We all have those moments. They’re the moments when you look at your child and think, “Ug… I shouldn’t have said that/done that/handled it that way.” Even the pros have those moments from time to time.
Although being a trained therapist does not automatically make me the perfect parent (since there is no such thing), I’ve learned a thing or two studying and working in this field for as long as I have. I’ve met hundreds of families over the years who have played out many thought-provoking scenarios. Some parents have made me think, “Nice move… I have to remember that,” while others have made me daydream, “When I am Queen, you’ll need a license to conceive another child.”
This is a long one, but it’s a thorough collection of years of observations. Here are ten of the best parenting tips I’ve picked up along the way:
- Let kids be kids. Childhood is a precious time filled with first experiences, memorable learning moments, and an uninhibited, carefree joie de vivre that is often replaced by stress and insecurity in adulthood. Why else do so many adults dream of being a kid again? As special as this time should be, I see far too many children rushing or being rushed through their childhood by parents who are unnecessarily concerned with grades and competitive activities. While academics and a well-rounded lifestyle are indeed important, too much focus on them can produce stressed-out kids who crack under pressure. It is understandable why all the clients I’ve treated for eating disorders have been overachievers. Instead of over-scheduling kids, parents should celebrate their child’s desire to stop and smell the roses, because we don’t get another chance to be children. If your kids would rather play outside than spend six days a week at swim meets, then for childhood’s sake, let them play outside.
- Know when to be fun and when to be serious. Being playful and silly are important traits of effective parents. Sharing fun with your child shows that you enjoy his or her company and that you are an approachable, real person with whom they can feel comfortable. But this playfulness must be carefully balanced, since kids also need to know you will be the authority figure when necessary. In my experience, parents who master this balance earn their children’s respect and friendship, and have stronger relationships as a result. I’ve seen dads who clown around so much that their kids don’t take them seriously, and moms who squabble with their pre-teen daughters in such an immature way that their lack of household control is no surprise. Parents must remember that they are the adults, and as adults it’s up to them to properly balance the playful moments and the grown-up moments.
- Kindness must be taught. One of the most precious things about babies is the innocent naïveté with which they enter this world. Little children don’t know race or class or religious differences; they smile at and wave “buh-bye” to everyone. Discrimination, jealousy, bigotry, and hate are learned behaviors, but kindness is as well. I’ve found that many parents forget to teach kindness, as if it is a given. When your sweet, innocent little toddler gets into the cold, harsh world, he may pick up some behaviors that aren’t so kind unless you teach him to be kind. Remember to instill in your child simple manners like saying please and social graces like holding doors and sending hand-written thank you notes. Be clear that you want him to be kind to all children as soon as his social interactions begin. Talk about bullying and teasing and why they are wrong. And lastly, avoid judgmental or unkind language when talking about others in front of him. Teaching kindness will help avoid the dreaded “snooty child” syndrome, but it will also give you an easier kid to raise!
- Your child is not you. This point encompasses a lot of scenarios and is a theme I’ve seen throughout so many of my cases. Parents should remember that their child is his or her own person, not a miniature version of them. While some common ground is inevitable and wonderful, kids will and should have different interests, opinions, strengths and weaknesses than their parents. I’ve spent countless hours listening to parents complain about the “wrong” way their child does something, when in actuality their real complaint was simply that it wasn’t the way they do it. (So what?) Your children’s experiences will also be different than yours, which is why the “When I was your age I had it so hard” lectures are not effective. Lastly, parents who are separated must remember that their experience with their ex may not be the same as their child’s experience with him or her. As long as your child is safe in the care of his other parent, it is important to allow him to have the relationship he wants and not feel influenced by your opinion of your ex.
- Do not demand respect unless you show it. This is such a simple principle of parenting, but one which many parents forget. Even very young children recognize and respond to gentle, respectful treatment. A soft volume of speaking, warm words, and comforting body language all tell children you respect them. If kids feel respected, they will show you respect in return. (This especially comes in handy during adolescence!) Parents must also recognize the impacts of any form of abuse upon a child (including abusive language and spankings). Child abuse is never acceptable, and has been proven to lead to anger and/or violent behavior in children. I have never encountered a child who had respect for his parents as a result of being abused.
- Validate. Most people know the importance of praising children, but validation is often overlooked. To validate a child is simply to recognize and acknowledge that he/she and his/her words, feelings, and experiences are valued. A young child who cries when he loses his favorite toy is validated by the parent who hugs him and shows understanding. A teenager who argues for a later curfew is validated simply by the parent hearing her out and not shutting her down (even if the answer is still no). Validation does not need to include false hope; it simply shows kids that they are important enough to acknowledge. So even if your teenager may not be the next American Idol, listen to her dreams and let her know it’s awesome that she has them.
- Live by example. Talk is cheap if it isn’t backed by your own actions. I have worked with many parents who struggled to teach their children lessons while failing to recognize their own behavior was a contradiction. If you don’t want your kids to smoke, you can’t smoke either. If you won’t allow your teenager to curse, then watch your own language. If you tell your son to treat girls nicely, don’t disrespect his mother. Children notice inconsistencies right away and these inconsistencies in your words and behavior send mixed messages to your kids. This applies to so many things: healthy eating, clothing, alcohol, drugs. All parents want their children to respect themselves and live good lives. Being good to yourself and living out an example of your words will help your kids follow in your self-respecting footprints.
- Make your rules and expectations clear. Whether you want your small child to stay away from the stove or your older child to stay away from drugs, it is imperative that you clearly communicate with your kids what you expect. Direct communication of rules and expectations means there is no room for confusion but plenty of room for dialogue for kids who want to understand why a certain rule is in place. The area in which I’ve most often seen this oversight cause problems is with teenage drug use. Whenever a young client of mine gets into trouble for substance use, I always ask the parents if they clearly told their child to stay away from drugs. “Well, um, no,” they always reply, “But I thought she knew we don’t allow that!” Whether your child is four or fourteen, she doesn’t know your rules unless you tell her. Communication works. So if you don’t want your kids to smoke pot, tell them so. Often.
- Follow through with appropriate consequences and rewards. Limit-setting is a healthy skill that helps us develop self-control, a vital tool in life. Parents help their kids develop personal limit-setting and self-discipline by giving them consequences when necessary. Failing to do so is not being lenient; it’s a disservice to your child. Rewards are also crucial as they teach the important lesson that hard work pays off. But keep in mind that “pay off” doesn’t need to be literal. I’ve seen far too many parents reward in only material ways and extravagantly at that. Non-material rewards (like a day trip to your child’s favorite place or a sleepover with his/her best friend) instill a value for good work while not creating a spoiled child.
- Be present and listen. One of the most important things I’ve noticed in my work with families is the value of attention. Kids want it, crave it, and need it. Many will even go out of their way to get it in less than ideal forms. If parents can remember one thing, it’s the importance of positive attention in their relationship with their children. Make time to spend with your kids and show them affection. Being present physically and emotionally shows your child he has your attention and he is always worth your time. Staring at your cell phone while he tells you a story does not count. Listen to your child. Look him in the eye and do not interrupt him when he speaks. Let him know his feelings and words matter to you.
Above all, tell your children regularly that you love them. There is no such thing as a perfect parent but there is also no such thing as a child with too much love.