From A Retired Camp Director
There are a lot of parenting experts out there, and I’m not one of them. But this is a topic I’ve thought a lot about, having seen lots of parenting, good and bad, over four decades as a camp staff member and director, and having raised a couple of children of my own.
I believe the single biggest factor in the development of a healthy child is lots and lots of love. From the moment a baby comes out into the light, parents should unconditionally and liberally provide as much physical and emotional affection as they can. Love from one’s parents builds a child’s sense of self-esteem. It is currency in the child’s emotional piggybank that can be called on when things are tough.
It is easy to love a baby. Nature designed them to be pretty irresistible. But parental love needs to continue unabated throughout every phase of a child’s life, even if those teen years can sometimes be challenging.
This includes saying “I love you.” A lot. Both routinely for good-byes, etc., and in longer conversations at special times or during heart-to-heart talks. While it makes sense to say it less as a child gets older, there should be no point in your child’s life when you stop saying it altogether, even if you sometimes have to force yourself because life (or your child) is driving you crazy.
Another way to show love is through positive feedback. Compliment your child when he shows kindness or thoughtfulness, when she has an idea, when he performs a task for the first time. And here’s a tip — a compliment is always more credible when it is specific as opposed to general. So while it’s great to say “You’re a good big sister,” it is even better to say, “I was so impressed by how gentle you were just now when you were playing with your baby brother.”
What you put into your child’s body has an enormous impact on how she develops, both physically and intellectually. This starts the moment you know you are pregnant. Ideally, mom will refrain from alcohol for nine months. If mom’s partner wants to really be supportive, he or she will do the same.
A healthy diet is incredibly important during pregnancy. Get advice or read up on what you should be eating, and make changes as needed. Whatever you do, this is not the time to worry about your figure. As the old adage goes, you are eating for two, and for your baby to thrive, she needs a complete compliment of essential nutrients.
Cravings are often a part of pregnancy, and the common wisdom is to indulge them. But lots of sugar is bad for you and your baby, so don’t go overboard with the ice cream, no matter how cliché it is.
After the incredible miracle of a healthy birth occurs, the next step in good nutrition is breast feeding. The science is very clear that nature’s plan for feeding a newborn is far superior for the baby’s well-being than artificial formulas. Yes, nursing can be hard. But it is worth fighting for, and it is easy to get help from breastfeeding advocates like La Leche League.
How long should you breast feed for? Opinions vary, so do your own research. But it seems to me that more people err on the side of stopping too young than too old.
When children start eating solid food, there are all kinds of challenges and pitfalls. The healthier the diet you can provide, the better. This takes effort and time. Dishes you prepare are better than processed, ready to eat foods. While it may be easiest to just get a Happy Meal at McDonalds, this can come at a cost for your child’s long-term health and well-being. And sugar is poison if kids have too much. I’m not saying you should avoid birthday cake, but moderation is a must when it comes to sweets. I would recommend zero soda and having desserts only on designated dessert nights, maybe three times a week. And avoid offering sweets as rewards for achievements or good behavior. You don’t want to teach your child to reward themselves with sweets later in life. Obesity and poor nutrition are a major health problem in America today. Setting up your child with healthy eating habits will insulate him from this.
3. Screen Time
We live at a time when millions of children are being raised by electronic devices. If baby is crying, he gets plunked in front of a TV. Older children consume hours and hours of computer games. The internet and social media dominate many teen lives.
Set limits right from the start. For infants, an hour a day max. If you force your child to play with other children or creatively by herself, she will develop better social and personal skills.
· While too much screen time is bad, zero screen time is also not good. We live in a high-tech world, and kids need to enter it fully literate in the use of essential devices.
· There may/will come a time when it is OK to stop having this battle with your teen. If he is a good kid and is functioning reasonably well in most aspects of his life, let him start to make his own decisions about balancing screen time with other priorities.
4. Consequences Matter — If you say you’re going to do it, do it
How many times have you seen it? An exasperated parent in some public place says to his child, “If you do that one more time, I’m taking you home!” And the child does it one more time. And he doesn’t take her home.
