A common question from parents:
“There’s so much advice out there, a lot of it is conflicting. What should I focus on? What’s most important?”
Over the years, I’ve read most of the classic books on parenting, and I’ve given the key issues a lot of thought. I don’t always agree with everything I read, but I’ve noticed that many of these authors agree on what I feel are “the important things.” So without having to read all their books, what are the major lessons?
The question is worth answering, because adolescence is a difficult time for a young person and for parents. It’s easy to make mistakes, and the stakes are high. Having done my “due diligence,” here are what I feel are the major insights. Of course, there’s more to parenting than this, but this is my “big picture” list of what to do and why, without the how-to (ample subject matter for 12 books).
Start when they’re still small. While your child is in elementary school, appreciate that adolescence is coming next. Begin before puberty to learn effective communication skills and create family expectations for discussing things openly and honestly. Before they start pushing for independence, establish non-negotiable rules and norms such as, “we talk things out.” And “all of us have to pitch in as a team in to make our family work.”
Accept that a teen’s pushing for independence is natural and good. After puberty, it’s necessary for a young person to begin the long, slow process of leaving the nest, seeking greater independence. Help your child do this by having them earn their independence by showing greater responsibility.
Keep your primary responsibility and goal in mind: to prepare your teen to be a happy, successful adult. To be ready for the difficult challenges of life, they’ll need lots of skills and strengths, and the only way to learn them is to practice them. Don’t put your child behind the learning curve, having to struggle to catch up later in life. Don’t feel it’s your responsibility to do for your child what they should be doing for themselves. A child who remains dependent on you won’t be ready for adult life. Give opportunities—one step at a time over a period of years, to exercise the skills, strengths, responsibilities your child will need.
Teach and manage behavior with contracts. Agree on contracts for them to earn greater freedom and privileges as a consequence of carrying out greater responsibilities. Enforce consequences consistently. This is how the world works.
Don’t make parental power your primary tool. As adults, you have all the power—physical size and strength, wisdom and experience, money and resources. They have none. Traditionally, most parents have instinctively used this power to control their teens. If you do this, you’ll incite defiance and rebellion. Instead, make a conscious decision to master and use the communication skills that involve interacting with them on an adult level—to listen, give feedback, encourage, guide learning, stimulate thinking, and resolve conflict.
Encourage them to think for themselves. The critical thinking part of the brain is forming its foundation during adolescence. The only way to wire their brains for this is by doing it. They’ll need to use it or they’ll lose it, because the window closes after adolescence. Consciously help them to become skilled thinkers and problem solvers.
Make them feel understood and respected, as well as loved and supported. If they feel by how you talk and act with them that you’re giving these things, it will be hard for them to be defiant and rebellious.
Help them learn the value of hard work. If you give them everything they want, you’ll create an attitude of entitlement. You can’t buy your child’s love with gifts. It may stroke your ego, but they’ll learn they don’t have to work to earn the things they want. The greatest gift you can give them is a work ethic. Support their efforts to find opportunities to earn their own money and be independent.
Liberally share what you know. Small children are innocent. They lack knowledge and wisdom about life. As they get older, they need to learn as much as they can. To walk the difficult path of maturing toward adulthood, share as much knowledge and wisdom as you can. Lots of honesty and truth-telling.
Get help—create your “village.” It’s nearly impossible to do it all yourself. Consciously recruit and nurture a network of adult mentors for your child.
Explain your parenting methods. Be overt with them about what you’re doing as a parent and why. This helps them accept what you’re doing, nurtures respect, and helps them learn effective parenting from you. Make sure they understand the realities of growth, health and safety. For example, don’t just forbid alcohol and drug use; explain why–how it can derail teen brain development, causing lifelong deficits in critical thinking.
Support their self-esteem. Don’t overpraise or give unearned praise, but show your appreciation when they’ve accomplished something appropriate to their level. Catch them doing things right. Affirm their strengths. Support their interest in activities that can exercise their thinking abilities and build a strong sense of self. The goal: they become competent and confident in who they are, which they will need to withstand peer pressure.