When I was a kid there were no parenting books, unless you want to count Dr. Benjamin Spock’s classic on baby and child care. Parents were guided by their instincts, sense of responsibility, judgment, and family traditions. Today, parents still rely on these, but they also have access to hundreds of books and thousands of articles, blog posts, and videos, as well as countless programs, family therapists, and parenting coaches. All of this support is, of course, overwhelming. Where to start? Which to choose?
For several years now I’ve made it my work to evaluate and learn from these resources. As a service to parents, I’ve curated several dozen books, articles, posts, and videos that I feel are worthy of recommendation. My goal has been to identify what I feel are the best of the best. These are featured on my website .
As a result of this ongoing study of parenting, I’ve picked up quite a few useful insights and tips, many of which have guided my own writing. For me, however, the most valuable takeaways have been an appreciation for what I consider the bedrock fundamentals of effective parenting. These foundation elements are consistent themes in all the best parenting books and are what the best parenting advice is based on. Falling short in any one of these imperatives is likely to have serious consequences. Put another way, if you’re the kind of conscious parent who wants the best for your child, as you put into practice good advice, work on doing these ten things well:
1. Give unconditional love. Parental love is instinctive, but it can be eroded. Your child is going to make you angry. There will be the regular, petty irritants and disappointments that make you want to say or do things you’ll regret. These reactions always make a bad situation worse, doing damage to already fragile self-esteem. In the worst case, someday your child might shock you by doing something unthinkable, such as hurting someone, becoming addicted, breaking the law, or getting pregnant. As you deal with the things that make parenting hard, what your child will need most, in every case, is to know that your profound love never wavers, is always there. This means expressing your love convincingly, even at the most troubling moments. Your love will look like empathy, compassion, respect, understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness. Because when a child stops believing in a parent’s love, conflict and emotional difficulties follow.
2. Be present. At play. At games. At practices. At recitals and performances. When your child comes to you with a question or something to say, invest time as often as possible, for as long as possible, because opportunities to build your parent-child relationship will come and go, and time slips away. Be present emotionally as well as physically, with your attention focused on your child in the moment, appreciating and experiencing the child-who-will-be-an-adult-and-gone-before-you-know-it. You can’t coach and teach if you’re not there. You can’t talk about the big issues if you haven’t built a sharing relationship. The wounds caused by years of being distant or unavailable are hard to heal.
3. Keep the end in mind: you’re preparing your child to be a happy, independent adult. The best parenting experts affirm that you’re not raising a child. You’re raising an adult. Let this perspective guide your parenting. What have you been doing that will help your child ingrain the values, life skills, character strengths, wisdom and lessons that come from experience? These habits (typically not the focus of school learning) will help your child meet the relentless challenges of adult life. Start as young as possible to give opportunities to reinforce these patterns repeatedly during the years before leaving home.
4. Parent by example. From James Baldwin, author of classic American novels: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Your child might believe some of what you say, but his or her constant go-to guide is to observe what you do. I’m sorry, but “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work; it never did. It does sometimes happen that a parent’s behavior is so hurtful that a child will say, “I won’t be like that,” and take a different direction as an adult. But for many years your child has been in awe of you, and your example will nearly always trump everything else. Don’t expect your child to get excited about reading if you don’t read. You can’t expect your kid to keep a cool head if you often lose your temper. Your child is unlikely to be kind and generous if you’re neglectful, manipulative, or abusive. Don’t expect your teen to come to a complete stop when you habitually roll through stop signs. If you abuse alcohol, do you really think your adult child will drink in moderation? If you’re practical and careful with money, your child is likely to take a similar approach as an adult. It’s a tall order, but you need to be the kind of person you want your child to become.
5. Improve your communication skills. I could have listed this basic guideline first, because a parent-child relationship – whatever it becomes – is built on the quality of communication. Everyday interactions can go badly or they can go well, depending on how well you communicate. The problem is, very few parents have had any training in effective communication skills. Most of us learned to deal with each other instinctively, “on the street,” so to speak, and reacting to your child’s behavior on this level can eventually push the two of you apart. The most important communication skill is listening, which is a component of several other important parent-child communication skills: giving and receiving feedback, including praise and constructive feedback; encouraging thought; dialogue; and conflict resolution. In a way, effective communication is like the game of chess, because you can work on improving your game all your life, and you’ll never come to the end of mastery. But you can get very good at it. The journey towards more effective communication is worth the effort; it’s how lasting relationships are formed.
This is already an oversized blog post, so the remaining Fundamentals 6-10 are presented in Part Two.
The context for this article is the subject of Chapter 12 of my new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.