When you blog about education, parenting, and community as I do, you run the risk of making whatever suggestions you provide sound so easy. “If only parents would--FILL IN THE BLANK.” It’s never that easy. Parenting is the hardest job, one for which few of us are ever really prepared. As a teacher, principal, and superintendent I have read countless books on parenting, seen some of the best parents in action, and heard my fair share of speakers discuss the ins and outs of successful parenting. As a parent of three unique kids, I have also had my share of fails.
All the parenting advice can be quite dizzying. Someone recently asked me what I thought to be the best advice on parenting. I took the question as an opportunity to frame what advice I think stands the test of time--that which is good advice regardless of what era we find ourselves raising children. I came up with twelve. I offer you, Parenting By the Dozen. Take it for it is worth. There is no judgement, simply an opportunity to reflect. Maybe a few of these will resonate with you, as well.
#1. Be the parent you are. Parent the kid you have.
If I had to select only one piece of advice to offer a parent, this would be it. We are so hard on ourselves as parents and the spirit of comparison that we often find ourselves in doesn’t make it any easier. There are so many theories out there. So many people making money selling their version of the "parenting panacea." The hard, yet freeing, reality is that every kid is different. Every parent is different. Different kids need different approaches. Different parents have different skill sets. Parents will have more success in parenting when they parent from a place of authenticity. This requires parents to take time to look inward, though, to understand ourselves, including our shortcomings. It also requires parents to take time to get to know what makes each of our children tick. The biggest gift I have found in my own parenting is that each of my children teaches me how to parent them; it just requires me to suspend judgement and listen, observe, and learn sometimes--a posture we adults struggle to take at times.
#2. Be present when, where, and how your kid wants to talk.
This piece of advice is especially important as our kids get older. There is a natural part of growing up called “individuation.” This process begins in early adolescence. It’s hard for many parents to warm up to this stage of growing up because we’re not ready to let go of control; however, it is essential to our children’s healthy development. During the individuation process it’s normal for kids to avoid talking and sharing with parents. However, the same phase involves a lot of curiosity, feelings, and fear--emotions they will need to share and process. All too often, we expect kids to talk to us on our timelines; that often doesn’t work out well. We have to be ready to listen when our kids are ready to talk. As best we can, we need to pause what we’re doing when, where, and how they are ready. Preteens and teens often like talking when you (and they) least expect it. You can help promote those “moments,” though. Boys will often open up when they are engaged in an activity. Want your boy to share with you? Try tossing the ball with him and just start talking. Many boys also find face-to-face conversations to be intimidating. Try talking side-by-side when you are driving in the car; sometimes the lack of eye contact is all it takes to open the lines of communication. Girls, on the other hand, tend to prefer special, organized, and planned time to communicate. Regardless of where and when your child wants to talk, be ready and drop what you are doing and listen.
#3. Trust, but verify.
Children are going to make mistakes. They are going to disappoint us. The tricky thing about independence is that we have to offer progressively more of it over time in order to develop trust. Kids have to trust themselves that they can handle the independence. They also have to have some independence in order to show us that they are trustworthy. I have heard parenting likened to bowling: you let the kid bowl, but the bumpers are up. They may not get a strike, but they won’t land the ball in the gutter, either. As parents, we have to gradually let go of the reigns and develop the trust muscle. A great example is the time our kid asks us to go the movies or the mall by themselves with their friends. You give them the opportunity, set the expectation, and then put the check-ins in place to make sure they are following the rules. If they screw up, as they sometimes will, we bring in the reigns a little bit and then let them build that trust back. There is, of course, a balance. Too much freedom with no accountability can lead to really bad decisions, especially as our kids get older. Our kids often overestimate how much they know, what they are capable of, and how safe they are. It’s our job to be the bumpers, but we still need to let them bowl.
#4. When you get into a power struggle with your kid, you’ve already lost.
This nugget of gold was advice given to me in my student teaching experience by my master teacher. It’s not only true for a teacher working with students, but it’s also good advice for a parent. When we get into a power struggle with our kids, it sends the message that they have power over which to struggle with you. Successful parenting involves empowerment. Struggling with and questioning authority is also an important part of growing up. However, empowerment doesn’t need to supercede the reason and domain of the parent. In my humble opinion, a healthy level of respect for “the rule of law” is still an important component of effective parenting. Sometimes our kids just need to hear, “I’m not arguing with you. When you calm down and are willing to reason, then we can talk.”
#5. Too much of anything is probably not good.
There’s a lot of noise out there about what might otherwise seem innocent enough, but might really be damaging for your kid. Is screen time robbing children of their childhood or is it a revolutionary tool to unlock self-directed learning? Are our children so overscheduled that they can no longer manage downtime or are we helping our kids by providing productive interests? Is homework taking over family life and children’s free time or is it an essential tool to advance academic progress? Is social media destined to conscribe our children to a life of unsatisfied comparison or is it a natural and healthy social outlet? When it comes to these value-laden questions, I tend to lean toward balance. Rather than approach parenting as a set of legalistic decisions, parenting that allows space for “just enough” and “not too much” is often a great approach. It’s not either-or, it’s “yes, and…”
#6. Not getting what you want? Try something different.
