Raising a happy, healthy child is one of the most challenging jobs a parent can have -- and also one of the most rewarding. Yet many of us don't approach parenting with the same focus we would use for a job. We may act on our gut reactions or just use the same parenting techniques our own parents used, whether or not these were effective parenting skills.
Parenting is one of the most researched areas in the field of social science. No matter what your parenting style or what your parenting questions or concerns may be, from helping your child avoid becoming part of America's child obesity epidemic to dealing with behavior problems, experts can help.
In his book, The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, Laurence Steinberg, PhD, provides tips and guidelines based on some 75 years of social science research. Follow them and you can avert all sorts of child behaviour problems, he says.
Good parenting helps foster empathy, honesty, self-reliance, self-control, kindness, cooperation, and cheerfulness, says Steinberg, a distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. It also promotes intellectual curiosity, motivation, and encourages a desire to achieve. Good parenting also helps protect children from developing anxiety, depression, eating disorder, antisocial behaviour, and alcohol and drug abuse.
WHAT ARE THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF GOOD PARENTING?
- WHAT YOU DO MATTERS.
Whether it's your own health behaviours or the way you treat other people, your children are learning from what you do. "This is one of the most important principles," Steinberg explains. "What you do makes a difference...Don't just react on the spur of the moment. Ask yourself, What do I want to accomplish, and is this likely to produce that result?"
- YOU CANNOT BE TOO LOVING.
"It is simply not possible to spoil a child with love," Steinberg writes. "What we often think of as the product of spoiling a child is never the result of showing a child too much love. It is usually the consequence of giving a child things in place of love -- things like leniency, lowered expectations, or material possessions."
- BE INVOLVED IN YOUR CHILD'S LIFE.
"Being an involved parent takes time and is hard work, and it often means rethinking and rearranging your priorities. It frequently means sacrificing what you want to do for what your child needs to do. Be there mentally as well as physically."
Being involved does not mean doing a child's homework -- or correcting it. "Homework is a tool for teachers to know whether the child is learning or not," Steinberg says. "If you do the homework, you're not letting the teacher know what the child is learning."
- ADAPT YOUR PARENTING TO FIT YOUR CHILD.
Keep pace with your child's development. Your child is growing up. Consider how age is affecting the child's behaviour.
"The same drive for independence that is making your 3-year-old say 'no' all the time is what's motivating him to be toilet trained," writes Steinberg. "The same intellectual growth spurt that is making your 13-year-old curious and inquisitive in the classroom also is making her argumentative at the dinner table."
- ESTABLISH AND SET RULES.
"If you don't manage your child's behaviour when he is young, he will have a hard time learning how to manage himself when he is older and you aren't around. Any time of the day or night, you should always be able to answer these three questions: Where is my child? Who is with my child? What is my child doing? The rules your child has learned from you are going to shape the rules he applies to himself.
"But you can't micromanage your child," Steinberg notes. "Once they're in middle school, you need to let the child do their own homework, make their own choices and not intervene."
- FOSTER YOUR CHILD'S INDEPENDENCE.
"Setting limits helps your child develop a sense of self-control. Encouraging independence helps her develop a sense of self-direction. To be successful in life, she's going to need both."
It's normal for children to push for autonomy, says Steinberg. "Many parents mistakenly equate their child's independence with rebelliousness or disobedience. Children push for independence because it is part of human nature to want to feel in control rather than to feel controlled by someone else."
- BE CONSISTENT.
"If your rules vary from day to day in an unpredictable fashion or if you enforce them only intermittently, your child's misbehaviour is your fault, not his. Your most important disciplinary tool is consistency. Identify your non-negotiables. The more your authority is based on wisdom and not on power, the less your child will challenge it."
- AVOID HARSH DISCIPLINE.
Parents should never hit a child, under any circumstances, Steinberg says. "Children who are spanked, hit, or slapped are more prone to fighting with other children," he writes. "They are more likely to be bullies and more likely to use aggression to solve disputes with others."
"There are many other ways to discipline a child -- including 'time out' -- which work better and do not involve aggression."
- EXPLAIN YOUR RULES AND DECISIONS.
"Good parents have expectations they want their child to live up to," he writes. "Generally, parents overexplain to young children and underexplain to adolescents. What is obvious to you may not be evident to a 12-year-old. He doesn't have the priorities, judgment, or experience that you have."
- TREAT YOUR CHILD WITH RESPECT.
"The best way to get respectful treatment from your child is to treat him respectfully," Steinberg writes. "You should give your child the same courtesies you would give to anyone else. Speak to him politely. Respect his opinion. Pay attention when he is speaking to you. Treat him kindly. Try to please him when you can. Children treat others the way their parents treat them. Your relationship with your child is the foundation for her relationships with others."
For example, if your child is a picky eater: "I personally don't think parents should make a big deal about eating," Steinberg says. "Children develop food preferences. They often go through them in stages. You don't want to turn mealtimes into unpleasant occasions. Just don't make the mistake of substituting unhealthy foods. If you don't keep junk food in the house, they won't eat it."
HOW CAN PARENTS AVOID THE DINNERTIME BATTLE WITH THEIR CHILDREN?
