10 Small Steps to Being a Better Parent
by Ron Taffel, Ph.D.
Sometimes, just making a few tiny, relatively painless adjustments in the way you
interact with your kids can bring about huge improvements in your family life. Here are
ten doable changes requiring little investment of time and no major overhaul of
philosophy, temperament or parenting that any parent can make, starting today.
1. Praise you childs random acts of kindness.
Your son has allowed another child at the playground to ride on his beloved
scooter. Your daughter made you a card with a smiley face and lots of red hearts. Take
notice by offering a little praise.
Why you need to: so often, in the bustle of our daily lives, we take for granted
those sweet or generous behaviors we most like to see in our children and want to
promote and strengthen. Noticing and praising your childs kind gestures is one
important way to help her establish a core identity, a sense of herself as a person who
feels good when shes good to others. Also, praising your child for something nice
she did teaches her not to take others kindnesses for granted.
How you do it: Your dont have to create the impression that drawing a
smiley-face card or sharing a toy is the most fabulous achievement ever. Simply say,
"That was really great, the way you shared your scooter with Paul at the
playground." And then turn your attention elsewhere.
2. Stop arguing with a screaming child.
Give up trying to convince a furious 4-year-old that it's a bad idea to have
another cookie right before dinner. The logic of that decision will be lost on him.
Why you need to: Its futile to argue with a child
whos in the middle of a tantrum. Instead of getting through to him, you will likely
upset him even more. That, in turn, makes him feel miserable and you feel ineffectual.
How you do it: Try changing your location. If youre in a
public with your child, move to a different aisle of the supermarket or cut your
expedition short: at home, walk into another room. The key is to distract if not
your child, then yourself. One mother told me that when she is approaching meltdown with
her 3-year-old, she goes to the freezer, grabs two ice cubes, and holds one in each fist:
"It literally cools me down! And it reminds me not to argue with him."
3. Read bedtime stories as often as possible.
Lie down with your child before lights out and read one of her favorite books, or even a
single chapter of it. Or expand your horizons: A father in one of my parenting workshops
told me that he enjoyed reading to his 6-year-old daughter, Vicky would tug at his sleeve
every evening, saying, "Read to me about Oliver, Daddy."
Why you need to: Stories, of course, teach kids about life in
many indirect ways. But research also suggests that the cadence, rhythm, and tone of being
read to-as opposed to the sounds of other kinds of talking-soothe a child and help relieve
anxieties. "When I'm reading to Vicky," says her father, "I can seethe
peacefulness in her face."
How you do It: If you currently read to your child once a week,
double up to twice a week. Or extend storytime from 15 minutes to 20 minutes. "Every
three or four evenings, I schedule uninterrupted reading and storytelling," says
Amanda, the mother of 6-year-old twins. "The TV and video games go off and the
answering machine picks up the phone. I refrain from comments about clothes to be picked
up or backpacks to be loaded." As a result, the activity is not only pleasant and
reassuring, it is also a treasured ritual.
4. Drop one event per week
Somewhere, in nearly every American household-posted on the refrigerator or tacked to the
bulletin board in the family room there is a monthly calendar jammed with activities. This
calendar resembles a city map-dense, crowded, gridlocked! At a certain point, all those
penciled-in to-do items cease to be enriching and instead become a prescription for
emotional and physical meltdown. Dropping just one activity a week will do wonders for the
quality of your family life.
Why you need to: Simply stated, most of us are wildly over
scheduled. Having your child attend one or two fun events a week, rather than several, can
mean the difference between a child who's contented and calm and one who's overexcited and
impossible for hours at a time.
How you do it: View a mental rerun of the past week or two. Ask
yourself, "Is there a point at which we always seem to run into trouble-when my child
gets especially worn out or cranky or I get especially on edge?" Perhaps you'll
recognize a trouble spot-after Wednesday's swim class or Thursday's toddler gymnastics.
Can you eliminate that activity from the weekly schedule? At the very least, can you skip
it one week and see if you or your child feels calmer and happier?
5. Get physical with your child.
Give him a quick hug. Tousle his hair. Scratch his back. Hold hands. Sounds obvious-yet so
many rushed parents and children these days barely have a chance to speak to one another,
let alone touch.
Why you need to: We grown-ups place great importance on
communicating-expressing thoughts and feelings in words-yet we often undervalue how much
communication goes on through touch. We forget how powerfully casual physical gestures
express love. A quick kiss or stroke on the cheek as your youngster bounds off to school
leaves a little piece of you with him for the day.
How you do It: Ask yourself, "Have I expressed my love
today through touch?" Be sensitive to your child's preferences: One youngster might
love a good, hard hug, while another would shrink from it in embarrassment or discomfort.
Find the mode of touch that works for your child.
6. Imagine the best, not the want.
This is a tough one, because parents are natural worriers. Your toddler wants only cereal,
and you're afraid she'll be the fussy eater you were. Your son gets bossy at the
playground, and you're sure he'll never have any friends. You can reverse such thinking by
consciously imagining the best possibility instead of the worst.
