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The Best Things Parents Do: Ideas and Insights from Real-World Parents

The Best Things Parents Do: Ideas and Insights from Real-World Parents

by Susan Isaacs Kohl

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Parents are doing a better job than they think they are. Author Susan Kohl has been a parent watcher for more than 30 years--and she knows what parents do well. A kind of Mr. Rogers for parents, Susan Kohl's The Best Things Parents Do is a "best practices" book that parents will turn to again and again.

Each chapter focuses on one topic and contains


Parents are doing a better job than they think they are. Author Susan Kohl has been a parent watcher for more than 30 years--and she knows what parents do well. A kind of Mr. Rogers for parents, Susan Kohl's The Best Things Parents Do is a "best practices" book that parents will turn to again and again.

Each chapter focuses on one topic and contains stories and vignettes from Kohl's personal experience, relevant statistics and psychological truths, strategies to use, and things to think about or actions to take. Kohl knows that when parents begin to pay attention to what they do well, they can do more of it--channeling their children's energy into constructive endeavors, modeling positive behavior and discouraging negative behavior, and honoring their children's feelings as well as their own.

The Best Things Parents Do is divided into four parts:

  • 1. The Best Attitudes Parents Hold: the best parents value progress.
  • 2. The Best Things Parents Do: from focusing on their children's feelings to seeing the opportunities in obstacles.
  • 3. The Best Things Parents Do for Themselves.
  • 4. The Best Things Parents Do for Each Other.

Parents of children of any age will find relief--and hope--in The Best Things Parents Do.

Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature
A parent, teacher and parent educator reminds parents to trust themselves in this book loosely based on the saying "attitude is everything." Divided into three sections, the book begins by reminding parents of the attitudes that foster the best behaviors, like progress, not refection, opt for optimism, and focus on feelings. The second section, The "Best Things Parents Do," puts these attitudes into practice by using actual scenarios and suggesting how to handle them using your new-found attitudes. Accenting the positive, having an actual discipline plan, really listening to your child and making family a number one priority are actions suggested. Parts three and four suggest ways to handle the stress of parenthood by taking time for yourselves, applauding your successes, laughing at failures and building bridges with other parents. The chapters are short and to the point so you can put the book down and come back to it later. There are words and sayings of encouragement throughout and occasional activities to cement learning. Overall, there's a message that caring for and about children is the most important job we'll ever do. A list of suggested reading and an index are included. 2004, Conari Press, Ages Adult.
—Meredith Kiger, Ph.D.

Product Details

Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date:
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5.25(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Best Things Parents Do

Ideas & Insights from Real-World Parents


Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 2004 Susan Isaacs Kohl
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57324-902-7


Progress, Not Perfection

Progress, Not Perfection

No one is going to grade you as a parent. No one is keeping score. You don't have to do it perfectly. You will make mistakes ... Accept this truth and you will find being a good parent much easier.

John and Linda Friel

When I give a discipline workshop, new participants always arrive looking a little nervous. I have learned to expect this. Talking about how we handle our kids can make many of us feel self-critical. Who would claim they do it well? And who among us doesn't make mistakes? Throughout these workshops, people sigh with audible relief when they realize that other parents share the same frustrations they do. No one gets it right all the time. Recognizing that the point is to gain insight, not have instant answers, overrides the voice that tells these parents that they aren't doing a good enough job.

It's rare to find anyone who doesn't have an inner critic poking holes in her confidence as a parent. Why?

We receive virtually no feedback on what we are doing well.

• "Experts" set impossible standards that may have little to do with our everyday challenges.

• Psychologists often blame parents for children's emotional problems, offering no feedback on what mothers and fathers do well.

• Most frequently, we criticize ourselves because our parents criticized us. The more our parents found fault with what we did. the louder and more insistently we will resist feeling good about ourselves as parents.

I am convinced that the first step in parental growth is becoming aware that the voice of the critic is not reality. Moreover, we can easily counter it. The problem is that most of us try to dismiss critical thoughts by pushing them aside. Denying critical thoughts can actually strengthen them. Instead, I have often recorded what my inner critic says so I can analyze the statements objectively.

