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10 Small Steps to Being a Better Parent
by Ron Taffel, Ph.D.

Sometimes, just making a few tiny, relatively painless adjustments in the way you interact with your kids can bring about huge improvements in your family life. Here are ten doable changes – requiring little investment of time and no major overhaul of philosophy, temperament or parenting – that any parent can make, starting today.

1. Praise you child’s random acts of kindness.
Your son has allowed another child at the playground to ride on his beloved scooter. Your daughter made you a card with a smiley face and lots of red hearts. Take notice by offering a little praise.

Why you need to: so often, in the bustle of our daily lives, we take for granted those sweet or generous behaviors we most like to see in our children – and want to promote and strengthen. Noticing and praising your child’s kind gestures is one important way to help her establish a core identity, a sense of herself as a person who feels good when she’s good to others. Also, praising your child for something nice she did teaches her not to take others’ kindnesses for granted.

How you do it: Your don’t have to create the impression that drawing a smiley-face card or sharing a toy is the most fabulous achievement ever. Simply say, "That was really great, the way you shared your scooter with Paul at the playground." And then turn your attention elsewhere.

2. Stop arguing with a screaming child.
Give up trying to convince a furious 4-year-old that it's a bad idea to have another cookie right before dinner. The logic of that decision will be lost on him.

Why you need to: It’s futile to argue with a child who’s in the middle of a tantrum. Instead of getting through to him, you will likely upset him even more. That, in turn, makes him feel miserable and you feel ineffectual.

How you do it: Try changing your location. If you’re in a public with your child, move to a different aisle of the supermarket or cut your expedition short: at home, walk into another room. The key is to distract – if not your child, then yourself. One mother told me that when she is approaching meltdown with her 3-year-old, she goes to the freezer, grabs two ice cubes, and holds one in each fist: "It literally cools me down! And it reminds me not to argue with him."

3. Read bedtime stories as often as possible.
Lie down with your child before lights out and read one of her favorite books, or even a single chapter of it. Or expand your horizons: A father in one of my parenting workshops told me that he enjoyed reading to his 6-year-old daughter, Vicky would tug at his sleeve every evening, saying, "Read to me about Oliver, Daddy."

Why you need to: Stories, of course, teach kids about life in many indirect ways. But research also suggests that the cadence, rhythm, and tone of being read to-as opposed to the sounds of other kinds of talking-soothe a child and help relieve anxieties. "When I'm reading to Vicky," says her father, "I can seethe peacefulness in her face."

How you do It: If you currently read to your child once a week, double up to twice a week. Or extend storytime from 15 minutes to 20 minutes. "Every three or four evenings, I schedule uninterrupted reading and storytelling," says Amanda, the mother of 6-year-old twins. "The TV and video games go off and the answering machine picks up the phone. I refrain from comments about clothes to be picked up or backpacks to be loaded." As a result, the activity is not only pleasant and reassuring, it is also a treasured ritual.

4. Drop one event per week
Somewhere, in nearly every American household-posted on the refrigerator or tacked to the bulletin board in the family room there is a monthly calendar jammed with activities. This calendar resembles a city map-dense, crowded, gridlocked! At a certain point, all those penciled-in to-do items cease to be enriching and instead become a prescription for emotional and physical meltdown. Dropping just one activity a week will do wonders for the quality of your family life.

Why you need to: Simply stated, most of us are wildly over scheduled. Having your child attend one or two fun events a week, rather than several, can mean the difference between a child who's contented and calm and one who's overexcited and impossible for hours at a time.

How you do it: View a mental rerun of the past week or two. Ask yourself, "Is there a point at which we always seem to run into trouble-when my child gets especially worn out or cranky or I get especially on edge?" Perhaps you'll recognize a trouble spot-after Wednesday's swim class or Thursday's toddler gymnastics. Can you eliminate that activity from the weekly schedule? At the very least, can you skip it one week and see if you or your child feels calmer and happier?

5. Get physical with your child.
Give him a quick hug. Tousle his hair. Scratch his back. Hold hands. Sounds obvious-yet so many rushed parents and children these days barely have a chance to speak to one another, let alone touch.

Why you need to: We grown-ups place great importance on communicating-expressing thoughts and feelings in words-yet we often undervalue how much communication goes on through touch. We forget how powerfully casual physical gestures express love. A quick kiss or stroke on the cheek as your youngster bounds off to school leaves a little piece of you with him for the day.

How you do It: Ask yourself, "Have I expressed my love today through touch?" Be sensitive to your child's preferences: One youngster might love a good, hard hug, while another would shrink from it in embarrassment or discomfort. Find the mode of touch that works for your child.

6. Imagine the best, not the want.
This is a tough one, because parents are natural worriers. Your toddler wants only cereal, and you're afraid she'll be the fussy eater you were. Your son gets bossy at the playground, and you're sure he'll never have any friends. You can reverse such thinking by consciously imagining the best possibility instead of the worst.

