25 Parenting Tips from a Parent Who Thinks Parenting Tips Are Useless
But, I am also certain that I may not have learned these things, at least not as clearly, had my child been neurotypical and trauma-free, because I would have had less reason to be intentional, and to pay attention. I might have relied more on other people’s advice (which, incidentally, has always been pretty terrible and completely unrelated to what it means to parent my particular child) or parenting books (except for those that deal with children with trauma, even worse—and even some of those are pretty terrible).
Let me add that I learned all of these things by making terrible mistakes, and figuring out what I could have done differently, and then trying again. Let me also say that this list is a work in progress—there is always more to learn, of course. I am learning more every day.
If you don’t want to read this whole thing, then these are the three highlights, the themes, if you will, that run through all the parenting tips:
1. Stay connected and maintain a deep relationship.
2. Be intentional about how you provide feedback and help your child learn and grow.
3. Make responsibility, love, and social justice the centerpieces of your home.
OK, here goes…my tips on parenting.
Stay connected and maintain a deep relationship.
1. It’s all about relationship. If what you’re doing is not going to improve your relationship with your child, don’t do it if you can help it. If you can’t help it, explain. Eg: “I really hate that I have to work late tonight. I would so much rather spend the night with you.” For obvious reasons, this tends to work better than, “I wish you wouldn’t make me feel guilty for having to work late when I’m the one who makes the money to get you everything you need. What do you think would happen if I lost my job?” (Trust me).
2. Be vulnerable. And don’t be sorry for being vulnerable. Think about how much better our world would be if no one was afraid to be vulnerable. Teach your child that vulnerability is OK.
3. Talk about feelings by name. It is OK to say, “I feel jealous/hurt/scared.” This teaches your child to recognize and name her own emotions. Help her to understand that feelings are temporary—and a normal reaction to the particulars of one’s life and to the injustices in the broader world.
4. Always say you’re sorry when you hurt your child, even if unintentionally, but especially if you’ve said or done something that was intended to hurt, or if you’ve lost your temper. In your apology, be very specific about what you did, what impact you think your action might have had, and why you are sorry. Say what you will do to make amends or to work toward the same thing not happening again. “I’m really sorry I screamed at you. Screaming is not a good way to solve problems. I know it must have been scary when I screamed, and I’m going to try to work on taking a break the next time I feel like I am going to blow.” Then, show that you’re making an effort. This is just plain good modeling. It also allows her to feel more confident that when she makes a mistake, she can ask forgiveness, and the world will move on. It teaches the importance of taking responsibility and of working to change behaviors that are hurtful to others.
5. Provide comfort in whatever way works for your child whenever she needs it. This teaches her that it’s important to be comforting—that people sometimes just need to be told they are OK and safe. Sometimes, even if your child has done something “wrong,” the best way to move her from shame to personal responsibility is to provide comfort and affirm your unconditional love—there will always be time to address the behavior later.
6. Be an advocate for your child. Stand up when she is treated badly by others, or when she’s treated unfairly by any powers-that-be, whether more powerful peers or teachers or school administrators or social workers or…well, anyone. This will help her feel safe. It is important, also, to model what it is to be an advocate for justice by starting within your own family.
7. Encourage curiosity. If your child has a question about something, look it up, and act excited about the new information. (I remember my mom pulling the World Book encyclopedias off the shelf several times a week to answer a random question I had, and acting truly delighted to be learning alongside me; this helped me develop a love of learning that I would not have developed in school).
8. Encourage your child’s passions. Take the time to learn along with her about the things she is interested in and to listen to why she’s interested in them. Those passions could become a pathway to enacting justice in the world.