If I listed my inner critic's views of my parenting right now (even though my children are grown), it might say:

• You're always saying the wrong thing to the kids.

• You trouble your kids by worrying about them.

• You should know the best ways to support them, but you don't.

The list could go on and on. When I look at my entries, I can easily see that The critic overstates its case by using words like "always" or "never" or "should." The goal of my critic is to make me believe that a good parent has to be all-knowing and perform perfectly. I can counter these absolutisms by remembering that:

• I don't always say the wrong thing.

• I try not to talk to my kids about my worries.

• I always try to listen and support my children, but sometimes I make mistakes. I'm only human.

Examining our critical thoughts objectively defuses their power and allows us to start seeing ourselves in a kinder light. Criticizing ourselves or comparing ourselves or our children with others leads to confusion. One of the best things we can do is to adopt the attitude that parenting is a learning process, and that no one has the "right answers." Learning requires increasing our awareness and self-acceptance. In the meantime, we need to encourage ourselves the way we would a friend. A parent told me recently, "I always do my best as a parent when I feel relaxed and happy about myself."

Comparisons Confuse

We hear about the birth of a child and ask questions like, "What did she have?" "How much did it weigh?" and "Did it have any hair?" The Athabaskan Indian hear of a birth and ask, "Who came?" From the beginning, there is a respect for the newborn as a full person.

Lisa Delpit

When my son Matt was four or five months old, a friend and I used to get our infants together to "play." We would lay them facing each other on a blanket and watch what they did. Her daughter, Angel, was a few days younger than Matt but a little more physically advanced. She could creep forward to grab Matt's face or try to poke his eye while my friend and I discussed the latest things our babies were doing.

I discovered early that the most popular subject when new mothers gather tends to be babies' new accomplishments. Our cultural ideal that faster is better reaches its high point of absurdity with our expectations for our kids. Did it matter that Angel could poke Matt's eye before he could scoot to pull her ear? Watching several generations of children grow has proved to me that comparisons usually mean nothing. But they CAN confuse. What if I had formed the crazy idea at that point that Matt wasn't physically adept? Would I have tried to influence him later not to play soccer or climb Mt. Shasta with his dad? Thankfully, I ascribed no meaning to Angel's precocious scooting, and I'm sure it means little in her life now. I wish we could just watch our beautiful babies with reverence, wondering what uniqueness they have brought to the world.

Now that my children are adults, it's easier to see that the ways in which they varied in development had little to do with the people they became. But when they were young, I wondered how they could be so different. The illusion is that comparing will lead to important insights. But differentiating our kids more often has limiting and even negative effects.

The problem with comparisons is that they inevitably leave someone feeling labeled. The most intense comparisons our culture makes relate to children's intelligence. What parent doesn't want to think of his child as smart and able to compete for high grades? Success in school, however, doesn't necessarily reflect high or low intelligence. In her revolutionary book How Your Child Is Smart, Dr. Dawna Markova describes the varied learning patterns that children exhibit. Unfortunately, the schools are designed to meet the needs of visual or auditory learners, so those children are usually considered smarter. Markova recommends making provisions for learners who benefit from hands-on experience and have the need to move around. Understanding learning styles can prevent us from labeling children as less capable.

In the home, children often get cast in roles: one will be a good eater, while the other picks at her food; one loves to read, but the other isn't interested; one is outspoken, the other quiet and internal. Many of these roles are the result of well-meaning praise. "Look what a great eater he is!" It might be more helpful to note, "You seem hungry today." When a child observes that one role is taken, he will look for another way to find his identity. His natural tendencies may have been to eat or read ravenously, but observing that his sister is considered the "good" reader or eater can propel him in a different direction.

In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell points out that human beings are so complex we can't hold all their qualities in our minds. People behave differently in varying contexts and relationships, and many of their traits are contradictory. Who could take them all in? He says that the human mind has a kind of "reducing valve" that helps us simplify and solidify our image of a person, even though that person is constantly changing.

