By Daniel G. Amen, MD

Do you want your children to share your values? Talk to them. If you’re a Republican and you want your children to be Republican, spend time with them, listen to them, speak nicely to them, and show them compassion.

Children pick the values of parents with whom they have a strong bond. If you’re a Republican and you want your children to become Democrats, neglect them, don’t talk to them, and criticize them constantly. Be indifferent or angry with them and they will take a position opposite yours. Children become bonded to us when we spend time with them everyday. They are more likely to choose our values when we have a good relationship with them, and they are more likely to choose the opposite values if we have a bad or distant relationship with them.

You cannot have a good relationship with your child if you don’t spend time with him or her. One study reported that, “on average parents spend less than seven minutes a week talking with their children.”  That’s pretty frightening when you consider how much time children spend watching TV.

Think about the competition. Television screens flash at a concentration frequency, about 30 seconds per cycle, drawing and commanding your attention. When the number of hours of exposure is great, your brain is repeatedly receiving messages from that medium, and they become hard-wired into your brain. You are conditioned to accept what you see, including negative images of violence or unrealistic images of beauty. What you tell your kids may be one thing, but what they see, another.

In a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997, Michael Resnick, PhD and colleagues at the University of Minnesota reported that teenagers who felt loved and connected to their parents had a significantly lower incidence of teenage pregnancy, drug use, violence, and suicide.

Firm parenting is as critical to character development as is bonding. The brain needs direction, boundaries, consequences for unacceptable actions, and positive reinforcement. The brain learns best in an environment of love, support, and clear direction.

Studies on effective parenting all point in the same direction. The parents who raise the healthiest children are those who are firm and kind. Permissiveness is bad for children. Parents who are permissive and unable or unwilling to be firm in disciplining raise children who have social and academic problems. Parents need to set clear guidelines of acceptable behavior and reinforce those guidelines through positive reinforcement and consequences.

For instance, one night I was in a restaurant and watched how parents can actually encourage dysfunction in their child’s brain. A three-year-old boy was running around the restaurant. He was loud, obnoxious, defiant, and hyperactive. The mother was very frustrated and repeatedly redirected her son. The father just let him run wild. Whenever the mother tried to discipline her son, the father told her to lay off him. “Boys will be boys,” he said. The boy, and his parents, got many evil looks for others at the restaurant that night.

Children (and their brain) need a firm hand. They need direction and consequences. Parents need to provide prefrontal cortex supervision for them until they can provide it themselves. When you tell a child to do something he needs to know that you mean it and that you’ll back it up. He needs a bit of anxiety in order to stimulate growth in his prefrontal cortex. Not too much anxiety or it will disrupt his development, but enough anxiety to know that you are serious and that you mean what you say.