If you threaten a consequence, you must follow through. Failure to do so sends bad messages. The first is that my mom or dad doesn’t mean what s/he says. This is confusing to children, and it undermines your ability to be taken seriously. Second is that I can take my chances with rule breaking since I may or may not actually get punished. Later, parents wonder why their children broke clear rules at school or camp, or worse, as an adult in the real world, even though they knew they might get into trouble. It’s because they’ve been taught that they can get out of it by their parents!
This is one of the golden rules of good parenting. If you threaten or promise something, you must follow through if at all possible. That includes not changing your mind half an hour later when your child apologizes and promises to be good from now on. Applaud your child for learning his lesson and committing to doing better, but stick with the consequence.
This golden rule comes with an obvious caveat. Think before you threaten or promise and don’t put it out there if you think you may have to renege.
5. Allow Them to Fail
As parents, it is natural to want our kids to succeed and to do what we can to help them do so. This often spills over into protecting them from failure, or interfering with institutions in their lives that don’t give them what they want.
But failure is a big part of life. We lose the game, we don’t get the job we applied for, we don’t get into the program we wanted. And a critical part of navigating life is being able to handle these disappointments with grace and move on, uncowed, to the next goal.
Parents who are always fixing things for their kids or protecting them from disappointment are robbing them of this critical life skill. Yes, it hurts to see their disappointment. But it also hurts to see them cry when the doctor gives them their shots. We do it anyway because we know it’s good for them.
6. Let Them Be Kids
Don’t be in a big hurry to have your child grow up. Childhood is a precious gift, full of play and imagination and wonder. It is over too soon, and then we enter a world of adult challenges and problems where we spend the rest of our lives.
Encourage a full and immersive childhood experience by being silly with your kid, singing with her, playing games with her, and, as she ages, by making it easy for her to do these kinds of things with other kids.
And please, I am begging you, don’t fret about it if she gets dirty. Kids are supposed to make a mess, to get earth under their fingernails, to stomp in puddles. When you are with your child, try to check your adult sensibilities at the door (except, of course, when it comes to safety).
Also, spare your child your adult burdens when he is young. As with most things, there is a balance here. He probably needs to know it if you lost your job, but he doesn’t need to know it if your boss threatened you today or if the company is downsizing. He probably needs to know it if you can’t afford a toy he wants, but he doesn’t need to know that you are worried about making the mortgage next month.
Sex is a key topic here. You should avoid sexualizing your kids at a young age. Save the make-up and the sexy designs. Don’t push boyfriends and girlfriends (your chlld will go there just fine on her own when she’s ready). But here’s the flipside. It is equally important not to put off teaching kids about sex when they’re ready to learn. The common wisdom is if she asks a question, you should give her a factual, age-appropriate answer. You don’t want to make sex scary or taboo or guilt ridden. Of course, the devil is in the details. See number 8.
Last, childhood is about fun. The ability to have fun as a kid makes it much more likely that one will become a well-rounded, healthy adult. Don’t over-program your kid. Don’t sign him up for everything that you think might build his resume. Let him quit things that he’s given a good try and decided are not for him.
And speaking of fun, here’s a gem that I found very helpful with my kids. Many will be the time when it is turning out that something is not as fun as you expected, when it rains, when the event is sold out, when you’re stuck in traffic. And the kids start to whine or get fidgety. Then it’s time to pull this line out of your toolbox: “The fun is in you.” The message is that we have the ability, by choosing to adopt a positive attitude, to make things more enjoyable. We can make up a new game, we can tell a story, we can laugh and be silly. A child with a bad attitude can be miserable even in a kid friendly mecca like Disney World. A child with a good attitude, a child who gets it that “The fun is in you,” can find joy in an empty room with nothing but their imagination.
7. Establish Routines, Especially Sleep
A child is like a car without fully developed brakes. If you don’t help them maintain structure in their lives, they will careen out of control with bad results.
