Every other day, it seems, there’s a new, trending parenting style to learn about. It can be overwhelming. But scaffold parenting isn’t a new concept, nor is it an idea that necessarily replaces different parenting styles. Grounded in the work of psychologist Lev Vygotsky from the early 1900s, scaffolding is a learning process that provides a helpful tool when trying to understand and implement authoritative parenting and its subsets, such as gentle parenting.
Scaffolding is a process where an adult helps a child manage a task that they couldn’t otherwise manage on their own. It requires situational wisdom about when to provide children with temporary support, when to allow them to make mistakes by doing things on their own, and helping them through the reflection process when things don’t work out how they would like.
“Scaffold parenting is a helpful model because it allows the child to learn from their mistakes,” says Julian Lagoy, M.D., a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “I like to think of it the same way it is used in building construction. From a child development perspective, the scaffolding will help the child achieve greater heights, have a stronger foundation, and help the child develop better virtues in their lives.”
So what exactly does scaffold parenting look like? Here are five characteristics of scaffold parenting and why they’re helpful for raising secure and resilient children.
Scaffold Parenting Characteristic #1: Empathy
To make learning from their mistakes a constructive process for kids, parents shouldn’t expect them to suffer alone. “You want the child to know that you care about them, and you can understand their perspective when they make mistakes,” Lagoy says. “This is important because it teaches the child it is okay to make mistakes and that their parents will be supportive no matter what.”
An empathetic parent communicates to their child that they won’t be abandoned when things get tough. Of course, sometimes the consequences of our actions are uncomfortable or painful. But when kids understand they aren’t left to suffer alone and have someone to process their feelings and experiences with discomfort, this experience isn’t compounded by loneliness. On the contrary, there’s encouragement in knowing we can do hard things, as long as we can do them together.
Scaffold Parenting Characteristic #2: Validation
When parents consider giving their kids more freedom, it’s easy to drown in the flood of all the possible things that can go wrong. It’s a natural response, because one of the essential parental tasks is to keep kids safe. But kids aren’t always going to have missteps when left to their own devices. There will be times they do fine or even experience tremendous success. And in those cases, it’s essential to validate their victories.
“When the child is successful, you want to enjoy that success, further support them, encourage them and celebrate their accomplishments. This helps the child build self-confidence and encourages them to continue to learn more and make more mistakes to learn from eventually,” Lagoy says.
When kids are having difficulty finding success, validating their effort is a great way to stimulate a positive feedback loop that isn’t contingent on specific results. Perseverance and resilience are cultivated when kids find value in sticking with things in the face of frustration. So acknowledging their effort in the face of adversity reinforces the importance of healthy failure and not giving up.
Scaffold Parenting Characteristic #3: Intervention
When kids have a hard time breaking through a barrier, scaffold parenting requires intervention. But instead of jumping in to fix the situation by doing things for the child, look for opportunities to enter the activity as a collaborator. Help the child pause, reflect, or problem solve. Interventions can also serve the purpose of modeling how to stay calm in the face of frustration and the difference between asking someone to help with a task instead of asking someone to complete a task for you.
“Scaffold parents should still take an active role in teaching their children,” Lagoy says. Interventions can happen early, before kids reach the point of frustration.
Playfulness is often a helpful tool to use when modeling or intervening. “Children like to copy their parents, and this is a great way for them to do so in a constructive way.”
Scaffold Parenting Characteristic #4: Structure
The appropriate amount of structure can limit the mistakes kids make and help them maintain a sense of security that encourages them to continue to take healthy risks. Sometimes the risks will be courageous. Sometimes they’ll be ill-advised. But they can all be learning processes as long as their natural repercussions aren’t too severe.
Providing kids with a regular schedule is a tool that helps foster independence by structuring their time. In addition, schedules can help establish daily rhythms and decrease a child’s anxiety by helping them know what to expect. In some instances, kids will get used to schedules through repetition. And in some cases, visual cues can help them track schedules independently.
“Having a routine and schedule is great for children because it teaches them order in their lives,” Lagoy says. “Having a similar daily routine and schedule helps with repetition, which is very important in lifelong learning. A practical way to structure routines and schedules is to have a schedule written out in the playroom next to a clock, so the child can look at it themselves and make sure it is followed.”
Scaffold Parenting Characteristic #5: Encouragement
After kids experience frustration, setback, or failure, they might need a cheerleader to help them bounce back. Expressing belief in children can help build their confidence when they don’t believe in themselves, and it works excellently with empathy. Point out specific character traits that kids demonstrate instead of giving general encouragement to help kids feel seen when they would otherwise shrink away.
Should I Become a Scaffold Parent?
The results of scaffolding are appealing, but the process asks a lot of parents. The intentionality, emotional presence, and time it requires can make parents question if the effort is worth it. That’s especially true when behavioral changes aren’t noticeable.
Lagoy acknowledges that parents will likely struggle with scaffolding, especially initially. But he also sees tremendous value in not giving up too quickly.
“Frustration is a very common feeling because the results of scaffolding are not really apparent right away,” he says. ”I would encourage parents to continue practicing scaffolding, because I can almost guarantee that this will be good for your child in the long term. We all want our children to be independent, intelligent, and curious. And the principles of scaffolding are the best ways to teach your child from a young age how to accomplish this.”
Scaffold parenting — like most paradigms and practices that fall under the authoritative parenting umbrella — requires taking a long-term view of raising kids. It’s a focus that can be challenging to keep amid the daily chaos of parenting. It’s best viewed as an opportunity for parents to grow alongside their children instead of as an efficient behavior modification strategy.