What Is Scaffolding Parenting? An Expert Explains The Child Rearing Concept

Contributing writer By Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D.
Contributing writer
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D. is the founding president and medical director of the Child Mind Institute in New York City and San Mateo, California.
Mom Hugging Kid With Love And Joy And The Park

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 has to guide the student while he learns 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 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 an emotional, social, and behavioral one, too. The metaphor of the parental scaffold is visual, intuitive, and simple.

What is scaffolding parenting?

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 may 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.

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The pillars of scaffolding parenting.

The framework of all your decisions and efforts as parents is 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: 

1. Structure

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. 

2. Support

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.

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3. Encouragement

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.

The takeaway.

Throughout the process, you will need to 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.

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