9. If you don’t totally approve of your child’s passions, don’t panic—but also, don’t back down. Some passions really are more worthwhile than others. But, there may also be a way to reframe your child’s passion so that she is interested for the right reasons and with the right results. For instance, when S became obsessed with American Girl dolls, and bought 13 for herself in a row (no, that was not a typo—she really has 13 American Girl dolls), saving every penny of her petsitting money to purchase these, I was distressed, and felt like a failure. She was living out everything I didn’t believe in--supporting consumerism and slave labor in China, obsessing about middle class girls with simple problems (OK, that may be an oversimplification, but still)—how had I let it get this bad! But eventually, we were able to talk about why she liked them so much, and what they meant to her. They were a reminder of what childhood should have been like for her, a reminder of the kind of care girls need to be strong and healthy. Sometimes, her dolls provided a connection to stories of girls who had survived extreme circumstances, just as she had. Over time, as I stopped worrying and started listening, we were able to talk about how she might channel these feelings a different way. She had saved money to buy two more dolls, and she decided to buy them for two girls who didn’t have many toys, and not to purchase any more for herself.
10. Model self-care. Eat healthfully, exercise regularly, take time to do what you enjoy (and don’t apologize for it, even if you have to leave your child out to do it), and take time to nurture your spiritual self. This has been the hardest piece for a workaholic like me—but it’s important. Again, it’s simply good modeling. I always tell myself, and S, that we can only heal the world if we keep ourselves healthy. Recently, S said, “Mom, you need to make more time to write, because it feeds your soul.” And she’s right. That’s one reason I’m writing this!
Be intentional about how you provide feedback and help your child learn and grow.
11. All “problem behaviors” stem from a child’s thought pattern and feelings. If you can find out what she is thinking and feeling, you can usually address the “problem behavior” in a more effective way. Be intentional about asking questions and trying to understand why she says and does what she says and does.
12. It’s all about relationship. (This bears repeating). But, this does not mean that parenting is a free for all, and that saying or doing anything that will upset your child should be avoided. In fact, providing feedback is an important role of the parent. Still, there are worse and better ways to provide feedback. When providing feedback, if you focus on what will make your relationship stronger, then you will usually make the right decision about how to react. For instance, screaming, “I’m so tired of your laziness. Pick up your clothes and put them in the hamper, NOW” or “If you kick me again I’m going to have to call the police, and who knows what will happen next!” is, perhaps, not the best way to handle actual crises, or incidents that feel like crises if it’s been a long day. Try this, instead: “I have noticed that you haven’t been bringing your clothes to the hamper. Why is that?” If she says she doesn’t know, explain why it’s a problem: “It’s frustrating when I have to pick clothes up off the floor just to get a full load of laundry. I feel like this is a pretty basic and easy responsibility that will make doing laundry easier and quicker for everyone. Can you help me?“ This conversation is going to go better, for sure. Or, in a crisis situation, try this: “I need to walk away now that you’ve hurt me, because I’m feeling scared and not very safe. I may need to call someone who can help to keep us safe and make sure we can continue to grow in love as a family. Give me a minute to think about this, and take a minute to see if you can calm down.” Of course, how much you say and the framing will depend on the child’s age, but you get the idea.
13. Time outs should not be used as a punishment. Never limit a child’s access to family together time. Always make the decision to participate her choice—while also giving her an out if she’s too overwhelmed to behave in a way that is respectful. Instead of, “If you don’t stop being so mean, you will have to go to your room for the rest of the night” you can say, “Let’s all take a break, because I’m worried that things will blow up if we don’t. Let’s regroup in five minutes and decide if we’re all calm enough to (finish the game, go on the outing, etc). If time outs are used as a punishment, children get the message that they are not wanted or loved if their behavior is problematic. If they are used as a way for everyone to calm down, they teach children that it’s important to be able to self-regulate and make decisions about whether it’s a good time to be around other people.
14. Natural consequences are the only consequences that work. Don’t impose random consequences that have nothing to do with the behavior and won’t teach your child how to change it. When imposing natural consequences—wow, that’s an oxymoron—be sure to make clear why you are doing it. Eg, instead of, “Since you obviously can’t handle your ipod, it’s going away forever” you can say, “I am not going to let you use your ipod for awhile because what you’ve been looking at is just not safe. Until I am sure you can use it safely, I will hold onto it. This is not a punishment, just a way to keep you safe.” Then follow through by teaching the skills she’ll need to be able to use it again someday.