If we want to rise above our reducing valve, we can try not to confine our children to a particular image ("Johnny's very shy." "Tillie isn't organized."). Believing that comparisons between children are especially odious is one of the best attitudes we can hold. Think of each of them as a wellspring of fine qualities waiting to emerge. To stay mindful of their vast potentials, we can think of Ralph Waldo Emerson's quote: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Our children are worthy of the same respect and tolerance we would offer to a friend.

I Wouldn't Talk That Way to a Friend

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

Ambrose Bierce

Cora considers herself efficient and fast-moving. Two of her daughters seem to take after her, but she thinks of her middle daughter, Phoebe, as dreamy and slow. "When the family's ready to leave on an outing, Phoebe may still be getting dressed," Cora says. "It can take an hour for her to make a sandwich for her lunch because she keeps talking to everyone. I worry about her because it seems like a twelve year old should be able to work faster. She's only in junior high now, but will it be safe for her to drive as a teenager? She may drive off the road into a tree." Phoebe's slowness sometimes makes Cora angry, and she's had to learn to control her temper. When she feels her frustration rising, she excuses herself and asks for a time-out.

"I know if I speak while I'm in a rage, I will say something that I'll regret, and it'll be too late to take it back. When I go in Phoebe's room an hour after she was supposed to clean it and there are still things all over the floor, I feel like saying, 'What's wrong with you? Are you blind, girl? You're so slow. Your sisters were finished a half hour ago.' But I try never to do that. It's okay to get angry, but it's not all right to make judgments about my daughter and shoot holes in her sense of self. I would never say those things to a friend, and I want to be just as respectful to my child."

I have seen Cora in one of her white rages and been amazed at her ability not to say a word. Later she can talk about what triggered her upset, but after she pauses, it doesn't come out as the other person's problem. She might tell Phoebe that she's frustrated because she hoped she would be ready on time. But she's learned only to do that after her upset has dissipated.

Sometimes when she's upset about Phoebe, Cora calls her "wisest friend" and asks for an "attitude adjustment." Her friend reminds her that Phoebe's a normal twelve year old, and it's okay for her to be different from Cora. She may take her time, but she's a good student and keeps up her responsibilities. She's generous and gets along with other people famously. After hearing her friend's perspective, Cora realizes she's been overreacting. She loves Phoebe, and she tries to keep in mind that her own need for speed is her problem. Cora doesn't want to cast her daughter in the role of the distractible family member. So she consciously tries to adopt a new attitude.

Getting angry about things our children do is inevitable. But discovering what triggers us and being careful not to insult or attack our children are among the best things we can do. Although as a parent Cora's responsibility is to guide Phoebe, she knows that criticizing in anger will only leave her daughter feeling discouraged and disrespected. If we pointed out our friends' flaws, we wouldn't have many close relationships. I like Phoebe's mental test of appropriateness: "Would I talk that way to a friend?" Just think of the things parents have traditionally said to children ("I can't believe you did that! What could you have been thinking? How could you be so stupid?") and how hostile and demeaning they would sound if one adult said them to another. (Unfortunately, some do.)

The old saying, "Think before you speak," expresses one of the most important attitudes we can hold. Words can sting as sharply as blows, and verbal abuse can have long-lasting effects. It's our responsibility as parent's to build confidence, not destroy it, regardless of the provocation.

Keeping this in mind makes some people determine never to get angry at their children again. But dismissing anger from our emotional repertoire sets us up for a fall. Parenting is one of the most difficult tasks we can undertake, and its demands will provoke our anger sometimes. However, adopting the attitude that we need to understand what triggers anger, in order to learn to handle it appropriately, is one of the best things we can do. Becoming aware of the situations that set us off can even give us the ability to maintain more tolerance in stressful situations.

Learning to control our tongues is the foundation for preserving our relationships with our children and reinforcing their positive feelings toward themselves. Apologizing when we lose our tempers helps our children to understand that managing intense feelings lakes work, and that everyone makes mistakes.

