Nine Steps to More Effective Parenting
September 3, 2004, KidsHealth.org

Raising children is one of the toughest and most fulfilling jobs in the world - and the one for which you may feel the least prepared. Here are some ways to tackle your child-rearing responsibilities that will help you feel more fulfilled as a parent, and enjoy your children more, too.

1. Nurture your child's self-esteem
Children start developing their sense of self as babies when they see themselves through your eyes. Your tone of voice, your body language, and your every expression are absorbed by your child. Your words and actions as parents affect your child's developing self-image more than anything else in his world. Consequently, praising your child for his accomplishments, however small, will make him feel proud; letting him do things for himself will make him feel capable and independent. By contrast, belittling your child or comparing him unfavorably to another child will make him feel worthless.

Avoid making loaded statements or using words as weapons: "What a stupid thing to do!" or "You act more like a baby than your little brother!" Comments like these bruise the inside of a child as much as blows would the outside.

Choose your words carefully and be compassionate. Let your child know that everyone makes mistakes and that you still love him, even when you don't love his behavior.

2. Catch your child being good
Have you ever stopped to think about how many times you react negatively to your child in a given day? You may find that you are criticizing far more than you are complimenting. How would you feel about a boss who treated you with that much negative guidance, even if well-intentioned?

The more effective approach is to catch your child doing something right: "You made your bed without being asked - that's terrific!" or "I was watching you play with your sister and you were very patient." These statements will do more to encourage good behavior over the long run than repeated scoldings. Make a point of finding something to praise every day. Be generous with rewards - your love, hugs, and compliments can work wonders and are often reward enough. Soon you will find you are "growing" more of the behavior you would like to see.

3. Set limits and be consistent with your discipline
Discipline is necessary in every household. The goal of discipline is to help children choose acceptable behaviors and learn self-control. Children may test the limits you establish for them, but they need those limits to grow into responsible adults. Establishing house rules will help children understand your expectations and develop self-control. Some house rules might include: no TV until homework is done, and no hitting, name-calling, or hurtful teasing is allowed.

You may want to have a system in place: one warning, followed by consequences such as a "time out" or loss of privileges. A common mistake parents make is failure to follow through with consequences when rules are broken. You can't discipline a child for talking back one day, and ignore it the next. Being consistent teaches your child what you expect.

4. Make time for your children
With so many demands on your time, it's often difficult for parents and children to get together for a family meal, let alone spend some quality time together. But there is probably nothing your child would like more. Get up 10 minutes earlier in the morning so you can eat breakfast with your child, or leave the dishes in the sink and take a walk after dinner. Children who are not getting the attention they want from their parents often act out or misbehave because they are assured of being noticed that way.

Many parents find it mutually rewarding to have prescheduled time with their child on a regular basis. For instance, tell your child that Tuesday is his special night with Mommy, and let him help decide how you will spend your time together. Look for other ways to connect with your child - put a note or something special in his lunchbox.

Adolescents seem to need less undivided attention from their parents than younger children. Because there are fewer windows of opportunity for parents and teens to get together, parents should do their best to be available when their teen does express a desire to talk or participate in family activities. Attending concerts, games, and other events with him communicates caring and lets you get to know about him and his friends in important ways.

Don't feel guilty if you're a working parent. It is the many little things you do with your child - making popcorn, playing cards, window shopping - that he will remember.

5. Be a good role model
Young children learn a great deal about how to act by watching you. The younger they are, the more cues they take from you. Before you lash out or blow your top in front of your child, think about this: is that how you want him to behave when he's angry? Be constantly aware that you are being observed by your children. Studies have shown that children who hit usually have a role model for aggression at home.

Model the traits you wish to cultivate in your child: respect, friendliness, honesty, kindness, tolerance. Exhibit unselfish behavior. Do things for other people without expecting a reward. Express thanks and offer compliments. Above all, treat your children the way you expect other people to treat you.

6. Make communication a priority
You can't expect children to do everything simply because you, as parent, "say so." Children want and deserve explanations as much as adults do. If we don't take time to explain, children will begin to wonder about our values and motives and whether they have any basis. Parents who reason with their children allow them to understand and learn in a nonjudgmental way.

Make your expectations clear. If there is a problem, describe it to your older child, express your feelings about it, and invite your child to work on a solution with you. Be sure to include consequences. Make suggestions and offer choices. Be open to your child's suggestions as well. Negotiate with him. Children who participate in decisions are more motivated to carry them out.

7. Be flexible and willing to adjust your parenting style
If you frequently feel "let down" by your child's behavior, it may be because you have unrealistic expectations for him. Parents who think in "shoulds" (for example, "He should be potty-trained by now") may find it helpful to do more reading on the matter or talk to other parents or child development specialists.

Your child's environment has an impact on his behavior, and you may be able to modify his behavior by changing his environment. If you find yourself constantly saying "No" to your 2-year-old, look for ways to restructure his surroundings so that fewer things are off-limits. This will cause less frustration for both of you.

As your child changes, you will gradually have to change your parenting style. Chances are, what works with your child now won't work as well in a year or two.

Teenagers tend to look less to their parents and more to their peers for role models. Continue to provide guidance, encouragement, and appropriate discipline while allowing your child to earn more independence. And seize every available moment to make a connection!

8. Show that your love is unconditional
As a parent, you are responsible for correcting and guiding your child. But how you express your corrective guidance makes all the difference in how your child receives it. When you have to confront your child, avoid blaming, criticizing, or fault-finding, which undermine self-esteem and can lead to resentment. Instead, strive to nurture and encourage even when you are disciplining your child. Make sure he knows that although you want and expect him to do better next time, you love him no matter what.

9. Be aware of your own needs and limitations as a parent
Face it - you are an imperfect parent. You have strengths and weaknesses as a family leader. Recognize your abilities - "I am loving and dedicated." Vow to work on your weaknesses - "I need to be more consistent with discipline." Try to have realistic expectations for yourself, your spouse, and your children. You don't have to have all the answers - be forgiving of yourself. And try to make parenting a manageable job. Focus on the areas that need the most attention rather than trying to address everything all at once. Admit it when you're burned out. Take time out from parenting to do things that will make you happy as a person (or as a couple). Focusing on your needs does not make you selfish. It simply means you care about your own well-being, which is another important value to model for your children.