15. Don’t correct every behavior, unless it’s truly hurtful or unsafe. Instead, address patterns in behavior, and why they are problematic. Eg, instead of nagging every time your child overeats, or correcting her when she mentions unrealistic expectations for her life (“You’ll never be a famous ballet dancer!”), or demanding she change clothes each time she dresses inappropriately for the weather or for a particular occasion, wait until you have enough time to address the pattern. Take the time to be clear in your own mind about why the pattern is a problem, and ideas for how you can work with your child to change it. When it’s time for the conversation, ask a lot of questions, and listen more than you talk.
16. Get help when you need it. Get your child help when she needs it. Take the time to look for the help that will work best for your family, and don’t settle for help that isn’t—well, helpful.
Make responsibility, love, and social justice the centerpieces of your home.
17. Have clear expectations for your child’s contributions to the household—and for your own. Explain that everyone who is part of a family has to contribute to the mundane tasks of that family’s everyday life. Do chores together whenever possible—chores are more fun when families do them together while talking or singing along to favorite tunes! But, expect the child’s participation, and if she does not participate or help, make sure she makes it up by doing other chores later (natural consequences). Model personal responsibility by following through on what you have to do, also.
18. Talk about the news, about the people in your neighborhood who are struggling, about the people across the world who are suffering, about social issues that matter most. Take your child to vote (even before she’s 18) and to volunteer and to deliver care packages or bottles of wine to people who are struggling whom you love and to funerals to show your support for the grieving and to rallies and marches. Open your home to people outside your immediate social circle. Talk about why issues matter to you. Talk about why you don’t shop at some places but will shop at others, why you buy free trade coffee and local produce…etc.
19. But also, be sure your child understands that everything is not black and white. Don’t sugar coat how complicated issues are to solve. Talk about the tangible struggles you have: “I didn’t want to buy our groceries at WalMart, for all the reasons we’ve talked about. But this week I worked late every night and was short on money, and it was the only option—the only place we could afford that was open late at night. It was a hard decision.” Or, “I want to be able to go to the rally tonight to show my support but we already have plans with the family, and although both things are important, I feel we need to keep our commitment. But, let’s think about what we can do to show our support another way.” Or “I don’t want to vote for this candidate, because I didn’t agree with many of his votes this past term, but I feel as if I don’t have a choice—if I don’t vote, the other candidate, who is even more offensive, might win. This is a problem in the American political system that is difficult to get around.” You can start teaching nuanced thinking even from the time a child is young, but the details will get more specific as she gets older.
20. As you talk about injustice, be sure that compassion is a part of the conversation. Be sure your child knows that the oppressor needs compassion as much as the oppressed—but be sure it’s also clear where you stand. Compassion should not be an easy out or lead to passivity—but it should be practiced in whatever ways make sense with your spiritual beliefs and family rituals. I knew my daughter had learned this when she woke up after the last election and announced that rather than being bitter, she was going to pray for the candidate who had won—a candidate who spoke openly about wanting to take rights away from LGBT people and immigrants. I realized then that I had some spiritual work to do!
21. Nor should the fact that the world is hurting in ways too innumerable to even fully comprehend be a reason for passivity. Always instill a sense of hope. In a recent conversation about the last election, I said to S, “Instead of feeling overwhelmed and wondering what to do next, let’s make a plan, and start there, and keep moving forward. That’s the only way to change the world.”
22. Expect your child to treat others with love and extravagant welcome, and to speak out for justice. Call your child out when she doesn’t live up to it. Help her do it when she needs help.
23. Talk about privilege and allyship in age-appropriate and ability-appropriate ways. Make sure your child knows the ways she is privileged, and the ways you are, and what that means about your responsibilities to the wider world.
24. Live out of love, not fear. If you are doing something because you are afraid—afraid of what others will think of you, afraid of the risk—don’t let that be the reason you don’ t do it. Examine your motivations and the real risks—then do what is right, even if it’s harder. If your child sees you doing this, she’ll do the same.
25. Let your child help you write the list of important parenting tips—she knows about as much as you do. (She helped me write this).