Why you need to: The more we project negative outcomes, the more likely they are to happen. When you fret about your child's eating habits, for example, you're apt to react in ways that actually encourage fussiness. When you're convinced a friendless future is ahead for your child, he begins to perceive himself as bossy and to act even more so. What's more, always sending your child out of the house with a "Be careful"-and omitting the "Have fun"-makes the whole experience of parenting less enjoyable.

How you do it: Identify some unimportant issue and just let it go without the usual struggle. Perhaps your son is dawdling in the mornings before school. Instead of stressing about whether he'll be tardy and convincing yourself that he'll always be disorganized, tell yourself, "He's learning to make decisions, regardless of whether his clothes look funny or he's a few minutes late."

7. See the world through your child eyes.
On occasion, put yourself in your child's place.

Why you need to: Adopting your child's point of view is one of the most powerful parent-child connectors around. It reaffirms for her that you appreciate what she's thinking and feeling. An added bonus: You get to see things with the often-magical vision of a child. One father, noticing his 3-year-old leaning into the TV, asked why she was standing so close. "I want to be in there with Barney," said his daughter. Seeing things as your child does provides a glimpse into her world.

How you do it: Once this week, as your child is telling you something, stop yourself from correcting, teaching, reacting, or interpreting. Just say, "Tell me more." Listen and perhaps marvel at what you hear, You will be rewarded with even more details about what your child sees and feels.

8. Let go a little.
This is an assignment especially for mothers-and one they find difficult to carry out: Delegate some responsibilities. Let someone else-your husband, your children, a friend-do some of the work.

Why you need to. Lightening your load is critical to your sanity and your reserves as a parent. More subtly, it will lower the resentment you may often feel. In countless polls, mothers have revealed a high level of repressed anger because they feel so totally overwhelmed by all they must do to keep their families functioning.

How to do It: Delegating may feel odd at first, but it gets easier with practice. Remember, start small: Add one extra night to the number of times Dad puts the kids to bed. One day a week, share chauffeuring of kids to after-school activities with another parent. Get your children to perform household tasks: A 3-year-old can feed a hamster; a 5-year-old can set the table; a 7-year-old can put away groceries. Gradually, as the family grows accustomed to the idea, add to everyone's responsibilities --except your own.

9. Sometimes, just hang out together.
Many studies point to a disturbing fact: Even when families think they're spending time together, in reality Mom is at the computer, Dad is in the basement, one kid is in the den with his Game Boy, and another is in the living room, building with blocks. Yes, they are under the same roof, but they're nowhere near each other. Yet quiet, unstructured time together is one of the greatest gifts you can give your kids.

Why you need to: Children tell me again and again that the times they love most are when the whole family watches a video or plays a board game together. Kids cherish simple moments of sitting with other family members, doing not much of anything at all. One day, when Emily, now 12, was 5, she stayed home from school with a fever, She and her mom spent the day lazing on the couch, watching three of her favorite videos and dressing her Barbie in one outfit after another. Says Emily, seven years later, "That was one of the best days of my life."

How you do it. Once a week, find time to be together as a family in a way that's restful and comforting. Invite the kids to climb into bed with you on Saturday morning and just lounge around for a half hour or so before the weekend frenzy kicks in. Or, one night a week, instead of rushing to clean up after dinner, linger with the whole family over dessert, the way you might if you went out to a restaurant.

10. Smile more.
And while you're at it, make a point of laughing more too.

Why you need to: A smile is the most visible way we humans make ourselves and those around us feel better. Even when you are not initially in the mood to smile, scientists have found, the mere act of forcing your lips into that shape actually elevates your spirits. Research also shows that children, especially very young ones, mirror our facial expressions. So if you smile more, your child smiles more and is in a happier mood. Also, when kids perceive themselves as people who bring their parents happiness, they feel better about themselves. In my work with children, I am always struck by how thrilled they are when a parent laughs at one of their jokes.

Now you do It: Ask yourself every day, "Have I smiled or laughed today at something my kids did or said? Have I found the humor in the ordinary business that has gone on between us?" So many of the moments that try a parent's soul center around everyday transitions-getting everybody out of the house in the morning or to dinner in the evening or to bed at night. A simple smile can break the tension and instantly improve the mood. If you sense that frowns have outnumbered the smiles on your face lately, change that picture immediately. Ask your 7-year-old if he's heard any new knock-knock jokes, or tell one yourself. While you're giving your 3-year-old her bath, stop thinking about the six other things you have to do, and just watch her race her plastic boats or feed her rubber duck.

Raising children can be an overwhelming job. It becomes much more manageable if you remember that enormous changes for the better begin with tiny steps. Put just one of these steps into practice this week-the one that strikes you as most doable or compelling. With that small step, you've already begun the process of change.

Parents Mag Aug 1999