There are days when being a mom seems like one endless pop quiz. The baby's crying when she should be napping. Do you wait to see if she can soothe herself or rush in to rock her? Your preschooler is defying you. Do you calmly explain the rules again or give him a time-out for not listening? And if you choose the wrong option (to these and a thousand other dilemmas), could you scar your kid for life?
Relax. These little dramas aren't as important as your big-picture approach to being a mom. We've zeroed in on the factors that really make a difference in your child's life.
Make him feel capable.
You're probably an expert at boosting your kid's ego with pep talks, praise, and encouragement. However, it's a lot trickier to stand back and let him handle challenging tasks on his own. "Kids who learn to work things out for themselves are far more likely to try new things, take risks, and grow up to be effective problem-solvers," says Jim Fay, coauthor of Parenting With Love & Logic. They're also better equipped to face obstacles head-on rather than retreat at the first sign of adversity.
Smart Steps If you see your child struggling to connect toy train tracks or do his homework, don't jump in to help right away. Instead, show him how to come up with his own solutions. So when your 4-year-old is upset because his front-loader toy won't pick up dirt, ask him what's wrong and how he can fix it. If he's stumped, try offering a suggestion ("Do you think it would work better if you found softer dirt?"), and then let him try it out for himself.
While there's nothing wrong with praising your child sometimes, you'll do more to boost his confidence by asking him to explain his accomplishments than by gushing over them. Rather than saying, "What a great tower!" you might ask him, "How did you build it so high without it collapsing?"
Also let your child know that new and challenging projects may not always work out at first, but that sticking with them is the surest path to success. Ever since her 6-year-old daughter, Lillian, was a baby, Rachel Tayse Baillieul, of Columbus, Ohio, has been open about her own everyday failures as well as her triumphs. When she spilled sugar while refilling the canister recently, Tayse Baillieul said, "Oops -- I goofed. I think this would be easier if I did it more slowly." Her objective is simple: "I want Lillian to know that making mistakes isn't just okay, it's also one of the best ways to learn."
Share your values.
Sit down with your partner and discuss the qualities you'd both like to see your child develop. Kindness, tolerance, responsibility, honesty, and persistence are good for starters, suggests Michele Borba, Ed.D., a Parents advisor and the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. The key is not just to talk about them but to live them.
Smart Steps When you're reading or watching TV together, point out how a character embodies a positive trait ("Wasn't it generous of Dora to give half her sandwich to Diego?") and explain the term to your child ("That means sharing what you have with others"). Even if your preschooler is too young to grasp a concept like empathy, you can still bring it up in simple terms: "It was kind of you to let your cousin have the first turn at Chutes and Ladders. That shows you think about other people, not only yourself."
You need to be a role model too. If you want your kids to be honest, don't let them catch you making up an excuse to your in-laws when you turn down their dinner invitation. "Ask yourself, 'If my child watched me today, what values would she have learned?' " advises Dr. Borba.
Watch your words (and tone).
Even the most patient parent loses it occasionally. But if you're about to snap at your child, remember this guideline: Speak to her in the same respectful manner you'd talk to a friend or a coworker. If you do that, she'll be far more likely to listen, and she'll always feel comfortable coming to you for help or guidance. "The way you talk to your kids predicts how they are going to talk to you," explains Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years.
Smart Steps Try to see things from your child's perspective. If she freaks out because she can't find her favorite stuffed animal, you might be annoyed that she's overreacting. But rather than saying, "Oh, calm down -- it's got to be here somewhere," show her that you get how she feels ("I know you're sad because you want to play with Mr. Bear, but he's hiding right now. Why don't you see if Dolly can help us find him?").
Nurture your relationship.
"Happy couples give kids a sense of security and predictability," says William J. Doherty, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and the author of Take Back Your Marriage. While your kids might say "Yuck!" when they catch you and your husband kissing, PDAs and lovey-dovey talk provide them with a blueprint for developing their own healthy relationships down the road.
Smart Steps Carve out regular couple time -- even 15 minutes a day after the kids are asleep can keep you in sync. A biweekly date night is even better. "Not only does going out alone benefit your relationship, but it also sends your kids the message that you enjoy each other's company," says Dr. Doherty.
Chrissy Smith, of Landaff, New Hampshire, believes a good marriage is central to the well-being of her kids, Siobhan, 9, and Emma, 3. "When Tom and I get annoyed at each other, we make a point of laughing about it later," she says. Although you should try not to argue in front of your children, when you do disagree let them see you make up. That way they'll realize your relationship is strong enough to weather the occasional storm.
Manage your own stress.
Your child learns to cope with challenges and disappointments by watching how you do it. Dealing with pressure or anger in a productive way provides a prototype for him to follow and also creates a home environment that seems stable, predictable, and safe -- and, by extension, a sense that the world is all of those things too, says Robert Epstein, Ph.D., author of The Big Book of Stress Relief Games.
Smart Steps Start by becoming a more organized planner. Clearing your calendar the day before the school bake sale (so you're not up past midnight finishing the muffins you promised to make) and saving money every week so you'll have enough to pay for a family vacation are two steps that might make you feel more in command. Look for ways to reduce unnecessary tension. "Simple things, like cleaning out your kitchen cabinets so you don't have to search for items, or replacing a throw rug you're always tripping over, can make a big difference in your outlook," says Dr. Epstein. If you feel overwhelmed by work or by caring for your child, consider a relaxation technique such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing, or find a friend or a professional you can talk to.
Of course, it's also helpful to remember that life doesn't always go as planned. Neil McNerney, a family counselor and dad from Reston, Virginia, recalls swaddling his newborn, Max, exactly as the nurse had instructed, only to watch in frustration as his son wriggled out of the blanket like an infant Houdini. "I knew right then that he wasn't going to do what I wanted; he was going to do what he wanted," he says. As Max grew into a stubborn toddler and then a headstrong preschooler, McNerney came to realize that while he could guide and teach his son, he'd never truly have control over his behavior. He and his wife, Colleen, have taken comfort from that insight ever since.
Kiss and tell.
Many studies have shown that children who feel cherished by their parents tend to be more secure and self-confident than those who don't. "Kids have a universal need to feel loved," says Parents advisor Kyle Pruett, M.D., coauthor of Partnership Parenting. Acts of affection will do more than reassure your child: Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that they'll actually cause her to release oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone" that offsets negative and stressful feelings.
Smart Steps Say "I love you" every day when your child leaves for school and goes to bed. There are plenty of wordless ways to convey the same sentiment. Wrap yourself and your child in a blanket on a cool evening as you read together, slip a little note into her lunch box ("Enjoy your sandwich. Can't wait to see you later"), or give her a fluttery butterfly kiss.
Kate Burch, of Norman, Oklahoma, uses the power of touch to let her daughters, Ashton, 8, and Sydney, 5, know they're adored. "I tickle them awake in the morning, and we cuddle on the couch after dinner," she says. The routine has become as essential to Burch as to her kids. "During a busy day, these moments reduce my tension and make me smile -- and you can't say that about too many other things in your day."
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Parents magazine.