There’s a simple formula, and it begins by throwing away the rule book.
Seriously, be prepared to open your mind and re-think at least half of what you think you know about being a good parent. Then ignore at least 80% of what others try to tell you.
Sounds strange coming form someone who writes a parenting related blog? Not really because I happen to believe that apart from a few core basics, parenting should be a unique partnership built between adult and child.
Of course it’s natural to have any number of preconceptions based upon your own experiences, some of which may be positive, others less so. Preconceptions however are not carved in stone, and by nature are there to be challenged.
So how does this help you in becoming a super-star parent? Well, by pointing out that parenting is one long process of experimentation. You try what you think is right, and then change tack when you find something isn’t working so well.
The biggest problems always occur when there’s a complete lack of flexibility and an unwillingness to alter a style of communication. Because that’s all parenting really is when you strip everything right back, and an inability to establish effective lines of communication can result in what amounts to a systemic failure within the relationship.
Don’t automatically do what your parents did.
I hope you had wonderful parents. Sadly we know that not everyone does. While it may make sense to follow a blueprint shown to us by a good set of parents, we often see that it’s equally common for son’s and daughters from abusive households to replicate the same behaviour they endured.
In any case there are many lessons to be learnt by reflecting on your own childhood. It gives you an idea of what can work well, and in the case of poor treatment, what never to repeat.
Regardless of how you felt about your own childhood, it’s shear laziness to simply follow the same pattern of parenting that you received. You are not the same person as your child. There will be similarities of course, some carved into their DNA, others that grow from spending so much time in your orbit.
The point is your children are unique beings with their own set of characteristics, and as they grow their experiences will influence the person they become. Their combination of experiences will be different from yours, and every other human on the planet. Therefore you cannot possibly expect them to respond with complete predictability to a template made for someone else.
Plus, and possibly most importantly, this is your show! Why blindly follow when you can be a trail blazer? Give your child a unique experience, fully personalised for the amazing little person they are. Give them a reason to look back as parents in their own right and reflect on the great lessons you provided.
Understand that every child is different.
I’ve spoken to countless parents who thought they had this gig nailed after their first child. The second one has to be easier right? After all your an expert now.
Famous last words as the second child often has a vastly different personality and parents struggle to understand why their parenting style no longer works as well. Bear in mind that a household’s dynamic and energy shifts seismically whenever a new addition to the family arrives on the scene. The second and subsequent children however will never experience the exact same kind of focussed individual attention that the first did.
Is it lazy, reckless or just wishful thinking to expect all children to respond to one style of parenting? The answer I feel is subjective, and may not become apparent until adulthood when a child gives their parent a harsh critique and highlights where they went wrong.
Allow each child to be an individual and they’ll communicate quite effectively just how they need to be treated; you just have to be open to receiving the message.
Trust me they’ll provide feedback by the bucket-load in their own special way. It’ll be evident by the way they look into your eyes, the way they cling on when you embrace, the way they role-play with their toys. Children are an open book when it comes to non-verbal communication. It’s their gift to us that lets us know when we’re on the right track.
Set boundaries.
Discipline, social etiquette, standards of behaviour. They’re all bound up in a code of ethics we have a duty to instil in our children. This is the foundation for a developing a personal belief system, and a basic framework within which they can construct the set of values they’ll live by.
Very young children are completely self-centred. Their whole communication system revolves around fulfilling their own needs, and they’ll let you know in no uncertain terms if they’re hungry, cold or otherwise uncomfortable. At this stage they’re not cognisant of a wider social landscape, and it gradually becomes our role as parents to wean them away from this innocent sense of absolute entitlement.
It takes a certain amount of strength to set boundaries, but even the most wilful child will respond to a calm, consistent approach, as they come to realise that poor behaviour won’t get them what they want.
Come on, we’ve all seen plenty of kids who obviously haven’t learnt this lesson and behave accordingly. Once they reach adulthood, an unchecked compulsion to behave as they want can result in a pretty dysfunctional person.
