Try to Become a Positive Parent
Family: Turn off the televisions and connect on the road
If you have any time to spend learning something this year, you might want to try "positive parenting." It might help you with the most important job you'll ever have.
Positive parenting doesn't necessarily mean what you think. "It's not heaping praise on your child or rewarding all behavior," says Charmaine Ciardi, a family therapist and author based in Bethesda, Md. "Instead, it is looking at childhood as a time of learning for kids and parents and dealing with difficulties in a productive way, rather than punitive."
A child's challenging behavior may indicate easily addressed concerns, a point Ciardi-a mother of seven, including four foster children-makes in her books Living With Little Kids and Living With the Big Kids. "Look at their environment: Sleep, food, medical, school, friends, or video games-what is there that needs fixing?"
"Parenting is not instinctive," agrees Kathleen Olson, who for 34 years as family relations educator of the University of Minnesota Extension Services has helped generations of parents change their approach. The website she helped establish at www.parenting.umn.edu is a great do-it-yourself guide to sticky subjects such as discipline and communication.
Both Ciardi and Minnesota educator Olson say that reinforcing the small, good things your child does every day can build a self-confident child and stronger parent-child relationships. For every correction or punitive statement, try to recognize two good things the child has done. "Catch them in the act of being good," says Ciardi. "Wink at them, smile, tell them, 'I saw you being kind,' or 'I saw you being funny.'" And acknowledge specific actions rather than generalities about how special, smart, or pretty a child is. "When my daughter was young, I would catch myself saying, 'Oh, you're such a good girl,'" says Olson. "It made her a lot happier when I learned to say, 'I like the way you braided your pigtails."
Brad Sachs, a family psychologist in Columbia, Md., and author of The Good Enough Child, agrees. "I always say praise is like penicillin," says the father of three teenagers. "It's great in proper doses, but too much can be damaging." Praise can remind kids that they're always being evaluated and judged, notes Sachs, even when the praise is positive. "It exhausts them."
Being a positive parent does not mean always doing the right thing and always getting the right response back from our kids. "None of us has to be perfect," says Ciardi, a consolation to imperfect parents everywhere. "If we adjust our expectations, that in itself has a very positive effect."
Getting better in your job as a parent will never get you a raise or a promotion, but children who are happy could stay closer to you over the years. And that is a pretty good pension.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.