In nearly every parenting workshop I have led or participated in, someone raises their hand and asks a question that goes something like this, “You said in your presentation that if my child is doing BLANK, that I should try BLANK and that should do the trick. Well, I’ve been doing that for the last year and it doesn’t work.” As I shared in #1, every kid is different. Not every strategy works with every kid. In a talk I have given called “Parenting Teens Without Losing Your Mind,” I identify what I believe to be the three “currencies” of the teenager: freedom, privacy, and material possessions. Not every kid is motivated by all three and not all in the same ways. For one kid, losing screen time will be a great motivator, for another it won’t have any impact. The trick is knowing what motivates your kid and adjusting your responses to get the desired response. If what you are doing right now isn’t working (even if it was written in a book, works for your neighbor, or worked for your older kid), give yourself permission to try something different.
#7. Three words...Sleepaway. Summer. Camp.
I can’t say enough about the benefits of sleepaway summer camp. I just don’t think there is anything that produces the independence, perspective, safe risk taking, and identity development that sleepaway summer camp can generate. Now, I know there will be folks who say that their kid just isn’t a summer camp kid; and there are probably a few of those kids out there. There are, however, any number of different summer camps that can capture the imagination of a child. If you can find that one for your kid, it’s life changing. I wish sleepaway summer camps weren’t so expensive, but don’t let cost get in your way. Most summer camps provide scholarship opportunities. For more insight into the benefits of sleepaway summer camp, check out my SupsOn blog on the topic.
#8. Character is learned and it takes time.
I have seen it. It’s real. Some kids are just born with a tendency toward kindness, justice, empathy, and good judgement without ever being taught. For some, it’s just their natural instinct. However, this penchant for what one would consider “good character” is not an ingrained response for all kids. It’s also true that children learn from making mistakes, and this includes making mistakes that hurt others’ feelings, offend indiscriminately, and push peoples’ buttons. Most of what we consider right and wrong is a social construct and requires patient teaching, modeling, correction, and encouragement. As parents, and I am guilty as charged, we sometimes let our embarrassment about our children’s inability to follow our meticulous character building direction allow us to lose site of the marathon we are running. Character, in fact, is learned. It takes time for kids to understand, to practice, and to have those behaviors become habit. Empathy takes time to develop. Context is an abstract idea. Our little ones are still under construction. Let’s not be surprised when our five year old acts like a five year old or when our fourteen year old acts like a fourteen year old. We don’t have to condone or excuse behavior, but we can refrain from shock, surprise, and embarrassment and allow our children’s missteps to serve as yet another teachable moment.
#9. If they can do it themselves, let them.
Let’s face it, parenting is a long process of launching our kids into independence. Did you know that some animals grow up without any help from their parents? They are independent from the moment they are born. Somewhere between those animals and your 40 year-old son living in your basement exists the healthy roadmap to human parenting. Every kid is different and some require more “hand holding” than others; however, every child requires the expectation of and opportunity to take responsibility for age-appropriate tasks. In education we refer to this idea of letting go of the learning as “gradual release of responsibility.” If they can put their dishes in the dishwasher, make them. If they can make their own school lunch, expect it. If they can do their own laundry, go for it. The sooner and more completely you can release independence to your child, the better for you and better for them.
#10. Modeling has exponential power.
Before I go to sleep, I like to read the news, watch an SNL or Daily Show video, and maybe clear my personal email inbox--all on my cellphone as I rest comfortably in my bed. The problem, though? I really don’t think it is healthy for kids to have screens in their room or watch screens within an hour of going to sleep. The reality is, I’m not sending the right message to my kids of what is in their best interest. My kids are young. They don’t yet have smartphones (and won’t until they are in 8th grade). They are, however, impressionable. I’m trying to discipline myself to stay off the screens for the hour before they go to bed and to avoid them seeing me on my phone in my room. Why? Because I know how influential my modeling is on my kids’ choices. Want kids to eat healthier? It helps to eat healthy ourselves. Want kids to read more? It helps to read more in front of them. Want kids to be less emotionally dysregulated? It helps to yell less, rush less, harp less, stress less. Yes. We parent more effectively when we are the better versions of ourselves; ugh!
#11. Pick your battles.
Parenting is full of battlefields; picking the right battles is a science that takes time to learn and the strategy changes with each passing age and phase. Generally speaking, parents who feel successful in their parenting are able to reserve “NO” for those times that require us to say no. And when we say it, it’s best that we mean it.
#12. Have a life outside of your kids.
We are at our best as parents when we take care of ourselves. If you are married or otherwise committed to your co-parent, the single best thing you can do to improve your parenting is to take care of your marriage/relationship. It’s important to maintain your friendships and have those friendships be centered around something other than your kids. It doesn’t count when you hang out with your friends and all you talk about are your kids. You are more than your kids. You were interesting before you were a parent; it’s okay to still be interesting once you have kids. What hobbies do you enjoy? What sports do you like to play? What would you do this Saturday if you didn’t have kids? Do those things! And do them without the kids as often as possible. Take care of yourself so you can be the best version of YOU for your kids.
So there you have it. The twelve best pieces of advice for parents that I have come across in my work as a teacher, school leader, parent educator, and parent myself. Did I miss any? Did I get any wrong? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts.
These dozen may be common sense, but let’s face it, parenting is one job that will make us lose our senses sometimes. It’s nice to be reminded that wisdom precedes us. Eighteen years is a long time. Enjoy them while they last. I’ve heard it said about parenting: the days are long, but the years are fast. You got this! Before you know it your kids will be out of the house and the cycle will start again...for them.
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.