This extends to many areas, and I don’t need to list them all in order for you to get the idea. But a critical feature is chores and responsibilities, and these should start as soon as a child is able. From a very young age, kids can help you clean their rooms and can clear their own dishes from the table. Kids should wash their own clothes as soon as they are capable. Etc.
Perhaps the most important routine is sleep. Establish clear nap and bedtime routines, and stick to them. Kids who get enough sleep manage themselves better, have fewer temper tantrums, are less likely to be overweight — the list of positives goes on and on.
When your child is a newborn, you need to be prepared to get up and tend to their needs any hour of the night. But at some point, it is good to start teaching sleep habits. There are great resources on this. We used Ferber, although not everybody agrees with his techniques. Figure out what approach feels best to you, and do your best to make sure your child is a good sleeper.
8. Educate Yourself
What foods are healthy? How do you deal with night terrors? How can I get my kid to stop wetting the bed? What is the safest sunscreen? How can I decrease the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? The questions are endless.
Find sources you trust, and take the time to find credible answers. Your parents, your doctors, and your friends can be invaluable. But also read articles and books and do research online. See what experts have to say.
It is said that the most important thing you can learn in school is how to learn for yourself after you’ve left school. Unfortunately, parenting skills aren’t taught in school, or anywhere else, but that just makes ongoing learning about them all the more important.
Respect is a two-way street. If you do a good job with numbers 1–8 above, your child is probably going to have a lot of respect for you naturally. But you also have to respect your child.
First and most important under this heading: LISTEN TO HER! How painful is it to see a child asking a parent a question over and over again while the parent is completely absorbed with his cellphone? The most important thing in your life should be your child. Act like it by paying attention when she has a question, or a problem, or an insight. Stop whatever you’re doing (if you reasonably can), face your child and maybe even get down on one knee so you’re eye to eye, and wait for her to fully complete her thought before you start to reply. This is not easy! In our rush-rush world, with all its pressures, it takes effort and commitment to be a really good listener as a parent. But few things build self-esteem in our children as much as when their parents show that they are interested in what they have to say. So make the effort (even if your own parents weren’t so good at it).
Parenting experts are pretty unanimous in recommending against hitting kids as a means of discipline. This can be a hard cycle to break, though, for those parents whose parents hit them when they were kids. I believe kids who get hit are more likely to hit others. I believe that getting hit by one’s parents is disrespectful and damages self-esteem. It may be legal to hit your child, but it is not good for him. Period.
Accept your child for who he is. We don’t bring kids into the world to be little versions of ourselves or to become our idealized vision of the perfect human being. Your child can and should have his own identity, his own likes, and his own dislikes. Nurture these. And if you discover that your child is gay or has a different gender identity than you had expected or wants to go into a different profession than you had in mind, be absolutely as accepting as you can be. Remember the number one rule: unconditional love.
10. Prioritize Reading
Literacy matters. Kids who learn to read and like books tend to do better in this world. So from day one, even before there is any chance your child can understand, read to them. Read to them at bedtime and at other times. Surround them with infant books and children’s books. Give them books for gifts. Praise them when they start reading by themselves. Make reading as fun as it can be and as loving as it can be.
How great would it be if there were a course that covered these topics, and maybe a few more, and that included an opportunity to discuss ideas about parenting with fellow parents-to-be and think about them and internalize them and enter parenthood invested in acting on them?
Good parenting is a lot of work. It is full of ups and downs and frustrations, and it is complicated by the need to also maintain a house, earn a living, and meet the needs of other key people in your life.
It is hard. And that brings me to the final message, essentially tip number 11. If you’re reading this and you haven’t yet become a parent, ask yourself this question. Am I at a point in my life where I’m ready to put the time and effort into this that is needed in order to do all these things? If the answer is no, and if realities allow, consider waiting a while. Too many of us become parents before we are in a position to do a good job of it. Best if you don’t do it unless you are ready.
Raising children has been a magical experience for me — one of the greatest joys of my life. May it be the same for you!