Being a parent is anything but simple or straightforward. Every day is essentially a new adventure. A beautiful, winding, topsy-turvy adventure. What can be a great help along the ride is your approach.
Sometimes, we assume that parenting is about striving for perfection. Or we think we need to be privy to some significant secret. Or we assume that parenting requires natural talents or natural instincts that we don’t have.
But really, parenting is a skill. It’s about learning and practicing.
In her excellent book, What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive, psychologist Erica Reischer, Ph.D, shares effective parenting practices, which are based on research and clinical experience. With each strategy, she discusses a parenting principle and shares specific ideas on how readers can actually implement them in real life.
Below are five important strategies from her wise, invaluable book.
Change your behavior first
According to Reischer, “you are the instrument of change in your relationship with your children (or anyone else).” So if you want your kids to change, change yourself first. Think about the precise behavior that you’d like your child to change. Now think about your own role. Ask yourself: “How am I contributing to this situation/behavior/response?”
For instance, let’s say you want your child to stop breaking the rules. Ask yourself: “Am I consistent in setting and maintaining limits?” If you want your children to stop interrupting you, ask yourself: “Do I stop what I’m doing to focus on their issue when they interrupt?” (Because if you do, then you’re essentially rewarding their interrupting. It’s clearly working for them, which is why they keep doing it.)
Once you pinpoint your part in the problematic behavior, Reischer writes, focus on changing how you interact with your kids regarding this issue.
Empathize with your kids
“Empathy may be the single most powerful tool that all parents have, and it’s always available,” Reischer writes. Empathizing with your kids means that you’re really listening to them and their feelings. You’re giving your child the gift of being heard, seen and understood. You’re also creating a safe environment for your kids to express their emotions. And empathy is great for diffusing power struggles.
Empathizing doesn’t mean that you need to change or fix the situation. For instance, you can empathize with your children about being frustrated over performing their chores—but that doesn’t mean you’re going to clean their rooms for them. Empathizing includes acknowledging someone’s feelings and validating them.
Reischer gives this example of what to say when your child is upset about having to finish her (or his) chores before going to a friend’s house: “I know you’re upset about having to wait to go to Tim’s house. I can see why you would feel frustrated (acknowledge feelings). I don’t like it either when I have to wait to do something I’m looking forward to (validate feelings).”
Take responsibility for your mistakes
Here’s an inevitable fact: As a parent, you’ll make mistakes. Likely many of them. Because, after all, you’re human, and humans make mistakes. It’s how we learn and grow. According to Reischer, the key is to take responsibility for your blunders, and apologize. When you do, you not only show your kids respect, you also model integrity. You teach them how to navigate their own mistake making.
Reischer shares this example: You yelled at your kids. After you calm down, you say: “I’m sorry that I yelled at you earlier today. I had a challenging day at work and I was low on patience. Still, yelling at you was not okay and I’m very sorry.”
Help your kids with dress rehearsals
Practice is essential to learning. Which is why Reischer suggests staging rehearsals to practice new behaviors and to reduce tantrums or other problematic behaviors. For instance, if your child throws things when he gets upset, pick a time to rehearse when he’s calm. Then ask him to pretend to be mad and keep his hands to himself. Be sure to praise your child for trying—and to do the same if you see him practicing when he’s genuinely upset (even if he only does it partially).
You also can simulate other situations, such as having your child put on her school clothes and practice putting away her things after she gets home.
Match your actions to your values
You’ve likely heard it many times: Your kids learn by watching what you do. And, of course, you get it. But sometimes, we might not realize the messages we’re really sending in subtle but pivotal ways.
For instance, one of Reischer’s clients was concerned about her son acting like a sore loser every time his team lost a soccer game. This surprised her because she and her husband never got upset when the team lost, and they emphasized that winning isn’t important. When talking about her family’s attitude toward sports with Reischer, she mentioned that her husband is a big Yankees fan. Any time his team loses, he gets very upset, and sometimes even yells at the TV. Oh.
Reischer suggests making a list of five to ten of the most important values you want to teach your kids. This might include compassion, honesty and responsibility. Next for each value, consider what you say and how you model these values. Then pay attention to the ways in which your behavior doesn’t match your desired message. For instance, do you talk about the importance of reading but then watch TV for most of the night?
Parenting comes with many challenges. Thankfully, there are strategies we can adopt to navigate these tricky situations. And, ultimately, as Laura Vanderkam writes in this great piece, “The truth is that parenting, like any other endeavor, is largely what you make of it.”
What will you make of it?