Wise Parenting, Part 5: The Role of Knowledge and Experience

Today’s post is the fifth in a multi-part series on Wise Parenting. Each post focuses on one of six principles for parenting wisely: 1) Stay cool, calm and reflective2) Frame the problem appropriately, 3) Aim for the right purpose, 4) Expand the perspective, 5) Apply the best knowledge, and 6) Find the right balance.

There was a grandmother who led a weekly playgroup of new mothers and their babies. The mothers in the group were very eager to learn all they could. They read parenting books and magazines, surfed the Internet and always asked lots of good questions. Despite the fact that the these young mothers sought out the latest parenting knowledge, they still learned a lot from this grandmother. Why? Because while the new mothers had knowledge, the grandmother had wisdom.

As parents we can draw on two types of knowledge when making wise decisions regarding our children: formal knowledge and informal knowledge. Formal knowledge is the information produced by parenting and child development experts and is usually found in high quality books, articles and classes. Informal knowledge comes from the lived experiences of our personal journey as parents and people, as well as our personal insights into ourselves, our family and our children. By bringing together both types of knowledge, parents are in the best position to make wise choices about which principles and strategies are most likely to work for their child in a particular situation.

There are thousands of books, articles and online resources about adolescent development and effective parenting strategies. The best ones are based on scientific studies or years of professional practice that draw on repeated observations of many parents and teens. They tell us about what to expect of children on average, while also providing general principles and expectations about child development and childrearing strategies. For example, the average age for the onset of puberty (the physical/sexual changes of adolescence) is around age 10½ for girls and about age 12 for boys.  So, these are often good times to begin talking with teens about menstruation, bras, pubic hair and changing voices. Formal knowledge can also highlight parenting strategies that have been found to be successful if they’re used appropriately. For example, a well-known research finding is that when parents of teens make an effort to know who their teens are with and how they spend their time, teens are usually lesslikely to engage in risky activities.

Still, in real life, very few teens are average or usual and it is rare that we can pull out a book to quickly reference a parenting decision.  Consequently, wise parenting also requires the use of more informal types of knowledge, such as the kind that comes from personal observation and experience. It involves drawing on your personal knowledge of your child and his or her specific needs, abilities, desires, and circumstances.

Self-knowledge is also an important aspect of wise parenting. This involves being aware of and honest about what we know and what we don’t.  It also entails being in touch with what we value and believe. We all have blind spots and areas where we may be lacking in experience, understanding or ability. And while we might sometimes pretend that we know more than we do in order to maintain our parental authority, all of us have moments when we find ourselves in over our heads. Wisdom involves knowing our emotional and social limits. Sometimes our own emotional issues (such as being under a lot of stress) can make it difficult to be fair, objective or able to respond in an effective way.

A wise parent is aware of their limitations and has the courage to seek out other sources of support, guidance and perspective such as the insights of other parents, or when necessary, professional help. Self-knowledge involves being it touch with what you value and believe. Making tough parenting decisions can be a little easier when you have a moral compass to guide the way.  Communicating with your child about important matters can be difficult unless you know what matters to you.

When faced with a parenting dilemma, making wise use of knowledge begins by identifying what it is you need to know and seeking out the best source of that knowledge. Below are some suggestions on where to find the most appropriate knowledge and make the best use of it.

  • Know the strengths and limits of different forms of knowledge. Research-based knowledge tells us about teens in general, while personal knowledge tells us about our particular teen. Research-based knowledge is usually the most reliable, but not always the most relevant. In contrast, personal knowledge is usually highly relevant, but it’s not always reliable because it is subject to our personal biases, limited perspective and emotions.
  • Learn from your experience.  It has been said that good judgment comes from experience but that experience comes from bad judgment. In other words, we gain wisdom by learning from our experiences—both the successes and the failures. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, and when you do, see what you can learn from them.
  • Know your child. In order to parent wisely we need to know our children well, including their needs, abilities and personalities. One of the best ways to do this is to be a good listener and observer. Like a skilled researcher, listen and observe quietly and non-judgmentally.
  • Know yourself. Take time to consider what you believe in and what really matters to you and use it to guide your parenting decisions. Take time to reflect on your weaknesses and blind spots and think about how you can strengthen them. And when you feeling overmatched don’t hesitate to seek the insight and guidance of others.


By Steve Small


Steve Small has been a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension for 30 years. He and his wife have 3 adult children, two son-in-laws, and a new granddaughter. Steve had a somewhat turbulent adolescence and his parents couldn’t wait until he grew out of it and left home. In his spare time he likes to bike, hike, build stuff, travel and play softball.