How to Be a Good Parent
There is no one right way to be a good parent, although there are many proven ways to be a flawed one, such as abuse, neglect, or overindulgence. A key challenge is resisting the urge to manage, guide, or control kids at all times, but research suggests that parents who give their children room to explore, grow, and, importantly, fail, may be serving them better. No parent should allow kids to put their health or safety at risk, or to allow core house rules to be flouted, especially when it comes to daily home and school responsibilities. But beyond that, building a home life that provides caring, consistency, choices, and consequences should go a long way toward a child’s social, emotional, and intellectual development—which should also lead to a stronger parent-child bond and happier child-raising years for everyone involved.
Making a Happy Home
A paradox of parenting is that kids typically need less from their mothers and fathers than the adults realize. What they need, though, is essential: Love, emotional security, conversation, validation, responsibilities, time outside, and opportunities to play and learn. Parents who can focus their attention on these baseline goals and avoid getting caught up in the minutiae of measuring minutes on screens or dictating which shirt gets worn to preschool, will find that they and their children will enjoy each other more, and that their kids will more quickly become comfortable with their own selves.
How can parents bond with their children?
Daily routines, and regular rituals, can be a powerful way to bond with children and help them feel emotionally secure. Time spent each day reading together, listening to music, going outside, performing a simple chore, and especially a positive interaction to start the day and open time at bedtime to review the day and say goodnight, research finds, helps kids establish a stable, positive emotional outlook.
Why is conversation so important for children?
Research on the casual chitchat also known as banter has found that it is essential for children’s emotional development, and for their vocabulary. Informal talks with parents expand kids’ knowledge and skills, and has positive emotional and social effects that last into adulthood. Weekend plans, neighborhood news, funny memories, seasonal changes, to-do lists, dream recollections, and things that excite you are all valid topics for banter during quiet portions of the day.
How can parents get kids to cooperate?
There are reasons why younger kids don’t always cooperate with a parent’s requests, even if the parent doesn’t immediately recognize them as good reasons. A child deeply engaged with play, for example, may resist being called away to get dressed or come to dinner. To avoid conflict, a parent should observe what a child is involved in before demanding that they move away from it. It’s often helpful to talk to a child about what they’re doing, and even join them for a time, before requesting that they move on to a necessary task. Just five minutes of such “sensitive caregiving” can not only avoid resistance but help a child become better able to develop social competence.
Will getting a pet benefit young children?
Research suggests that it will. Many studies have found that dog ownership helps younger kids learn responsibility and empathy, and potentially even develop language skills. Recent research has also found that kids who live with a pet become less likely to have conduct problems or peer conflicts, with behavioral improvement averaging around 30 percent. The effect emerged simply by having a dog present in the home, and the results were even more striking when children were actively involved in walking and caring for the pet—although having a pet did not necessarily diminish the symptoms of clinically diagnosed emotional conditions.
What is free-range parenting?
In many cities and states, local laws prohibit children under a certain age from either staying home alone or being outside without an adult present. Many parents have protested such rules, arguing that kids entering the tween years should be allowed to be on their own if mothers and fathers determine that they’re responsible. This movement, often called free-range parenting, makes the case for overturning such laws to bring families more freedom, independence, trust, and joy, but while some municipalities have moved to amend their laws, many others have resisted.
It’s impossible for a parent to be perfect. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to be the right parent for your own child. Listening, being supportive, encouraging activity and creativity, and establishing a secure family structure all go a long way toward providing the kind of childhood that help kids thrive. Unfortunately, even in the pursuit of these goals, parents can go too far by overscheduling kids, micromanaging them, refusing to recognize learning or emotional struggles for what they are, modeling unhealthy responses to stress, violating boundaries, or criticizing kids or comparing them to others—even siblings—out of frustration.
Can a parent ever be perfect?
In a word, no, and no child can be perfect, either. But parents who believe perfection is attainable, in themselves or their kids, often struggle to take any joy in their role, or to provide joy to their children. It’s easy for a parent to become self-critical and beat themselves up over opportunities they didn’t offer their kids, or for not pushing them hard enough. But an intense, overscheduled childhood may not be the right one for your child. Being a “good enough” parent, many experts suggest, is sufficient to raise children who are decent and loving, confident enough to pursue their interests, and able to fail.
Is parenting primarily about being in control?
It shouldn’t be. Many parents believe they should control children at all times, directing them to fit their own vision of what type of person they should become. Such parents may be shocked and angered when children resist such pushing, leading to power struggles and potentially years of conflict. Parents who instead focus on baseline expectations and standards for responsibility and routines, and stick to them, while working to understand their children’s temperament and emotional needs, can form a connection with their kids and work with them to discover and pursue their own interests.