Why you need to: The more we project negative outcomes, the more
likely they are to happen. When you fret about your child's eating habits, for example,
you're apt to react in ways that actually encourage fussiness. When you're convinced a
friendless future is ahead for your child, he begins to perceive himself as bossy and to
act even more so. What's more, always sending your child out of the house with a "Be
careful"-and omitting the "Have fun"-makes the whole experience of
parenting less enjoyable.
How you do it: Identify some unimportant issue and just let it
go without the usual struggle. Perhaps your son is dawdling in the mornings before school.
Instead of stressing about whether he'll be tardy and convincing yourself that he'll
always be disorganized, tell yourself, "He's learning to make decisions, regardless
of whether his clothes look funny or he's a few minutes late."
7. See the world through your child eyes.
On occasion, put yourself in your child's place.
Why you need to: Adopting your child's point of view is one of
the most powerful parent-child connectors around. It reaffirms for her that you appreciate
what she's thinking and feeling. An added bonus: You get to see things with the
often-magical vision of a child. One father, noticing his 3-year-old leaning into the TV,
asked why she was standing so close. "I want to be in there with Barney," said
his daughter. Seeing things as your child does provides a glimpse into her world.
How you do it: Once this week, as your child is telling you
something, stop yourself from correcting, teaching, reacting, or interpreting. Just say,
"Tell me more." Listen and perhaps marvel at what you hear, You will be rewarded
with even more details about what your child sees and feels.
8. Let go a little.
This is an assignment especially for mothers-and one they find difficult to carry out:
Delegate some responsibilities. Let someone else-your husband, your children, a friend-do
some of the work.
Why you need to. Lightening your load is critical to your sanity and your
reserves as a parent. More subtly, it will lower the resentment you may often feel. In
countless polls, mothers have revealed a high level of repressed anger because they feel
so totally overwhelmed by all they must do to keep their families functioning.
How to do It: Delegating may feel odd at first, but it gets
easier with practice. Remember, start small: Add one extra night to the number of times
Dad puts the kids to bed. One day a week, share chauffeuring of kids to after-school
activities with another parent. Get your children to perform household tasks: A 3-year-old
can feed a hamster; a 5-year-old can set the table; a 7-year-old can put away groceries.
Gradually, as the family grows accustomed to the idea, add to everyone's responsibilities
--except your own.
9. Sometimes, just hang out together.
Many studies point to a disturbing fact: Even when families think they're spending time
together, in reality Mom is at the computer, Dad is in the basement, one kid is in the den
with his Game Boy, and another is in the living room, building with blocks. Yes, they are
under the same roof, but they're nowhere near each other. Yet quiet, unstructured time
together is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids.
Why you need to: Children tell me again and again that the times
they love most are when the whole family watches a video or plays a board game together.
Kids cherish simple moments of sitting with other family members, doing not much of
anything at all. One day, when Emily, now 12, was 5, she stayed home from school with a
fever, She and her mom spent the day lazing on the couch, watching three of her favorite
videos and dressing her Barbie in one outfit after another. Says Emily, seven years later,
"That was one of the best days of my life."
How you do it. Once a week, find time to be together as a family
in a way that's restful and comforting. Invite the kids to climb into bed with you on
Saturday morning and just lounge around for a half hour or so before the weekend frenzy
kicks in. Or, one night a week, instead of rushing to clean up after dinner, linger with
the whole family over dessert, the way you might if you went out to a restaurant.
10. Smile more.
And while you're at it, make a point of laughing more too.
Why you need to: A smile is the most visible way we humans make
ourselves and those around us feel better. Even when you are not initially in the mood to
smile, scientists have found, the mere act of forcing your lips into that shape actually
elevates your spirits. Research also shows that children, especially very young ones,
mirror our facial expressions. So if you smile more, your child smiles more and is in a
happier mood. Also, when kids perceive themselves as people who bring their parents
happiness, they feel better about themselves. In my work with children, I am always struck
by how thrilled they are when a parent laughs at one of their jokes.
Now you do It: Ask yourself every day, "Have I smiled or
laughed today at something my kids did or said? Have I found the humor in the ordinary
business that has gone on between us?" So many of the moments that try a parent's
soul center around everyday transitions-getting everybody out of the house in the morning
or to dinner in the evening or to bed at night. A simple smile can break the tension and
instantly improve the mood. If you sense that frowns have outnumbered the smiles on your
face lately, change that picture immediately. Ask your 7-year-old if he's heard any new
knock-knock jokes, or tell one yourself. While you're giving your 3-year-old her bath,
stop thinking about the six other things you have to do, and just watch her race her
plastic boats or feed her rubber duck.
Raising children can be an overwhelming job. It becomes much more manageable if you
remember that enormous changes for the better begin with tiny steps. Put just one of these
steps into practice this week-the one that strikes you as most doable or compelling. With
that small step, you've already begun the process of change.
Parents Mag Aug 1999