How to Be a Better Parent

It is often said that parenting is not only the most important job in the world but the one for which people are least prepared. Of course, many reject the very idea of advice. These are my children, they think, and I shall raise them as I see fit. But no parent is perfect, not even those who write books on the subject – and everyone can benefit from the experiences of others.

Giving Children Space

Nothing damages a child more than feeling unwanted. But parents must be careful not to veer to the other extreme and smother their children: they need the time and space to make mistakes and to develop what the psychologist Michael Gurian calls their “core personality.” Gurian even argues that boredom is important. When a child is bored, he will begin to develop inner resources: to pick up a crayon and draw, or to build a little fort with his sister. As Gurian puts it, this will “foster self-direction.” Rather than taking over, simply provide the tools for them to be creative (blank paper, cardboard tubes, paint boxes etc.) and then leave them alone.

Children also need to learn how harsh reality can be. Again, it is important to be sensible here. Some parents push their children into fights or leave them to cry themselves to sleep in order to “toughen them up.” Not only do such acts border on abuse, they also tend to backfire. A sensitive, introverted child can be traumatized by this sort of parenting and may never forgive them. But children do need to learn that the world can be brutal. So socialize them as early and intensely as you can – and, if possible, don’t interfere when they are playing with other children.

It should be stressed once again that children need to feel loved and wanted. When you spend time with them, give 100% of your attention. If you are in the middle of a game and you stop to answer your cell phone, then disappear, consider the message you are sending. Adults often feel offended if their dinner date answers a phone call – and children are no different. However, you also need to make it clear that they are not the center of the universe. Many parents constantly tell their children how wonderful they are, how clever, talented, and so on. In doing so, they usually hope to boost their confidence and self-esteem. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with raising your child to be assertive and to believe in himself. But a spoilt child will go out into the world expecting to be treated with the same adoration they received when young. When this fails to happen, it can be a shock. Spoilt children also tend to grow into unpopular adults.


Try to avoid labelling your child. Sometimes this is done out of spite, or even hatred. In the vast majority of cases, however, labels, and especially nicknames, arise casually and affectionately. But be wary. If you give a child a label, do not be surprised when he lives up to it. Those who disagree with selection in public schools argue that if you send one set of children to what becomes known as “the clever school” and the rest to ordinary schools, those sent to the ordinary schools will give up. They will feel labelled as stupid and will act as if they are stupid. People live up to the label imposed on them. For example, imagine a child whose older sister is exceptionally bright and has won a place in a prestigious school. Time and again he overhears his parents and grandparents discussing and praising her. Naturally, he resents this and so misbehaves. His parents nickname him the ‘little imp’ or ‘little monster’, a name he likes and takes some pride in. He quickly realizes he will never be as clever as his sister and that he doesn’t share her enthusiasm for books. His only way of standing out is to play up to the rebel label, so that is what he does. By the time he reaches his teens, this childish naughtiness has become a habit that leads to more serious forms of rebellion. Adults frequently underestimate how sensitive and perceptive children can be. A child can quickly feel boxed or labelled, with no room to move.

You must also be careful to prevent your child from self-labelling. In the above example, even if the parents do not give their son a nickname, he may still come to think of himself as “the stupid one.” Once that happens, he will see no point in trying hard at school. That in turn will mean poor grades and criticism from the teachers, which will just confirm his own feelings of worthlessness.

Choose Your Battles Wisely

Many find parenting harder and more stressful than they expected. The clinical psychologist Rick Hanson, for example, writes that most people underestimate what a struggle it can be. In exasperation, parents (especially those who stay at home) can quickly turn into whining nags. Not only is this unpleasant, it can even be dangerous. If you continually scold, criticise and correct your child, picking fault with everything he does, he will gradually stop listening. After a while, your voice will sound like an irritating background noise and your disapproval will become the norm. Then, when he does do something seriously wrong or dangerous and you need him to listen, he won’t. So let some things go. If your child makes a mess, refuses to eat his vegetables, or doesn’t want to go to bed early, be prepared to compromise. When you later catch him hitting his little sister or wandering away from you in a shop, he will be more likely to pay attention to your anger.

Help Them Discover a Passion

Try to be enthusiastic and inquisitive and your children will imitate you. Buy a telescope and show them the stars, wander around science museums and art galleries, and take them on nature hikes. But make these seem like exciting adventures rather than extra-curricular activities. Never force your children to do things they find boring. If you take them to an art gallery and they dislike it, try something else. Expose them to as many wonderful and interesting things as possible and observe their reaction. It is your duty to help them discover a passion. One child’s imagination may be fired by music, for another it may be fishing, astronomy, baseball, comic books, or martial arts; it really doesn’t matter so long as their passion is heartfelt and sincere. Helping your child to cultivate such passions is vital. Rather than constantly telling them to stay away from drugs or alcohol, give them an alternative. Many teens drift into such things out of sheer boredom.

Letting Go

Some parents so fear their children breaking away and establishing lives of their own that they resist, often via emotional manipulation – whether they are aware of it or not. The growth and development of a child is a process of continual change and you must learn to let go at every stage, not simply when they leave for college. Many parents feel scared and threatened when their child starts pre-school, when they get their first boyfriend, or when they decide to stop coming on the family vacation. Such a response is not only selfish and unrealistic – it can also be damaging. It is simply unacceptable to try and hold your child back in this way.

No book, lecture or article will ever be the final word on parenting. In part that is because every child is different and every family unique. What helps one child may scar another. But in general, give your children space to grow and make mistakes, avoid labelling them, don’t nag, help them discover a passion and, your greatest gift of all – let them go.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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