Raising a child is one of life’s greatest challenges that presents a host of potential pitfalls — it’s no wonder people start reading up on how to do it before their child is even born. (Just look at the millions of copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting that have been printed since 1984.)
Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules to raising kids — what works for one parent, won’t necessarily work for another. But there are some things you can do that will help you in your quest to raise a little person who will grow up to be a happy, healthy and mindful adult.
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We spoke to parenting experts and psychologists to get the inside scoop on techniques and behaviours that will go a long way to setting your child up for success, as well as help cement a wholesome bond between you.
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Read to them
There’s a tendency to plop a kid in front of a screen these days and it’s hard to blame parents for doing it — time is in short supply and who wants to waste it trying to soothe a cranky kid who just wants to watch Paw Patrol? But reading to your child has a dual benefit: it can help them build empathy and it familiarizes little ones with the alphabet, setting the stage for learning to read earlier. Plus, it gives you quality one-on-one time with your child.
“Reading fiction where there’s a character that your child can empathize with will teach them about being in another person’s skin — it’s one of the foundations of emotional intelligence,” says relationship counsellor Tammy Laber.
In addition, if you underline the words with your finger as you read them, your child will start to learn to associate the sounds with each letter, thus creating reading readiness.
Teach them gratitude
Numerous studies have shown that practicing gratitude can boost your mood, instil self-esteem and even help you sleep better. And it’s never too early to start.
While it’s easier for an adult to ponder this topic, it’s not hard to get kids in on the action. Working together, you can help them find a few things they’re grateful for every day, even if it’s just a sunny day or ice cream for dessert.
“You want them to learn to look for positive things,” Laber says. “Once you grow up with the habit of always looking on the dark side, it’s harder to kick.”
The Christmas season is a good time to teach this lesson, too.
“If your child has received a lot of toys, ask them to pick one they want to donate to charity. This teaches them that they are privileged and that sharing with others is good.”
Emphasize goal-setting early on
There are a number of lessons to be learned in teaching kids to set goals for themselves, including discipline, deferred gratification and determination. What’s more, by showing them how to break down their goal into achievable milestones, it will make it less daunting. This can be applied to saving up for a toy or game, or learning how to do something like play an instrument or a sport.
If a child’s goal is to learn to skate, for example, it can be broken down into digestible steps that will create a path to achievement.
Use carrots, not sticks
This is about more than just using positive reinforcement; it’s about setting in place a reward system that will help kids rationalize your decisions and actions. For every positive thing your kid does (whether it’s making their bed or doing their homework in a timely fashion) they should receive a “carrot” or a positive mark. Once they’ve received a certain number of “carrots,” they can trade them in for a reward.
“The concept of punishing a child for not having done something — like, you haven’t done your homework, therefore you can’t go to the birthday party — creates a negative pattern between the parent and child, and only serves to make the child angry,” Laber says.
This is a way of making them accountable for their actions, and the fact that they can trade in good behaviour for something they want is incentive.
“If anyone thinks it’s wrong to bribe a child, I tell them we only do what we do at work because we’re getting paid. This is the same concept. That’s how the world works.”
Teach them how to make sense of their feelings
Children can easily be overwhelmed by their feelings, and unfortunately, most parents fall into one of two camps when faced with this: those who overindulge feelings and those who do everything they can to tamper them. The problem, says psychotherapist Tressa Porter, is that in the process, kids are not taught how to use their feelings as a guidepost.
“Feelings are messengers for our needs,” she says. “Children grow up with these massive feelings that are screaming to be met, and if they’re told to ignore them, they’ll develop dangerous behaviours in a desperate attempt to shut them down.”
She says the answer is to neither indulge their feelings nor tell them that they aren’t allowed to feel. Rather, help them make sense of their emotions and teach them how to deal with them. If, for example, your child is angry, wait until they have calmed down and ask them to express in their words why they were angry. Talk it out and outline some steps on managing their anger in the future.
Give them credit
The assumption is that kids are animated and always in search of entertainment, so a lot of things are “dumbed-down” for them, when in fact kids can understand a concept quite quickly if they’re explained properly.
“If a child picks something up and is told not to hold it because they’ll drop it, most of the time, they will drop the object,” Porter says. “But if you leave them alone and respect the fact that they can handle a delicate object, they’ll be careful all on their own.”
When kids are given the opportunity to take things seriously, they’ll rise to the occasion, she says.
Let them make mistakes
One of the hardest things for a parent to do is watch their child struggle, and it’s no surprise that the knee-jerk reaction is to step in and make it easier for them. But this behaviour doesn’t benefit kids in the long run.
Allowing your child to make mistakes will help build their confidence and sense of independence.
Think about your thinking as a parent
A lot of parents obsess over traditional fears that exist in our culture, like safety, violence and addiction, and that can cloud your understanding of what you really need to shield your children from. This causes a shift in parenting from doing what “feels” right versus taking the steps that are actually right for your child.
He says that the more the brain “feels good” the more easily it confuses right and wrong. For example, the rush we feel from getting “likes” on social media can be confused with satisfaction and competency. And if we can’t separate real successes from false ones, it’s difficult to set kids on a true and meaningful path.
“Parents need to get to know the illusions of this culture before assuming that things on the surface are what they seem,” he says.
Set an example by being present
There’s a reason why they say kids are like little sponges — it’s because they’re always watching and absorbing what you’re doing.
“Be aware of how you are around your kids,” says parenting expert Julie Romanowski. Whether that’s in how you interact with your spouse or with other people.
Part of setting the right example also involves being present, which means engaging with your child as much as possible. A parent who ignores their child in favour of getting chores done or preparing dinner isn’t setting an example in the importance of connection and communication.
Show them love
This seems like a no-brainer. After all, what parent doesn’t end most days or even phone calls without an “I love you.” But how many parents explain why they love their kids?
“The phrase is great, but knowing why is even better,” Romanowski says.
Use that moment for highlighting something your kid did that day that you really appreciated or for focusing on an aspect of their character that’s admirable. You can even just say you love them for being a great kid. It will help them to focus on the positive aspects within themselves.
Do not, however, anchor that statement to a condition — “I love you because you ate all your vegetables” — nor should you withhold love if your child has made a mistake.
“Always ensure your child feels loved no matter what they do,” says Dr. Jillian Roberts, child psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria.
Don’t focus on their appearance
Between inevitable comments from outsiders and the tendency to post all manner of cute pictures of them to social media, kids are already exposed to the importance of looks early on. Don’t perpetuate it.
“Recognize and acknowledge positive actions and choices your child has made over superficial appearance-based things,” Roberts says. “This will help your child develop resilience and the right kind of self-confidence.”
That is, the kind that comes from within and not the external world.