Being a good parent is not about money, age or whether you’re still with your partner; it’s about love, respect, and knowing what values you want your child to grow up with. There is a lot of pressure to be a good parent – there always has been – but these days it seems there’s even more pressure to be the greatest parent who ever lived.
There are no rules to parenting, but there are guidelines that can help you negotiate the journey you’ll take with your children from infancy to adulthood – and beyond – to help make it an enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone, including your children.
Provide unconditional love and encouragement: You are the primary influence on your child’s sense of self-worth and their ability to face the world with confidence. Help your child to feel cherished by giving them your time; playing with your child, reading a book, or just talking to them helps send the message that they are special and worthy of your time and love. Try to acknowledge your child’s feelings, even when you don’t agree (“You’re annoyed with mummy because I won’t let you go outside without a jacket”), and encourage them by recognising their efforts (“You worked really hard on that painting”) rather than the end result (“beautiful painting”), which helps your child to become less reliant on the approval of others. Try to show your child love that is spontaneous and unconditional, such as smiling when they walk into a room, winking when you say goodbye, giving them lots of cuddles (even when they protest against them!), and telling them “I love you” regularly.
Use positive discipline strategies: Your child will best learn to distinguish right from wrong if you set clear and consistent limits and consequences. When they break one of your rules, make sure to follow through with the consequence you warned them of in a way that won’t damage their self-esteem or self-worth. Ignore attention-seeking behaviours whining, and when you begin to slip into a power-struggle, take a step back and tell your child that you’ll deal with it later – make sure that do you, but at a time when you’re calmer. Make sure the consequences are commensurate with the thing they have done. For breaking a rule, like jumping on the bed, reprimand your child; and use small consequences for other minor issues (“I’ll put the toy away now since you can’t share with your friend”). For other, more serious issues, like aggression or disobedience, give your child a time-out. It’s important to remember that discipline is not about punishing your child, but teaching and guiding them toward good behaviour. Model good behaviour by saying “please” and “thank you” to teach your child manners, and avoid shouting or smacking your child when you’re angry. Give praise to your child’s good behaviour – “thanks for bringing that plate into the kitchen” – but be careful not to over-reward your child for their good behaviour.
Teach responsibility: Once of the greatest gifts your child can learn is that they’re responsible for the choices they make, as well as the consequences of those actions. Offer your child choices wherever you can (“Would you like to wear your pink or white dress today?”) and teach them how to contribute to the household by giving age-appropriate chores and responsibilities. Encourage the development of new skills by giving your child the chance to work out how to do something, and if they’re stuck, get involved in finding a solution rather than doing it for them. If your toddler is crying because another child grabbed their favourite toy, encourage them to go with you and ask for the toy back. And if your preschooler complains that she has no friends at school, practice approaching other children to get involved in play. The idea is to find different ways for your children to get used to thinking for themselves so that they ca rely on their own choices rather than the opinions and approvals of others.
Use routines and rituals to create togetherness: Dinnertime, bedtime, weekly outings and other routines and rituals make a real difference to children. Family routines help children to feel a sense of control and predictability. Children are reassured by knowing that dinner will be followed by a bath, PJ’s, brushing teeth and reading a story. Rituals such a pizza night on Fridays and a family day out, bring families together and create a sense of security and belonging. Children look forward to predictable shared events. Rituals can also take the form of a special way to say goodbye, such as with a kiss, a cuddle, or a high five. These special family-time activities provide children with much more than time having fun or being together; they give children special memories that they cherish for years to come.
Stop trying to be supermum (or dad): A great parent is one that realises that a big part of their job is in preparing their child for the realities for life, in which no one is perfect and no one is going to be able to please and meet their needs all of the time. A great parent aims to give their child what’s most important, while also realising that looking after their own needs is essential. It’s also okay to make mistakes. We all make mistakes as parents, and kids are very forgiving when we do. What matters to children most is what we do well most of the time, rather than the few times we go wrong. The mistakes that we make occasionally as we go have little impact on our overall success at childrearing. Lower your standards to a more realistic and reasonable level, and rather than dwelling on the past and what you did wrong, focus on the future and how you can better handle the same situation the next time it occurs.
Look after yourself: One of the key aspects of being a good parent is to feel good about yourself and your role as a parent. The only way to do this is by having time to yourself, as well as with your family. Parents who look after everyone else and neglect themselves do not do anyone any favours. No one can keep giving and giving without becoming depleted, and the better you feel about yourself, the more effective a parent you can be. So take time-out to catch up with a friend, watch a movie, take a yoga or exercise class. Do whatever it is that suits you to renew yourself, have fun, or simply to relax and chill out. It’s okay to tell your child, “I am doing something for me”. After all, your children are going to learn to model themselves on you so that one day they, too, will know how to look after themselves.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.