Everyone Makes Mistakes

The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything.

Theodore Roosevelt

On fourteen-year-old Meredith's championship basketball team, mistakes attract intense criticism. Her team represents the whole San Francisco Bay Area, and every year they qualify for the national tournament. At this level of competition, there is constant scrutiny of every play the girls make. Videotapes are shot of each game, mistakes are analyzed, and the girls are coached to improve their skills. Sometimes, parents even punish their daughters for making an error. Pressure! Pressure! Pressure!

How does Meredith's mother, Dawn, handle the times when everyone is yelling because her daughter's mistake cost the team a point? She tells Meredith not to worry, that everyone misses a basket sometimes—and the idea is to enjoy the game. "You want to know the truth, I don't care who wins," Dawn says. "I'm not involved to make her the star. Other people quit because they want their child to be the one who excels and gets the most time on the court. All they care about is their kid and how well they are doing. One parent got so mad at the referee he even brought a gun to a game. It's scary!" Dawn continues vehemently. "I only support Meredith playing basketball because she wants to. I care about all the girls and how they are feeling about their playing. It's an extraordinary commitment that they give, and it has to feel good to them."

Every year Dawn and her husband John ask Meredith if she wants to continue. Even though she could eventually win a college scholarship, they place no pressure on her to better her performance or even to stick with basketball. Interestingly, their reassuring attitudes toward mistakes have given Meredith a relaxed attitude during tight situations in the game, allowing her to exercise good judgment. "They've made her the team captain because people have noticed she can remain calm during hard plays," Dawn says. "When you know you're going to be yelled at for making a mistake, you get tense and you don't think clearly." Dawn and John both feel that mess-ups are an important part of the learning, and they've always told Meredith that.

In light of these attitudes, it's also interesting that Meredith is the only player who has stuck with the team since second grade. She is now considered the most valuable player. But being the best is still not the point for her parents. "If she quits tomorrow, there would be so much about people she has learned. In the beginning her team was all white, and now there are two white members. Last summer, the other girls gave her an honorary African-American name. Having been voted the team captain, she's had to learn a lot about leadership and being fair to people. She cares deeply about all the girls and how they are doing." So within this outrageously competitive atmosphere, Dawn and John have been able to instill their values of compassion, cooperation, and taking mistakes lightly in their daughter.

What is our attitude toward mistakes? Do we show a toddler how to wipe up the milk he spilt or regard him as someone trying to make our day miserable? The first time a child colors on a table do we teach her how to keep the marks on paper or get angry at her for misbehaving? Do we treat spelling errors as opportunities for learning?

Pressuring children not to make mistakes actually inhibits them from trying. The famous educator John Holt wrote a bestselling book called How Children Fail, chronicling how children give up on math problems because they have learned to be afraid of making an error. Students who are good at math learn that a mistake means you have to try something different and go on with confidence. That principle doesn't apply just to math, but to all of life. Believing that mistakes promote learning is one of the best attitudes we can hold for our children and ourselves. It helps us maintain confidence that our efforts count, no matter how many times we fail. As Theodore Roosevelt says in the quotation opening this chapter, people who don't make mistakes usually "don't make anything."

Effort Counts

Schools should teach kids how to learn, and parents should teach them how to work by establishing work rules and a work ethic at home.

Dr. Mel Levine

Conine laughs when she talks about trying to get her son to take a break from homework. "I guess it's not the usual challenge, but Ahmed likes to work hard at his homework, and we have to remind him to take a rest between assignments." That's the role that Corrine and her husband Al have always taken in relation to t heir son's school-work. They have coached Ahmed on how to put in his best efforts by approaching assignments in an organized way and taking time for refreshment. They have also established routines: Homework gets done right away and takes precedence over sports or any extracurricular activities.

Excerpted from The Best Things Parents Do by SUSAN ISAACS KOHL. Copyright © 2004 Susan Isaacs Kohl. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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