Chapter One: Being a Better Parent
When people find out that I'm both a parent and a psychologist who has spent his entire career studying parenting, I'm often asked whether what I've learned as a researcher has helped me to be a better parent. The answer is that of course it has. It's like asking a professional chef whether studying cooking for a living has made him or her better in the kitchen at home. How could it not? Like anything else, good parenting requires knowledge.
I've studied parents and their children for well over twenty-five years. I've published several books and hundreds of articles on parenting and child development, and I've been the editor in charge of articles on parent-child relationships for the most prestigious scientific journal in the field of child psychology. My own instincts as a parent have been shaped by what I've devoted my career to studying, and when I've had doubts or questions about what to do as a parent as all parents, even experts, invariably do I have always regained my bearings by thinking about what I've learned from the thousands of families I've studied and the thousands of research reports I've read.
In this book, I'm going to share this understanding with you.
This book is different from other books on parenting because it is based on the science of good parenting, on literally thousands of well-designed research studies research that is just as credible as the research that scientists use to test new drugs, design safer automobiles, and construct sturdier buildings. Unlike most other parenting books on the market, this one is not based on one person's opinion, or someone's experiences in raising a couple of children, or the observations somebody made over the course of working with a few dozen families in a clinical practice. The advice contained in this book is based on what scientists who study parenting have learned from decades of systematic research involving hundreds of thousands of families. What I've done is to synthesize and communicate what the experts have learned in a language that nonexperts can understand. I've boiled this knowledge down into ten basic principles.
This book is not about the nuts and bolts of parenting; it is not about how to feed, dress, teach, stimulate, or play with your child. There are many excellent books on the market that cover these topics comprehensively, written for parents with children of different ages.
This book is more about the philosophy of good parenting. It describes an approach to parenting that cuts across different issues and different age periods. What you'll learn is a general orientation to raising children that is grounded in the most accurate and up-to-date scientific information available.
Raising children is not typically something we think of as especially scientific. It may surprise you to learn, though, that there is a science of effective parenting and that there is an awful lot more systematic research on parenting than on many other aspects of life where we routinely rely on science to guide us. In fact, child psychologists and other experts have been studying parenting for about seventy-five years, and it is one of the most well-researched areas in the entire field of social science.
More important, the study of parenting is an area of research in which the findings are remarkably consistent, and where the findings have remained remarkably consistent over time. It's hard to think of many areas of research about which we can say that. Guidance about what we should eat, how frequently we should exercise, or how we should cope with stress changes constantly. New medical treatments are invented all the time. Today's health advice contradicts what we heard just yesterday. But the scientific principles of good parenting have not changed one bit in close to forty years. In fact, the scientific evidence linking certain basic principles of parenting to healthy child development is so clear and so consistent that we can confidently say we know what works and what does not. If it seems that the advice given in popular books is inconsistent, it's because few popular books are grounded in well-documented science.
For the most part, parenting is something we just do, without really giving it much thought. Much of the time we don't stop and think about what we do as parents because circumstances don't permit us to. When you are scurrying around in the morning trying to find your children's homework before sending them off to school, or breaking up a fight between an older child and younger sibling who are going at each other in the backseat of the car, or trying to soothe a colicky infant when your head is pounding because the baby has been crying uninterrupted for the past half hour, you don't have the luxury of stopping and thinking about what the best approach might be. There are plenty of times when, as parents, all we can do is just react. This part of parenting will never change. A lot of parenting is driven by our instincts, our gut responses. But the truth is that some parents have better instincts than others. With a better understanding of what works when you parent, and why, and with enough practice, your instincts will get better.
There are plenty of situations where you do have time to think before you parent, though. When you are putting your preschooler to bed the night before the first day of school. When your third-grader hands you a terrific report card. When your seventh-grader is upset because her friends have jilted her. When your teenager comes home later than your agreed-upon curfew. At these moments, you have time to stop and think through what you should do before you act, and your actions should be guided by the best information on how to handle the situation most effectively. The more you practice good parenting when you do have time to think before you act, the more natural good parenting will become during those moments when you are responding instinctively.
