One of the biggest parenting challenges is figuring out how to strike the right balance between all the things you need to do to raise a child. You need to love unconditionally, but avoid smothering. You have to establish rules and set limits, but not be overly harsh or punitive. You want your child to have some independence and be able to learn for themselves, but not feel like they can't rely on you for support. You want your child to try to be their best, without burdening them with stifling expectations.
Many of these principles have emerged, over decades, from research which has consistently shown that the right kind of balance serves children best, from infancy through their emergence as adults. You have probably heard about parenting style, and perhaps become acquainted with the concept of authoritative parenting, which is a way of being in this optimal zone.
That said, it's worth your while to become acquainted with the work of Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg. Dr. Ginsburg has synthesized his many years experience as one of our leading pediatricians in Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love with Expectations and Protection with Trust. In this book, he goes beyond the parenting style issue to dig into both a deeply rooted guiding philosophy--the Lighthouse Parenting Strategy--along with very real (and well supported) tips for striking that right balance.
What is the Lighthouse Parenting Strategy? Dr. Ginsburg has offered a powerful analogy that captures well the optimal balance as a parent:
"We should be like lighthouses for our children. Stable beacons of light on the shoreline from which they can measure themselves against. Role models. We should look down at the rocks and make sure they do not crash against them. We should look into the water and prepare them to ride the waves, and we should trust in their capacity to learn to do so."
Raising Kids to Thrive provides readable and highly credible suggestions on how to do this, drawn from both research and extensive clinical experience. Here are 5 tips that I culled from the book as being especially timely:
Love without conditions: Provide unconditional love, but not unconditional approval; set boundaries for what is acceptable and what is not; disapprove behaviors, not the child.
Set the right kind of high expectations: Set realistic goals that can be met, emphasizing stretching for that next level; focus on effort, not performance; embrace the ups and downs, which are both necessary steps when pursuing success.
Be protective, not overprotective: Cultivate trust, which serves to protect, but don't smother; allow mistakes to be made but within your protective gaze to balance risk and safety (take off the training wheels but be there just in case).
Nurture coping skills: Offer a "lap and and a listening ear" to encourage your child to talk about feelings and problems; help children identify problems, and think about ways of taking on the issue; teach good self-regulation skills including ways to reduce stress like breathing exercises (e.g., blowing bubbles can teach kids about how to use breathing to relax).
Cultivate communication: Maintain calmness when listening (too much emotion can shut kids down), and don't rush to judge (which can undermine the sense of unconditional love); when talking to your child avoid the overuse of "you" (e.g., "You did this ... you did that") which can sound like blame, rather use "I" (e.g., "I was worried because ...) which promotes empathy.
There are many more pieces of grounded and insightful advice to be found in Raising Kids to Thrive. One overarching theme, which applies to every topic covered, is to always have thoughtful conversations with your child. In fact, Dr. Ginsburg incorporated the voices of over 500 young people in writing the book, providing unique insight about what kids really think, and how they experience parenting.
I encourage all parents to delve into this work and extract their own ways of putting all the principles into practice at home.
Richard Rende, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, researcher, educator, consultant, and author. He has held many leadership roles in child development research and academia throughout his career. He is co-author (with Jen Prosek) of the forthcoming "Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Children the Tools to Thrive in a Fast-Changing World" (Perigee/Penguin Random House; August 2015), which provides an evidence-based approach for nurturing entrepreneurial traits that all children will need for future success. Rende serves as Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Phoenix Country Day School. He provides a trusted academic voice on parenting, and his work has been featured in Parents.com, Parenting.com, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo!, Time.com, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, and NPR.
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