Since 1998, I have worked with hundreds of parents. As a teacher, school counselor, parent educator and currently a parent coach, I have taken note of what makes some parents more effective than others.
Effective parents are not measured by any of the cultural standards that we seem to be working toward these days. They come from all walks of life and have followed many paths to parenthood.
I know parents who underwent severe trauma as children, yet consciously created families to reflect values that were born out of ideas, not experience.
I know parents who have children with serious physical and emotional needs, and these parents seem to have cultivated a life of hope and joy.
I know parents who are introverted but have a brood of wild extroverts, and they manage their own needs while allowing the children to bloom.
All of these parents offer the same things to their children: safety (emotional and physical), connection, boundaries and patience. They are not perfect, nor are they effective all of the time. They keep going, even in the face of confusion, doubt, egregious mistakes and fear. They may give up for the night, but they get up the next day ready to begin again.
Here are five ways that you, too, can be a more effective parent.
1. Cultivate a family value system. “Well, jeez, who doesn’t have values?” you may ask, and the answer is that yes, when asked, all parents profess to having strong values. But Americans don’t have a common parenting culture that has been passed down to us. Our wonderful mix of religions, ethnicities, worldviews and customs means that we are able to create our own parenting and family mores.
This is both freeing and problematic. How do we feel about faith, busyness, education, puberty, sex, romantic love, marriage? The questions can go on and on. But rather than seeing this as a problem, parents have the power to create their own family values, and that’s spectacular.
You wanted more faith growing up in a family that didn’t practice anything? You can choose a religion for yourself and your children. You feel that travel is an important way to understand the world and how others live? You can hit the road with your family at every opportunity. You grew up volunteering and giving to others, and you loved it? You can continue it in your family.
But it’s not enough to just say something is important, or to do something without thinking about or explaining your choices. Effective parents consciously choose their value systems, talk about those choices and make sure that they are practicing them in their everyday lives. Parents know that if they don’t create a value system for their family, our society will, and, frankly, we don’t want society raising our children.
2. Prioritize self-care. I have met parents over the years who are facing incredibly hard situations: terribly sick children; an unexpectedly ill spouse; career, home and money hardships; and other challenges. Yet they bear their problems with hope, an honest acknowledgment of the difficulties and (this is important) a surprising lack of self-pity. What is the common thread among these parents? Self-care.
Take your notion that self-care is nothing more than a trip to the spa and chuck it. True self-care means not only placing your physical and emotional needs on your list of things to do, but also using them as a compass for your life. Without self-care, you are a martyr, living from moment to moment. You are bouncing through life like a pinball, sometimes a winner, often a loser. You feel as though life is hurting you, and you don’t feel empowered to make decisions. This can cause you to resent your children and your partner. You resent work when you are there and home when you are there. Your future is bleak, and you may be perpetually tired.
Self-care is the glue that keeps you together. I know a mom who always has a wedding anniversary dinner with her spouse, and who will go for a run by herself, even though she has sick children. Another mom, going through a terrible divorce, turned to her friends for help and graciously received it. When parents are in the weeds with their first baby, they should allow neighbors to cook, clean and bounce the baby, ignoring that inner pride screaming, “No, do it yourself.”
It’s okay for busy, hardworking parents to go away for a week of sun and rest or to wake up at 5 a.m. to walk the dog by themselves for a moment of peace and exercise. Or to sacrifice some of their family’s time and money so they can finish a degree.
Effective parents place their own needs high on their list of priorities. When these needs are met, the parents feel fulfilled. And when parents feel fulfilled, they can calmly turn to their family with renewed energy, feeling deeply grounded and ready for whatever comes their way. Balanced parents create balance in their families.
3. Create strong but kind boundaries and routines. This is, hands down, the most powerful strategy for raising young children. Effective parents know that the younger the child, the more boundaries and routines are needed. Whether it be waking up, meals, napping or bathing, a young child feels safe when the same thing happens over and over. Yet effective parents also know that there needs to be room for flexibility within that structure. Why? Life happens. Constantly. Wise parents know that a boundary held too tightly and a routine that does not allow a child to grow will create tension, struggle and misery.
It is better for children to struggle against a boundary or routine than to struggle against their parents. It is responding to “Mom, why do I have to do my homework now?” with “Because this is the time homework gets done” instead of “Because I said so.” It is not that one response will make the child adore homework; it is that one response is rooted in control, while the other is a matter-of-fact statement of routine.
As the child matures, the boundaries and routines may endure some debate, but it is still important to keep them up. Despite how they may act, tweens and teens do not want their parents to let go of the reins; they just want a voice in how much slack there is.
Strong and kind boundaries and routines can almost eliminate the need for punishments, bribes, threats, rewards, nagging and yelling. Almost.
4. Don’t take your child’s behavior personally. Let’s get real here. Are you really going to go through life not taking any of your children’s behavior personally? No. The beautiful and complicating factor of parenthood is that you love your children, and this love makes everything personal. It is your job, however, to gather all of your maturity and understand that children are immature. They are reacting to deep impulses coming from within them, both lovely and tough.
If you fall into the trap of taking your children’s behavior personally, you cannot clearly see your children. You are too busy reacting to your own junk. You explode or you waver in indecision. When you buckle down and realize it’s really not about you, you will be free to parent. And when you do occasionally explode, forgive yourself and move on.
As you are growing as an adult, you will also become more comfortable with the expression of emotion, in all its messy forms. Will you enjoy your child’s tantrum? Will you relish the hitting? Will you celebrate the rudeness? No. But you will understand that the human experience involves feeling emotions and letting them out. And young children do this frequently and poorly. We guide, we hug, we create boundaries, and we help them move through the emotions and move on.
Effective parents acknowledge that there is no workaround for this. Big emotions are inconvenient, but they are appropriate — and the alternative (keeping emotions in) makes children angry, violent and withdrawn.
5. Take the time to connect, and know how to laugh, play and not take yourself (or your children) too seriously. The most effective parents I have witnessed take the smallest moments with their children and create intimacy. My grandmother was an expert at this. When she turned her gaze to me, her eyes sparkled, she smiled, and she gave me all of her attention. She may have been simply handing me a mint, but it was still a moment of connection. Our culture is distracting us more and more (smartphones, right?), but it is critical to remember to give your children your full attention.
Connection with our children comes in car rides and silent cuddles, reading books and shopping, shooting hoops and learning about video games. Effective parents don’t let moments slip away, and when they realize they are becoming distracted, they get back in there.
And whether they are introverts, extroverts, sporty, artsy, silly or serious, effective parents recognize play as key to development. Make room for and encourage imaginative play. This will vary from family to family and parent to parent, but the beauty is that there is room for all types of play and silliness.
And perhaps most important: Play doesn’t end as children mature. One of the reasons so many parents are miserable is that they live in an endless loop and forget to enjoy the ride. Effective parents make time, among their daily duties, to have joy, laughter and play. Make it a priority, and you, too, will be an effective parent — and an effective human being. Now that’s worth repeating.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Aug. 3.