Good news: It's the little things that really make a difference.
mom and daughter painting
Credit: AlenaOzerova/

1. Avoid Comparisons and Labels

You want to be the kind of parent who takes the time to instill in your child good manners, habits, and behavior. But how? And with controlled chaos ruling the day, every day, when? Relax: Good parenting happens in real time, on the spot, and in the moment. The trick is recognizing those moments when your actions and reactions can help your child learn and grow in the best possible ways. Here's help from top parenting experts—and a few real moms.

Be Careful of Comparisonsand Labels

Your best friend's 8-month-old son is babbling, while your daughter, at 9 months, is silent by comparison. Is there something wrong with your child? While it's never a bad idea to express your concerns to your pediatrician, don't equate developmental milestones with developmental deadlines. "Babies develop so rapidly that one set of abilities is bound to develop faster than another," says Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam), also available on DVD. "Look at your whole baby" when evaluating development, he suggests, a strategy that holds true for toddlers too: one 3-year-old may have fine-motor-control skills, handling a crayon with dexterity, for instance, while another may throw a ball better—and that's normal.

Taking into account the whole little person means factoring in temperament too. "It's important to consider who your child is, not just his age. For instance, if your child is naturally shy and quiet, it may be that he's not inclined to talk—not that he can't," Dr. Karp says. "Listen to him at play when he's alone. He may babble happily then."

Among siblings, comparisons can lead to labels. "Our little scholar," you might say of your book-obsessed toddler, or "our wild child," of his energetic sister. Even labels meant to praise your children's differing abilities can be problematic. Siblings sometimes feel that if one brother "owns" the athlete label, the other brother isn't even going to try, for fear of falling short. And that "picky eater" label may fuel the very behavior you'd like to discourage. Sure, there'll be times when you'll find yourself describing your child's likes and dislikes. But when you do so, "reframe" your words, Dr. Karp suggests: try "energetic" (not "wild"), "spirited" (not "hyper"), and "careful" (not "shy").

2. Walk the Talk

Kids watch your every move, and, especially for babies and very young children, parental behavior proves to be far more powerful than words. "You are actually teaching your baby something every minute of the day—whether you intend to pass along a lesson or not," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behavior Without Whining, Tantrums & Tears (McGraw-Hill). "From how you handle stress to how you celebrate success to how you greet a neighbor on the street, your baby is observing you and finding out how to respond in various situations."

Julie Hughes, of Wilton, Connecticut, was touched when she observed her daughter Amelia, who was 23 months at the time, lovingly mothering her doll, after the birth of Amelia's sister, Jane. "I found Amelia with a pillow on her lap and her baby doll laid across it, pretending to nurse her," recalls Hughes, who was relieved that Amelia was learning about caring for others even without Hughes—who was busy with three under the age of 4—consciously teaching that lesson. "Just having your baby with you as you go through your days provides great opportunities to teach him about life," Pantley says.

3. Let Your Child Make Mistakes

Your 2-year-old is building a tower, and you see that the block he's about to place on top will cause it to come crashing down. Anxious to avoid the crash (and ensuing tears), you stop him from adding the block, explaining that sometimes "one more is one too many." While you're right to prevent accidents that could cause harm, allowing your child to learn from his errors instills the lesson at hand better than an explanation ever could, says Christopher Lucas, MD, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, in New York City.

At a very basic level, this kind of mistake helps a child understand cause and effect. But it's also more emotionally healthy to let your child experience disappointment sometimes—especially in the form of a toppled block tower—instead of shielding him from any and all negative events, Dr. Lucas adds.

Similarly, when your baby is mastering how to use a sippy cup or your toddler is learning to dress himself, experts like Dr. Lucas encourage parents to let mistakes happen. Lillian Valentine Hope, mother of 18-month-old Lauren, remembers her daughter's first attempts to drink water from a cup. "The first time, she started gagging a little. My first impulse was to panic and grab it from her," says Hope, who lives in Brookfield, Connecticut. "But I chose instead to say 'It's okay' and 'Let's try it again!' After a few rounds of trial and error and soaked shirts, she was successful." Dr. Lucas says there's good reason for this: "Children learn best on the edge of failure—that's where the challenge is and where there's the most opportunity for growth."

4. Do Nothing

In fact, let your kids be bored, says psychologist Michael Gurian, author of Nurture the Nature: Understanding and Supporting Your Child's Unique Core Personality (Jossey-Bass). "Their identities emerge when they are left to their own devices. They pick up a pencil and draw or go out in the backyard. They follow their own dreams and thoughts. The activity will be self-directed and will foster self-direction," says Gurian, who adds that this holds true for even young toddlers—although they will need both supervision and a little support, especially if they tend to fuss and quarrel when they're their own. Set out tools and toys to tempt them: art supplies or a big cardboard box for making a house, for instance.

Mother of two Nina Becker, of Glen Cove, New York, describes the frenzy of activity surrounding the homecoming of her younger son, Kevin, whom the Beckers adopted at 18 months. "At first we were running around with tons of activities," says Becker of her efforts to acclimate Kevin to every aspect of his new environment. "But then it seemed both boys weren't happy with other kids around. I canceled all playdates. I stopped scheduling, so we could all have fun together on our own terms."

