What Makes a Great Parent?

Raising kids is a complicated endeavor, and there's no one recipe for doing it right. Still, certain ingredients are an indispensable part of the mix. Here, top child and family therapists share their insights into the qualities that are essential in an excellent mom or dad.

Knows When to Let Go

A Great Parent Knows When to Let Go

Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., a licensed marriage, family, and child therapist and author or coauthor of 12 books on parenting, including the Positive Discipline series:

"It's a bittersweet reality: The major part of our job as parents is to eventually become dispensable. So, above all, we need to encourage our children to do things for themselves. We need to teach them to think independently, solve their own problems, and believe deeply in their own abilities.

"Sadly, though, in the interest of time and efficiency, parents tend to do things for their children that the kids could easily do for themselves. In an effort to prevent them from feeling pain and discomfort, we rush in and rescue our children, rather than allowing them to learn from their mistakes. By the time a child is 2, he is capable of dressing himself. Of course, he needs to be taught how to do so, and he needs clothing that is easy to slip on and off. Yet so many parents continue to dress kids even when they're preschoolers, robbing them of the opportunity to develop capability and relish their accomplishments. Similarly, it's far more important to encourage children to consider the consequences of their actions than to try to protect them from making mistakes. Suppose, for example, a child leaves her bicycle in the driveway. Sure, it's tempting to put it away for her. But it's far smarter to help her explore possible outcomes by asking, 'What do you think will happen if you leave the bike outside overnight?' Chances are, once she's thought about it, she'll decide that it's best to put the bike away.

"It isn't easy to watch our children fumble and stumble. But sometimes that's what it takes to help them become confident, capable, and independent individuals -- which should be every parent's goal."

Has a Strong Marriage

A Great Parent Has a Strong Marriage

John Gottman, Ph.D., vice president of the Marital and Family Research Institute, in Seattle:

"Children are affected by their parents' relationship in several ways. First, research has shown that adults who are in loving marriages are more effective parents. They're more patient and more attentive to their children's needs. Unhappy parents, by contrast, are more inept when it comes to dealing with their children. They're inconsistent and sometimes harsh in the way they discipline. Overcome with their own problems, they are unable to adequately care for someone else. But beyond that, the kind of marriage that a couple has profoundly affects the quality of the relationships that children will develop as they grow up. When kids watch their parents interact with one another respectfully, they get their first lessons in how to get along with other people. When they observe how their parents work through problems, they learn to resolve conflict. When they see their parents kiss, they feel comfortable and secure. In short, the strongest lessons children learn are from what goes on in their home, and the lessons of a good marriage will stay with them for life."

Finds Time for Fun

A Great Parent Finds Time for Fun

Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Playful Parenting (Ballantine, 2001):

"Great parents are playful parents, ones who always remember how important it is to have fun with their kids. That doesn't mean, of course, that moms and dads need to be nonstop entertainers or amuse their kids every minute of the day. What it means is embracing the joy of a child's world and sharing it by being part of their play.

"As we race from one event to the next, we often underestimate the value of downtime. But simple play is deeply meaningful. Early games like peekaboo and hide-and-seek teach children about attachment. Fantasy play helps children explore who they are and who they want to be. Playful wrestling builds physical confidence. Tossing a ball back and forth teaches athletic ability, sportsmanship, and cooperation. Play is also the way that children recover from life's upsets. They reenact important emotions with their dolls or action figures. After getting a shot, they want to play doctor and pretend to give you a shot. This time, they're in charge.

"Overscheduled parents may think they don't have time for playing with dolls or building with blocks. But play can actually ease the stress of our busy lives. When we engage playfully with our children, we find that we suddenly have more energy and feel better about ourselves and our kids. After all, play engages us in our child's world, and what better way is there to forge a deep and lasting connection?"

Knows How to Say No

A Great Parent Knows How to Say No

Ron Taffel, Ph.D., therapist and author of The Second Family: How Adolescent Power Is Challenging the American Family (St. Martin's Press, 2001):

"Many parents find that it's tough to be firm with their children. They can't set rules. They threaten but don't follow through with consequences. 'No television for a week,' a mom may tell her child in the afternoon, only to make an exception that very night. But the fact is, if we relinquish our parental authority, we are doing a disservice to our kids.

"When children are young, they crave limits. They seek real rules, not rubbery ones. But by the time they reach adolescence, kids who don't see their parents as authority figures begin to look elsewhere for a code of conduct. They often find it in what I call 'the second family,' the collective power of the peer group and pop culture. Immersed in this world, good kids act out in dangerous ways. They lie without guilt; they experiment with drugs and alcohol; they have sex at frighteningly early ages. They do these things because in the world of their second family, such behavior is acceptable.

"The best way to protect kids from these outside influences is for parents to assert their authority with consistency and conviction from the time their children are young. Admittedly, doing so can be confusing -- for good reason. We are suspicious of being too rigid because we remember oppressive parenting ourselves or we see that it doesn't really work. We are wary of showing too much understanding for fear of producing overindulged, disrespectful kids who feel entitled to say and do whatever they please.

"So what's the answer? The key is to strike a balance between offering our children support and empathy -- and simultaneously providing structure through clear expectations of how we would like them to behave. It is the constant, natural back and forth between love and limits that is the mark of a great parent."

Is a Great Role Model

A Great Parent Is a Great Role Model

Elizabeth Berger, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of Raising Children With Character (Jason Aronson Inc., 1999).

"Every parent is eager to see his child grow up to be responsible, compassionate, trustworthy, and kind. But teaching values isn't the same as teaching a child to swim, kick a soccer ball, or play the piano. Eager for simple instructions, parents always ask me: Will it help if I take a child to religious services? Read stories about moral issues? Engage a child in community service? I tell them that those things can help but that the real key to raising a child with character is to be a person of character yourself.

"The best way to instill values is to be a strong and present role model. A lifetime spent with a generous adult creates another generous adult. A childhood in which material goods aren't overemphasized produces a child who understands that she can't buy everything at the mall. Parents who demonstrate genuine sensitivity to a child's feelings and needs instill in him the ability to empathize with and care for others.

"Values don't come from a textbook or from discussions about abstract concepts. Children learn values long before they have the ability to read about them or discuss them. Rather, values are taught during the ordinary interactions of everyday life. If a child likes and respects you and your values, he will want to embrace them and make them his own."

Shows a Child Endless Love

A Great Parent Shows a Child Endless Love

William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, in St. Paul:

"Showing a child endless love is at the core of being a great parent. Fortunately, this comes easily for most moms and dads: Nature has programmed us to love our own children.

"We show our love through affection, of course. Gushing over a baby, smothering a toddler with kisses, or offering a preteen a reassuring smile are silent ways to say 'I love you.' We also show our love by understanding what our children need at each stage of life -- and providing it for them. For an infant, that involves being a source of security; for a toddler, that means providing endless encouragement. For a school-age child, it means being an inspiring teacher of life's lessons, and for a teen, it means giving timely, judicious advice.

"Above all, though, we show our love by being a steady, reliable, and attentive presence in a child's life. This means spending quality time -- and spending large quantities of time. It means developing strong family rituals and enjoying idle, quiet moments. No skills in parenting substitute for a mother's and father's attentive and committed presence. There is nothing more mundane -- or sublime -- than being a good parent, nothing that makes us feel more vulnerable, and nothing that makes us feel more proud than knowing that, through our children, we have walked this earth and made a difference."

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the May 2001 issue of Parents magazine.

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