We asked our top child-development experts what children need most from their moms and dads. Their answers may surprise you.

Create Family Rituals:

Having special little customs gives you and your child an opportunity to connect, no matter what else is going on.

Cooking a simple meal together, reading a story every night, planting a garden, playing a favorite board game -- these are the kinds of rituals that kids love. Be creative: One father I know got into the habit of "shaving" with his 5-year-old son every morning, giving him foam and a toy razor. Another gets up early every Friday to take his daughter out to breakfast before they head off to work and school.

It doesn't really matter what your ritual is, as long as it's something you and your child both enjoy. It's important that you continue doing it, even when you're frustrated with your child. This isn't a privilege that you take away as a punishment. It's something sacred that you do, every night or every week or every month, as a way to connect.

The Pressured Child

Know Your Child's Personality:

The essence of being a great mom or dad is to really know your child's temperament and to tailor your parenting style to take that into account. Every kid is different -- even in the same family. If you understand each child's individual personality, and deal with that child in the way that suits him best, you'll minimize conflict.

Two simple examples: If you have a very active child, you should avoid roughhousing with him in the evenings, which makes bedtime difficult. Instead, have him do a quiet activity to help him calm down. Or maybe you have a child who has a difficult time with transitions. If so, you need to understand that giving her an advance warning when it's time to leave the playground will make the shift easier for her. The better you adapt to your child, the less conflict there will be.

*Stanley Turecki, M.D., psychiatrist and author of The Difficult Child

Be A Good Role Model:

Every night, parents should ask themselves, "If my child had only my behavior to learn from today, what would I have taught him?" Probably the most common mistake moms and dads make is that we say one thing and do another. We give our children lectures on self-control and patience, and then explode when we get caught in traffic. We tell them not to gossip, and then turn around and do just that. We urge them to be honest, then let an 11-year-old order from a menu for kids under 10.

That's not to say parents have to be perfect. But when we fall down on the job, we need kids to learn from our mistakes. If you lash out at your child when you're feeling stressed out, for example, you should go back later and say, "I was wrong for yelling at you that way. I should have stayed calmer. I'm sorry." By doing so, you're teaching your child the importance of respect and forgiveness. If you're dealing with a challenging situation, you need to let your child see you're doing your best to cope. When you acknowledge the difficulty ("We're all worried because Daddy has lost his job, but everything will be okay"), you're showing your child that you can manage tough times -- and that will help him learn to do the same.

*Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Don't Give Me That Attitude!

Encourage Exploration:

Kids love to explore; it's an essential part of how they learn. When parents constantly say "Don't do that" or "Stay away from this," children learn to be timid and fearful of the unknown. Children who get lots of positive feedback from their parents as they explore new things will go on to grab life by the horns.

The most important thing you can do is to make sure your child's world is conducive to exploration. First, childproof your home so that she can roam around without getting hurt. Then you need to pay attention to your daily routine, and make sure there's always new stuff for her to explore. Let her bang pots and spoons in the kitchen, and play with blankets made of different fabrics in the linen closet. Introduce her to a variety of foods. Take her to libraries, parks, zoos, and art museums. If you encourage your child to be an active explorer as a baby and toddler, she will embrace learning throughout life.

*Craig T. Ramey, Ph.D., director of the Georgetown University Center on Health and Education and coauthor of Right From Birth: Building Your Child's Foundation for Life

Set Clear Limits:

Children thrive when they grow up in a home that has structure, limits, and rules.  But many parents make the mistake of projecting their own feelings about rules onto their kids. As adults, we don't like people telling us what to do, and we think our children will react negatively to rules. But kids need parents who can impose limits -- and not back down from them.

I'm not saying to make rules just to prove you're the boss. It's important to set limits for a good reason and to explain them to your kids in a loving and caring way. But studies show that having rules and structure makes a child feel safe and secure and teaches self-control and self-reliance.

*Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., author of The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting

Be Your Child's Biggest Booster:

The single most important thing you can do for your children is to let them know you're absolutely crazy about them. Tell them often that they are terrific. Say, "You are the best thing in my life." Research shows that these kinds of messages make kids resilient and help them deal with disappointment, rejection, and the other unpleasant stuff that life routinely hands out. Surprisingly, a lot of children don't know how much their moms and dads appreciate them, and that's because parents aren't getting the message across. Make a conscious effort to be positive -- even when you're setting limits. Instead of criticizing a kid for fighting with a sibling, for example, say something like, "I know that's not your best effort. I'm sure you love your brother a lot more than you're showing him now." That lets your child know you have faith in him, that you believe in him -- and what can beat that?

*Kyle D. Pruett, M.D., clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center and School of Medicine, and author of Me, Myself, and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self

Make Family Time a Priority:

In recent years, there has been a lot of emphasis on keeping kids challenged -- and busy. When children are as young as 3 or 4, we sign them up for gym classes, music lessons, sports teams, and more. We're afraid that our children will fall behind if they don't participate in what everyone else is doing. So we've become servants to our kids -- driving them here and there, scheduling our lives around their activities.

I think it's far more important to make family time your biggest priority than to cater to everybody's individual activities all the time. Eat dinner as a family, even if it means your child won't be able to make a soccer practice. Kids should carve out time for grandparents and other relatives too. Children also need lots of downtime when you can all just relax and be together as a family. Family bonds are an anchor for kids: Their activities will come and go, but family relationships will last a lifetime.

*William J. Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family and social science at the University of Minnesota, in St. Paul, and author of Take Back Your Kids

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

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