A couple of considerations for unplanned, at-home time: TVs and computers should be off-limits. But if your child suggests you play a game together, by all means say yes. "That's child-directed family time, and that's awesome," Gurian says. The bottom line: Strive for a balance between planned activities and downtime, and everyone—kids and parents alike—will be happiest.

5. Reconsider Your Use of Food to Comfort or Praise

Even the youngest baby will start to equate comfort with consuming if the bottle is always offered to quiet crying. So will the toddler who is habitually given apple juice after a fall or a cookie for good behavior, says Dr. Karp, who adds that what a child seeks—and what is important to give—is your attention, pure and simple.

"Even very young children are wired for social relations," Dr. Karp explains. For them, parental attention is about more than just "getting enough"—it means everything in the world to them. Your attaching a treat to the deal alters that perception. "You're demonstrating that an object or sweet has more merit and value than does a simple hug and a smile," says Dr. Karp, allowing that the occasional bending of this rule is to be forgiven. "Sure, pull out the big guns when you really need them. Your child has a tantrum in the grocery store? By all means, offer her a cookie. And it will really work then, because you haven't overused it."

6. Look Behind "Bad" Behavior

At some point your child will break every rule you make. But if you react to each infraction with the same show of disapproval—Mommy's mad; he's in the time-out chair—he may not reach an understanding of what prompted the rule-breaking behavior in the first place.

Simply put, your child's "misbehavior" is a direct result of the fact that he cannot control his emotions—and it is one of parents' most important tasks to teach their children how to do just that. "Your child doesn't whine and have temper tantrums because he is trying to manipulate you. He isn't purposely being 'bad,'" says Pantley, who calls emotion-fueled outbursts on the part of very young children "biologically, psychologically, and absolutely normal."

So while you may well impose the appropriate disciplinary measure (that time-out, for instance), a calm and compassionate conversation is important too. Ask your child questions, and provide suggestions, Pantley suggests: "Your sister is crying because you took her bear. What will make her feel better? Do you think you can help her bear give her a hug?"

7. Trust Your Gut

Your intentions are good. In an effort to make the best choices for your child, you read up on how to impose just the right nap schedule, adhere to the appropriate amount of television viewing, and calibrate the best nutritional balance of protein, fats, and carbs. Trying to get it all right can be exhausting, and you're sometimes plagued with guilt that you haven't lived up to these standards. Sound familiar? The truth is, there are a lot of experts out there—and far too much advice, some of it conflicting. "No one knows your child better than you do," says Gurian, who encourages parents to trust their own instincts.

For example, do you sense intuitively that a baby music class will be difficult for your 10-month-old son, who wails when forced to sit still for even short periods? Then skip it. Ditto the reading-readiness software program that while loved by the neighbor's 3-year-old is not a hit with your own. "Your child may not enjoy instruction at the age of 3. She may get frustrated and turned off. Your gut may be telling you that she'd get more out of doing something else with her time: playing, for example," says Gurian, who encourages parents to avoid the trap of opting for too much too soon out of an anxiety that their children will "fall behind." And, good news: There's a benefit for you, too, in taking this approach. "When parents reclaim control over the decision-making process, they feel liberated," Gurian adds. "They knew what to do; it was in their gut somewhere."

8. Be Ready to Embrace Change

A baby who once loved an activity now rejects it. Parents can be quick to assume that something's wrong when, in fact, it may be that he's matured. While measuring your child's outward signs of growth in inches and on the scale, remember that he is making strides on the inside too—emotionally and cognitively. The parents' role as their children evolve from infants to toddlers and beyond? To evolve right along with them.

Lessons Learned

What I Learned from Mom and Dad

Present-day parents reflect on lessons they gleaned as kids.

The Silver Lining

"My mom used to drive me into New York City to see the eye doctor. She always paid for the George Washington Bridge with a $5 bill and got a silver dollar as change, which she let me keep. Afterward, we had hot dogs and a soda—a special treat. These rituals made going to the doctor more palatable."

—Bridget Pelosi, of Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, mom to Gavin, 2 1/2, and Peter, 7 months

Table for Two

"For my birthday, my dad would take me to a 'fancy' restaurant for dinner. It was a tradition he carried on with me (and my two sisters) for years. I remember feeling so special having him all to myself for the evening."

—Erica LePore, Kingstown, Rhode Island, mom to Sadie, 6, Will, 3, and Luke, 1


"My dad emptied his change into a tin, and once it was full he'd tell my brother, sister, or me he had a 'job' for us: to help sort and roll the coins. Then we'd deposit the earnings in our savings account. It was a math lesson, small-motor exercise, and one-on-one time with Dad all 'rolled' into one."

—Liz Hammel, Weybridge, Vermont, mom to Owen, 8, and Maeve, 5

Sundays with Dad

"My siblings and I spent most Sundays with our dad so our mom could study for graduate school. We'd go to breakfast and the car wash. He worked a lot, so we really cherished this time."

—Kim Santosky, West Redding, Connecticut, mom to Jack, 1, and Grant, 2 months

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American Baby

By Diane di Costanzo and Lenora Gim