One of the most encouraging findings from research on children's development is that the fundamentals of good parenting are the same regardless of whether your child is male or female, six or sixteen, an only child, a twin, or a child with multiple siblings. They are the same regardless of whether the primary parent is a mother, a father, or some other caregiver. The basic principles of good parenting have been corroborated in studies done in different parts of the world, with different ethnic and racial groups, in poor as well as in rich families, and in families with divorced, separated, and married parents. The same principles hold true whether you are a biological parent, an adoptive parent, or a foster parent. They apply to parents with average children and to those with children who have special needs. They even hold true for individuals who work with children, like teachers, coaches, and mentors. The evidence is that strong.
People define good parenting in different ways, so let me get right to the point about my own definition. In my view, good parenting is parenting that fosters psychological adjustment elements like honesty, empathy, self-reliance, kindness, cooperation, self-control, and cheerfulness. Good parenting is parenting that helps children succeed in school; it promotes the development of intellectual curiosity, motivation to learn, and desire to achieve. Good parenting is parenting that deters children from antisocial behavior, delinquency, and drug and alcohol use. Good parenting is parenting that helps protect children against the development of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other types of psychological distress.
I realize that my way of defining good parenting assumes that certain traits in children are more desirable than others. True enough. But in my experience, most parents want the things that the sort of parenting described in this book helps to promote. Parents from all walks of life want their children to be happy, responsible, scholastically successful, socially accepted, and well behaved. But they all don't necessarily know how to achieve these goals.
I can't guarantee that if you follow the principles set out in this book your child will never have any problems, never fail a test in school, or never get into trouble, and any author of a book on parenting who makes such a promise should be distrusted. Children are influenced by many forces other than their parents, including their genetic makeup, their siblings, their friends, their school, the adults they encounter outside the family, and the mass media.
But what I can guarantee is that children raised according to the ten principles I discuss in this book are far more likely to develop in healthy ways and far less likely to develop difficulties than children who are raised in a different fashion. This is not an opinion. This is a fact, and there is a lot of strong evidence to back it up.
The ten principles of effective parenting discussed in this book are general ones that apply across the whole span of childhood and adolescence, although naturally some are more important than others during certain developmental periods. And, of course, the way these principles are applied will differ depending on the age of your child. For instance, it is important to be physically affectionate toward your child at all ages, but the ways you might express physical affection toward a toddler (holding your child in your lap while reading a book together) are not the same as the ways you might do so toward a teenager (giving your child a quick hug before she leaves on her first date). Similarly, whereas one of the principles calls for providing structure and limits, which is important at all ages, the sorts of limits you would place on a toddler (for example, never to cross the street without holding your hand) would clearly not be appropriate for an adolescent. Nevertheless, the overarching approach to parenting described in this book is applicable to families with children of all ages.
Trying to articulate a set of basic principles for effective parenting with children of all ages requires speaking in generalities rather than specifics, and no doubt there will be readers who see the ten principles as little more than common sense. But although the principles certainly make sense, their use is anything but common. In fact, many parents violate them all the time. One principle discourages the use of harsh punishment, for example, but if you've ever set foot in a shopping mall or supermarket, you've probably seen plenty of parents slap and scream at their children. Another principle advocates setting limits on children's behavior, but we all know parents who let their children run wild. A third encourages parents to treat their children with respect, but we've all heard parents speak to their children in a way that was nasty or dismissive. Just because something is sensible doesn't necessarily mean that it's common.
Most parents are pretty good parents. My aim in writing this book is to help parents, even pretty good parents, do a better job than they are currently doing. I've written it as much for parents who are just starting out as I have for parents whose children are well into adolescence. And I've written it just as much for parents who think they are good parents (and who may, in fact, be good parents) as for those who believe that they need some assistance. I've written it to help settle disputes between spouses, and between adult children and their parents or in-laws, over how children should be raised. I've written it both to reassure good parents that they are doing the right thing and to give parents who aren't very good the guidance they need to change.
If you read over the ten principles and say to yourself, "I already know this stuff," that's great. Read the book over from time to time to remind yourself to practice what you know. Use it when you need to reassure yourself that what you're doing is right, even when others tell you that you are wrong. And if you think you are already doing all the things I suggest, tell yourself to do them more often. I've never met a parent who is perfect 100 percent of the time. We all can improve our batting average.
Copyright © 2004 by Laurence Steinberg