate life. Now we think they need to perform in specific ways to be happy in the world. They are no longer relating directly to the world through the filter of their own identity, rather in comparison to a parental ideal.

This perpetual comparison is the death of self-esteem and mental health. It also leads teenagers to bad choices as they no longer evaluate situations based on their own identity or even basic issues of right and wrong, but rather on how this will be perceived by others. They do things to fit in (or not) rather than because this is where they do fit in and this is who they are and the group they belong to. So they join groups where they are miserable or agree to do things they don’t want to do. Eg children engaging in sports and even careers that are expected of them by members of their family

Life must be experienced by us and end with us with little or no interference by the reaction of others. We must feel what we feel.

Sustainable adulthood is a cycle; feel -> think -> decide-> act. 

Our identity is the reason we feel what we feel during an experience. In the same experience another person eg a sibling will have different feels in line with their identity. If we accept our true self, our identity, we don’t need to waste energy justifying our decisions to ourselves, or others, or double guessing ourselves. We do what we do because we are ourselves.

We can also become so wrapped up in other people’s judgements that we lose the ability to evaluate experiences relative to our identity and don’t make sustainable choices. The pursuit of success brings the potential for dishonesty, shortcuts, hiding our truth and going underground (living a double life).

Going underground means detaching from the feelings generated by the experience while attaching our thoughts to whatever it takes to portray the desired picture to others.

People who continue to strive for approval have not established their full identity. They choose jobs where they can get ‘good grades’ rather than job satisfaction. ‘Good grades’ being aspects that get them respect or acclaim from; peers, partners, community or even long-dead parents.

If we have no internal measure of ourselves, what we feel good about, we can never choose sustainable paths. We will wear ourselves out by expending so much energy maintaining the lie and performing tasks that do not come naturally to us. Even worse if we do not find our real strengths and develop our natural preference as a child it’s super hard to undo decades of learning and habit to go back to the exploration and learning.

How frustrating it is to have no voice. The right to express how we feel and make our own decisions. When we are not heard we feel worthless and devalued and we disconnect from all feelings. When you are afraid to speak your mind there is no safety in your family dynamic and you have to find a way to survive by living underground.

Testing our family culture does not mean abandoning the family. Testing is natural and needed to differentiate our identity from our parents by finding out how we feel and if this variation is what we want in comparison to the approval; of our parents.

Performance Theory

The competition requires an enemy to beat. Athletes are peacetime warriors. If you create competition within a team, with a leaderboard, you will destroy co-operation and harmony and this leads to increased stress and reduces health in all members and reduces output and productivity declines.

Successful performance requires no judgement. Effective performance is about the direct energy expended toward the actions. That is the intention is to complete an action, not to ‘win’. The effort is the whole issue and Personal Best is the only relevant measure, otherwise, everyone who cannot win will refuse to try.

Outcomes naturally follow effort; more effort gives more outcomes. To keep the efforts high is the thing that gives the greatest long-term output. Knowing you cannot win is demoralising and will reduce output as unhappy people have less energy and reduced effort creates reduced output.

Winning is not where the value of our experience lies. It lies in the intention to take action and the experiences derived from the activity. Enjoying the task, feeling of exhilaration, being stimulated, even being perplexed and frustrated and our decisions to adjust our activity to get more or less of these.

Do we grow up to be only the things we showed the first abilities in because these were applauded and we had no room to stubble through others we may have enjoyed more? If we had no judgement no grading, no red crosses could we have struggled through more years of maths to have found a love for it? Could we have become engineers with lesser expectations of us in the early years? Remember Einstein was just an ok mathematician in school.

Are we locking our kids in too fast? Were we locked in too fast? I was good at maths at an early stage and that was both applauded and reinforced. Could I have been a better artist if that had gotten as much attention? What of kids who show no preference through all of their schooling?

If we value the effort, whatever the outcome, we will feel the full value of our experience and continually improve our performance by choosing to alter subtly parts we did not feel good about. As we enjoy the doing we reduce stress making us any to sustain activity longer and thus the time to see improvement.

If we focus on the doing and view the output as a bonus the acclaim of others is irrelevant and unnecessary for our enjoyment and continued doing. Then the more we do the better we become at that task.

Can athletes spend thousands of hours of practice from early childhood, 4 am wake ups to swim 2 hours before school every day, without enjoying their sport? Without feeling fabulous in the doing?

As the only thing we can control is our behaviour then the other competitors are irrelevant. Great swimmers only focus on improving their own time as to whether they win or lose on the day is based on who else swims alongside them, which they cannot impact.

Parenting is teaching guiding, coaching and loving our children through their own experiences.


constitution is a set of rules with consequences if they are broken. There must be 3 elements of a family/group constitution;

  1. respect self
  2. respect others
  3. respect property

Group rituals create a group identity, eg how e celebrate events

Coaching starts where the truth is. When performance becomes judgement we perform to gain approval and avoid failure we stop being in the action. For example, when a professional football player kicks for goals, the process of kicking is the same whether they are alone in a park or during a match in the stadium. If they start to focus on how important that kick is their attention is no longer 100% on kicking.

Self-esteem is not defined by success, it is defined by one’s efforts and intentions and staying congruent.

Coaching children to feel their own experiences is the real purpose of parenting. Our judgement and preferences for them will not lead to their fullest development. They will not become their true self if they only choose activities within a parent-approved selection.

Respect rather than react

A reaction is the expression of feelings within the event

A response is the expression of thoughts about the feelings, that is after an event consider how you feel and choose what to do next.


The process of all experiences;

feelings lead to thoughts lead to decisions leads to actions and around again.

Coaching can only occur in the stage after feeling where we help them to processes all aspects for themselves to make the best decisions for themselves. If their decisions are not based on their full feelings each cycle of decisions and action takes them further from themselves and become less sustainable.

Family Culture is created by parents and is made up of the 4R’s;

  1. Rules – everyone has the right to make their own decisions within the rules of their family. Rules are only effective if they are clearly understood and thus must vary with the age/abilities of each child.
  2. Roles – must be flexible as children grow and family circumstances change.
  3. Rituals – help create a family identity through consistency.
  4. Relationships with open and honest dialogue otherwise we are not relating directly to the other.

Success and failure are each equally stages in a process of learning. They both function as input for further thinking to allow for growth. There is no objective measure of success or failure except the consequences that follow it. Children will learn to regulate their behaviour by experiencing the consequences of their actions directly, without the consequences being filtered by the reaction and judgement of others.

Others cannot make us happy in the long term if it requires being dishonest with ourselves. Pretending to like something because we learnt these are valuable to others is not sustainable leading to increased stress and poor health.

Respect is the attitude and process of honouring someone/something through the intention to be kind and thoughtful to the other.

Rituals help create an identity. When we allocate a set time or space to honour an experience it then becomes an activity that defines the identity of a family.

Family meeting – A time each week to review our agenda’s, requirements and rules. Allows each member to have a voice in the family process and self-regulate.

Ritualise time with each child separately (no matter how limited). This allows time for the child to safely express their feelings and receive coaching without fear of reaction from their siblings. Examples of a family of 9 children had only an hour alone with mum each month. That’s better than never having any.










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