In my experience simple reasoning is key whenever you have to enforce a boundary. Don’t inexplicably restrain their behaviour, tell them why you’re doing so and the logic behind your decision.
I get so frustrated when I hear children saying ‘why’ to a parent who can’t be bothered to give an answer. It’s our duty to guide them towards a societally acceptable standard of behaviour, not our right to control them. Neglecting to give a child an explanation when you enforce a boundary is tantamount to robbing them of a valuable lesson in respect of ‘action and consequence’.
Enforcing rules and boundaries isn’t pleasant, but it is a kindness.
Give them the gift of self-awareness.
Isn’t it easy to praise your child when they did well? But how sure are you that they actually understand what it is you’re praising them for? They’re active little souls, and may have been doing a dozen things with a hundred thoughts running through their head right up to the point where you said ‘good boy/girl’.
Equally if all they ever hear is ‘no’ then they become desensitised, and it fails to have any impact. Instead, try being completely transparent with what you say to them and why.
This is a wonderful way to help your child become self-aware, and another way in which they learn cause and effect by realising how their actions can have a positive or negative bearing on both themselves and others.
Elegantly simple in it’s execution, this method of communication requires nothing more than you taking the time to give your child a reason (where possible) for the praise or chastisement they receive.
That was good because………”
That was naughty/ dangerous/ careless, because……”
Essentially what you’re giving them is a library of reference points by which to measure subsequent action and behaviour. This back catalogue continues to grow, and enables them to make more intelligent choices based upon experience.
It also teaches them to reflect independently upon their actions in order to understand what they did well and vice versa. Helping them to understand that this is all part of a non-judgemental learning process gives them the ability to avoid making repeat mistakes and build a model of excellence.
Show them respect.
I always felt it was important to speak to my son as an equal. Yes the parental role gives you authority over your child, and it’s right that you wield this power in a responsible and caring way until they’re old enough to make their own choices.
Here there will normally be a natural tapering off as they assert themselves and you gradually relinquish the level of influence and control you exert. But I submit that it’s never too early to speak to your child with respect. Why bark orders at them when you can be courteous and polite? Surely saying please and thank you is the absolute basic starting point.
I always moderated my choice of age appropriate words of course, but tried whenever possible to speak to my son in a similar way to how I’d converse with an adult.
As often as possible I’d seek his opinion on something before asking him to do it. Give your child this freedom of expression and you’ll be amazed at how many times they instinctively do the right thing. You’re still there to veto the wrong choice, but I really can’t emphasize strongly enough the pride your child will feel having made a ‘grown-up’ decision and been praised for it.
When the balance finally shifts and they near adulthood, this approach will return to you in abundance as your mutual respect remains the foundation of a healthy and prosperous friendship.
I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than having the respect of your child.
Be flexible and grow together.
Without being constrained by a rigid perception of what constitutes being the ‘perfect parent’, every day is a brand new opportunity to deepen the bond between you and your child. Give them a chance to contribute and you may be surprised where it leads.
Our day was punctuated with “Dude, what do you think?”
The result, constant dialogue. Discussions on life, psychology, human nature, or other such life stuff were common. As was complete and utter silliness and random thoughts that once vocalised became the ‘in jokes’ we still share today.
It’s fair to say I made most of it up as I went along, and it’s only in hindsight that I’m able to fully realise what we achieved, my son and I, and articulate the reasons why it all worked out so well.
People often say that my son is just like me. Well yes and no. The thing is we both influenced each other, and kind of met in the middle. So it’s not just a case of him taking after his old man. There were aspects of me he took on, and I did the same, because, well, he’s pretty damn awesome.
I can wholeheartedly say, with a tear in my eye, that I’m only the person I am today because he taught me how to be a better man.
Was I a perfect parent? In my view far from it, but do you know what? According to my son I was exactly what he needed.