How can parents make sure they present a united front to their kids?
In many families, one parent emerges as the “fun one,” or the “good cop,” with the other wedged into the role of the serious one, or the “bad cop.” Not only does this generate a potentially unhealthy family dynamic, it can also strain a couple’s relationship. Partners who discuss their values, and each other’s priorities as parents, can face their children with more confidence, divide responsibilities more evenly, and approach children with consistency.
How can a parent tell if a young child is being naughty or not?
It can be tricky for parents of young children to recognize when a child is acting out and when there is a valid reason for what appears to be unwelcome behavior. For example, a child may become overstimulated or feel rushed during a busy day; become angry because they’re hungry; struggle to express “big feelings”; react to a long period of physical inactivity with high energy and a need to play; or become frustrated by a parent’s inconsistent limits. Taking a step back to evaluate whether a child’s behavior may be caused by a factor outside their direct control can go a long way toward keeping parents from punishing children who may not deserve it.
What kind of social media presence should parents have?
Ideally, a responsible one. Surveys suggest that well over 90 percent of children have an online presence by age 2—often their own Instagram or Facebook accounts (created and maintained by their parents). “Sharenting,” or sharing news or images of a child, can provide parents with social validation and the support of an online community. But as kids enter the tween and teen years they may push back and feel exposed or embarrassed by what their parents have posted, leading to family conflict. Parents should understand the privacy settings of all their social media platforms, consider whether a particular photo may eventually embarrass a child and as kids get older, ask for their approval before sharing anything online.
Providing Emotional Support
When a parent is anxious or worried, a child may become anxious as well. Parents who talk about adult worries with kids, fail to model or teach coping skills, or who are unreliable or fail to keep promises, can drive anxiety in their sons and daughters. But parents who swoop in to eliminate any source of anxiety, by, for example, taking over difficult tasks, can also inadvertently raise kids who may struggle to cope with challenges or stress. Parents who make time to listen, take children’s concerns seriously, provide consistent support, step back and let kids solve problems on their own (or not), and allow ample free time for play, can help children thrive.
For more, see Children and Anxiety
How can you help an anxious child calm down?
Children may feel anxious in a variety of situations—at the doctor’s office, at a birthday party, before a test, or in a storm—and look to parents for help. Unfortunately, simply telling them to “calm down” likely will not work. But encouraging them to calm themselves by taking slow, deep breaths, chewing gum or singing, talking openly about their worries and naming them, or finding humor in the situation can help them get through it and be better prepared to handle future stressors.
How can parents keep calm when their children are not?
When kids are feeling stress, parents can easily become anxious as well, but mothers and fathers should aim to avoid displaying it, or “mood matching,” which may only amplify a child’s stress. Keeping calm and grounded, perhaps through the application of mindfulness techniques, can help parents remain a source of support even in difficult moments.
How can parents help children talk about emotions?
Younger children feel emotions deeply, but their emotions may also change quickly, sometimes shocking parents and making them feel helpless. A child may have a limited ability to control their emotions, but a parent can help them develop the competence they need to manage their feelings themselves, and gain confidence and self-esteem in the process. An important step is to help children identify and talk about negative emotions like sadness or anger and not deny or suppress them.
What do highly sensitive children need from their parents?
Highly sensitive children may struggle with their feelings more than other kids, become more easily overwhelmed, or take setbacks more personally. Parents who can successfully manage their own emotions can help a sensitive child by creating a calm environment at home, maybe in one specific place; focusing on the child’s strengths while accepting their struggles as part of the mix; and working with the child to recognize their triggers and the most effective ways to respond.
How can parents identify depression in children?
Too often, children who are depressed don’t tell their parents about it; two out of three parents admit that they worry they wouldn’t recognize depression in a child, and clinicians find that children often report having symptoms for two to three years before they get help. Many kids avoid talking about depression at home because they think a parent won’t listen, will just tell them it’s temporary, or try to fix it quickly like a boo-boo. Other kids keep quiet because they want to protect their parents’ feelings. Creating a home where difficult feelings can be talked about and respected is an important step toward children feeling comfortable enough to speak about anything, including depression.
How can parents find the right therapist for their child?
The idea of bringing a child to a psychologist is scary for many parents, but they should not see it as a personal failure but an active and positive step toward helping their child get the help they need. And as the experts on their family, parents should work to find someone they believe their child (and themselves) will be comfortable with. Parents should ask potential providers about their typical approach, how closely they involve parents in therapy, how to talk about it with their child, and how soon they should expect improvement.