Still, there are some gentle ways parents can nudge their kids toward more healthful eating habits. Here are a few thoughts from nationally known nutrition experts on how to get kids to go from being picky eaters to people with sound, varied diets:
- Avoid a mealtime power struggle. One of the surest ways to win the battle but lose the war is to engage in a power struggle with your child over food, says Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, author of The Parent's Toolshop. With power struggles, you're saying, "Do it because I'm the parent" and that's a rationale that won't work for long, she says. But if your child understands the why behind the rules, those values can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of sound food choices.
- Let kids participate. Get a stepstool and ask your kids to lend a hand with easy tasks in the kitchen, says Sal Severe, PhD, author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too. "If they participate in helping to make the meal, they are more likely to want to try it," he says. Older children and teens can begin to prepare special meals or dishes by themselves. Get teens started learning to prepare healthy foods before it's time to live on their own.
- Don't label. Severe reminds parents that, more often than not, kids under 5 are going to be selective eaters. "Being selective is actually normal," says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD. She prefers the term "limited eater" to the more negative term "picky."
- Build on the positives. "When I sit down with parents, we'll often find that their child actually does eat two or three things from each food group," says Ward. Just as children can get comfort from reading the same story over and over, they enjoy having a set of "predictable" foods. "Even though they aren't getting a wide variety of foods, they are actually doing OK nutritionally," says Ward. When the child goes through a growth spurt and has a bigger appetite, use that opportunity to introduce new foods, she recommends.
- Expose, expose, expose. Ward says a child needs to be exposed to a new food 10 to 15 times before he or she will accept it. But many parents give up long before that. So, even if your child only plays with the strawberry on her plate, don't give up. One day, she just may surprise you by taking a bite. But don't go overboard, says Severe. Limit exposure to one or two new foods a week.
- Don't bribe. Avoid using sweets as a bribe to get kids to eat something else, says Pawel. That can send the message that doing the right thing should involve an external reward as well as reinforces the pattern that eating unhealthy foods is a good way to reward yourself. The real reward of sound nutrition is a healthy body, not a chocolate cupcake.
- Beware of over-snacking. Sometimes the problem isn't that the child doesn't like new foods but that they are already full, says Ward. "Kids can consume a lot of their calories as milk and juice." Encourage the kids to drink water rather than juice when they're thirsty. You can also create flavoured waters by adding a splash of their favourite juice to sparkling or still water. The same goes for snacks that provide little more than calories, such as chips, sweets, and sodas. "If you are going to offer snacks, make sure they are supplementing meals, not sabotaging them," she says.
- Establish limits. Having a set of bottom-line limits can help a parent provide some consistency, says Pawel. For example, parents may require that kids eat nutritious foods before snack food. Or that they must at least try a new food before rejecting it. "Consistency only works if what you are doing in the first place is reasonable," she says. So, avoid overly controlling or overly permissive eating rules. If bottom-line limits are healthy, effective, and balanced, they'll pay off.
- Examine your role model. Make sure you aren't asking kids to "do as I say, not as I do," says Pawel. If your own diet is based mainly on fat, sugar, and salt, you can hardly expect your child to embrace a dinner salad over French fries.
- Defuse mealtimes. Don't make your child's eating habits part of the mealtime discussion, says Ward. Otherwise, every meal becomes a stressful event, centred on what the child does and does not eat. Ward suggests that parents reserve talks about the importance of good eating for later, perhaps at bedtime or storytime.
- Give it time. "I find that children become much more open to trying new foods after the age of 5," says Ward. "Most of the time, kids will simply grow out of limited eating."
HOW CAN PARENTS FIT IN FAMILY FITNESS?
Children need at least an hour of moderate to strenuous physical activity every day to stay healthy, according to experts. But many kids just aren't getting that much exercise. And most groups are unanimous on the prime culprit: sedentary entertainment, meaning the temptations of the TV, computer, and video games.
So, your first step toward encouraging a healthy level of physical exercise should be to limit your children's TV and screen time. Beyond that, here are some tips from the experts on how to help your children (and yourself) stay active:
- Make an exercise schedule. Exercise doesn't have to involve a rigid routine. But it's a good idea to schedule a regular time for exercise each day. You and your kids will be more likely to get up and get moving if you've set aside a specific time for physical activity. Many parents find that participation in after-school sports brings some needed relaxation and socialization time as well as fulfils the physical fitness requirement.
- Support physical-education programs in the schools, which may be reduced or receive less emphasis in some school systems. Communicate to your child's teachers and administrators your belief that physical education (PE) is an important part of the curriculum.
- Plan your vacations, weekends, and days off around fitness fun. Plan a bike ride, take an invigorating hike along nature trails, or pack a picnic lunch and head for the park for a family game of Frisbee.
- Make use of community resources. When it comes to finding fitness opportunities, take advantage of what your community has to offer. Join the local YMCA or sign up for tennis or other lessons through your Parks and Recreation Department. Look for water aerobics classes and golf lessons at local swimming pools and golf courses.
- Get the whole neighbourhood involved. Organize neighbourhood fitness activities for children and their parents. Softball games, soccer matches, and jump-rope contests are fun for kids and adults.
- Dance! Children of all ages love to dance. Crank up the music, show your kids the dances that were popular when you were a teen, and let them teach you their favourite dance moves.
- Expose your child to a variety of physical fitness activities and sports. Your child will likely find the combination of activities or sports that are most enjoyable for him or her and will not become bored with one activity.
- Let your kids take turns being the fitness director for your family. They'll have more fun when they're allowed to choose the activity, and they'll enjoy putting their parents and siblings through their paces.