Principle 1: You have to "be there" for your kids. If you're a divorced parent, and you live a thousand miles away from your child, and your only communication is a letter during the holidays, then you're not an active parent. There's only so much that can be communicated over the telephone or by e-mail. Most communication is by nonspeech ways -- body language. So, be there for your children. Be
available on weekends, give rides to extracurricular activities if asked, make phone calls during the week. If you're in the process of getting a divorce or are separating, it's important to stay geographically
close to your kids.
Principle 2: You have to listen to your children. Really listen. Sometimes they don't know the words to express their thoughts and feelings. They are flooded with new situations every day. They are learning to cope. Don't blow them off with a "This too shall pass" or "Have faith" or "Say a prayer" at every turn. You might not have an answer for every question, but saying "I've wondered how to handle that, too" would help your child understand that sometimes answers are difficult to come by. Offer some options. Think out loud. I've found that while I'm tossing out ideas, my children will often think of an option by themselves. Sometimes they just don't know how to "think out loud" and you can help them discover this talent.
Principle 3: You have to allow your children to make decisions. This goes, in part, with Principle 2. Ask your kids for input, then listen. Let them make the call on where to go on a Saturday afternoon. Let them make mistakes (that is, as long as safety isn't compromised, such as deciding to see how a lighted match affects a gas can). If they want to build a model car without reading the directions, let them. One of my sons when in the fourth grade surprised me by succeeding at this. It never worked for me. I always had leftover parts (darn those camshafts!).
Principle 4: Tell your kids you're proud of them from time to time. They might sense this, but if you never say it, will they ever know for certain? When they do a good job, tell them you've noticed. When they don't, tell them you're proud they tried.
Principle 5: Every child is different. What works for one might not work for another. You might, with one of your children, only have to read a fable to teach a moral lesson. With another child, you might have to draw upon real-life experiences to teach the same lesson. One of my children loves basketball. Another likes chess and dislikes all sports. My third child is dedicated to the performing arts. Urge each of your children to pursue their individual interests.
Principle 6: Apologize to your kids when you're wrong. If you think you're never wrong, you may need to confront this before you continue reading this book. If you think your kids don't know when you screw up, you're forgetting some of your observations during your own childhood.
Principle 7: Explain yourself to your children. I cringe when I hear a parent tell a child they should do something "because I say so." This teaches children they don't have to justify their actions to anyone. It short-circuits reason. If having no explanation is good enough for a parent, it'll be good enough for the child who is entering adulthood.
Principle 8: Remember that raising children is tough. There's no single right way to raise a child successfully, and in fact no single way to define what a successful child-rearing experience is. And so there'll be times when things don't go right. Hang in there. Life has a way of balancing out.
Principle 9: Don't fall into the martyr syndrome trap. Don't say, "I've given my whole life to you and this is what I get?" Try not to lay guilt trips on your children. Often they feel responsible enough for all of the woes around them. There's no need to pile it on. And of course, as a parent, you have to give up some things. You can't go cavorting off to Timbuktu every other year, but don't hold this against your kids. This should be your choice, not theirs.
Principle 10: Be honest with your kids. Don't make them do things out of guilt. Don't constantly play tricks on them. They'll learn not to trust you. Don't tease them excessively. This will sow confusion. Think "moderation." Some joking around can teach a child a sense of humor. Too much can make them feel like the butt of a cosmic joke, that the world is laughing at them. And when you use humor, show them you can laugh at yourself.
Principle 11: Play with your kids. Children learn the rules of society through play. They learn a sense of what's fair. Plus, it's a good way to bond. Let them laugh. Let them not take something seriously, such as the outcome of a game. If your child never laughs, wouldn't that be a shame? When children learn to play, they learn to be creative. They learn how to use their minds.
Principle 12: Don't use the "Do as I say, not as I do" line. It's stupid, insulting, doesn't work, and it teaches that you live your life with a double standard.
Author Doug Hewitt is a divorced dad to three kids. "I made a decision to be involved with their lives and to be there for them. I wanted to see them every weekend, not every other weekend," he says in his book The Practical Guide to Weekend Parenting (Hatherleigh Press).
Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, October 2006.
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