I’ve travelled the country for almost two decades teaching children and parents tips and skills to build lives of integrity, confidence and self-compassion. In my research and life as a parent, I’ve developed a core group of insights that have offered wisdom and comfort, as well as the knowledge that we are not alone on this crazy ride.
Here are some of my favorites:
Parent Tips For All Ages
1. You Can’t Single Handedly Influence Who Your Child Becomes
Do you find yourself pushing hard for your child to adopt an interest, pursue an accomplishment, or reach a milestone when they don’t seem ready? Consider this: one of the most destructive beliefs a parent can harbor is that we can single handedly influence who our children become. This false belief is reinforced by an industry of parenting experts (yes, guilty as charged) who suggest that with the right expertise, you can learn the parenting skills to “make” a child do anything.
While thinking this may lead to big highs when our kid succeeds in the ways we want, it also creates ruthless self-criticism when our child “fails” to hit a milestone we’ve set them up to reach. And — more importantly — it sets up our children to believe our approval (and love) are contingent upon their listening to our interests and readiness — not theirs.
It’s not our kids’ job to honor a developmental schedule of our choosing. That said, have you ever introduced something to your child, only to get a blank stare — then, by the time you’ve long forgotten it, they’re suddenly interested?
That’s your sign that, with some humility and gentleness, with some waiting, with some observation of what your child is ready for and when, you can partner with your child’s development — instead of trying to drive it. Often enough, they will get there on their own. If they don’t, they need to know they are loved — and enough — no matter what.
2. We Can’t Give Our Children What We Don’t Have
Want to know what I hear from parents more than anything else?
“How do I raise my child to be confident and kind to themselves when I’m still struggling to become those things myself?”
Parents whisper this question to me as if they are the only ones in the world struggling, but I hear it over and over again.
It led me to an epiphany: To parent our kids well, we can’t just focus on our kids.
We also have to heal the children we once were. We all have wounds from our earliest years that continue to shape our lives as adults—and now touch our lives as parents.
Maybe you were left out or bullied as a kid, and now you react with an intensity you can’t control when your child faces even a minor friend problem. Perhaps your parents frequently minimized or even denied your feelings, and now you struggle to handle your kid’s. Or maybe you pursued perfection at the expense of your wellness, and now have a teen doing the same.
This revelation is why I created my online parenting course, Enough As We Are, which, over 8 weeks of live, interactive virtual workshops, helps parents examine how memories and unresolved issues from childhood work the controls of our parenting.
3. The Importance Of Setting Boundaries With Your Children
Setting boundaries with our kids – the subject of our final Enough As We Are online class – is about MUCH more than saying no, or even what you’re saying no to. Here’s why you should work hard to set limits — and stick with them:
Setting a boundary means asserting your values as a parent. You tell your kids what you stand for as a family — and to do that, you’ll have to say no to something else.
When your child comes to believe that if they work hard enough, they can force their values to overcome or dominate yours, they get the message that there are no clear and stable principles coming from you to guide their behavior. This can lead to a feeling of deep insecurity, because if anything goes, there are no dependable truths that form a container in which they can safely figure out who they are.
Finally, when you set a boundary with your child, you teach them how to do the same. If they constantly experience you collapsing your boundaries, they’ll come to believe they should do this with others. They may fail to develop empathy and sensitivity to others, and be attracted to a spouse who has equally weak boundaries.
4. Who’s More Upset, You or Them?
Kids are sometimes far less upset by their social challenges than we are. If you pepper your child with questions about a friend who wasn’t nice to them, you’re indirectly letting them know that they should be worried about something they may not actually have been all that fazed by.
If you have a frequent urge to ask “how’s it going with that friend?” or to coax out the details of what happened that day, just remember the frequency of your questions — even if you’re not explicitly focusing on the negative — send an indirect message that you think something is wrong. If they don’t, let them manage it and learn about it on their own.
5. Self-Restraint Is A Feature, Not A Bug, Of Parenting
If you’re not biting your tongue at least once a day with your kid, something’s off. Self-restraint is a feature, not a bug, of parenting — we parent not to have our own needs met, but to help someone else learn to meet theirs. Everyone loses it sometimes, of course (me especially). But if you can’t feel yourself holding it in sometimes, you are likely sending the message to your child that their growth process must always put you first — and that can stunt your child’s ability to express their feelings, manage failure, take risks, and develop new skills freely. So go ahead and grit your teeth, clench your fists, and snort like a dragon. Your frustration, kept mostly in check, is one of the most important gifts you can give your child.
6. Good Parenting Is Who We Are When Things Get Hard
It’s often said that character is who we are when things get hard. The same is true of good parenting — it’s who we are when things get hard. It’s the moments when we have to say no, be the one who doesn’t “get it,” refuse to rescue, decline to be “cool.” These are the moments we may never be thanked for, but which provide the container kids so desperately need as they figure out who they are and what they stand for.
7. Why It’s Unhealthy When Your Ambition Outstrips Your Child’s
There are some parents whose ambition exceeds their children’s. They imagine their children are destined for more than they themselves realize, and think it’s their job as parents to clarify the mistake.
It does not make a kid feel respected or loved to have their parent proclaim that the world doesn’t understand how fabulous they are. It makes them suspect that their parents don’t think they are enough as they are, and that they must be more, more than they appear now to be capable of. It becomes an indirect form of parental criticism – instead of criticizing the child, you criticize everyone else around them. The upshot, write Drs. Suniya Luthar and Barry Schwartz, is that teens believe parental pride is contingent on being a star. “Children come to feel that any failure to accomplish will seriously diminish the acceptance and esteem with which their parents regard them.”
I’m not sure of the solution just yet, but I do know we have to check ourselves. We cannot live out our dreams or try to resolve our own choices or limitations through our kids.
8. Telling A Kid They Can Be Anything Is Harmful
Telling a kid they can be and do anything isn’t just untrue; it’s harmful to them. It keeps them from practicing two vital life skills: recognizing that they are not in complete control of the way their life turns out, and accepting that there are some answers they will not be able to immediately know.
If you’re not 100% sure a situation will go their way, avoid making promises you can’t keep. Sure, it may calm them down in the short term. But if they believe they can control outcomes, they’ll acquire both a grandiose (and false) sense of their own power, as well as a tendency to beat themselves up mercilessly when things go wrong. Your child needs to hear you say, “I don’t know the answer,” and watch you be peaceful in that unknown.
9. The Importance of Modeling Self-Care
“Part of my issue with self-care,” a teen girl told me, “is just that I don’t even know how to do it. I don’t have that practice.” If we want girls to manage their stress in healthy ways, we have to model it for them. Self-care is a skill, one they’ll learn by practice AND by what they see us doing.
If you’re a parent, ask yourself about the ways you model self-care. Consider what you can do this fall to add more visible self-care to your life, for them as much as for you.
10. Instead of Telling Your Kid to Calm Down…
How can you help kids learn to stop ruminating, beating themselves up and exaggerating a problem? By practicing mindfulness in front of them.
The next time your child comes to you with a challenge, model slowing down to notice how you are feeling (“worried,” “upset,” “disappointed,” “angry” etc.) in the moment. Rather than telling them to calm down (a surefire way to make them go bonkers, if they’re of a certain age), model what it looks like to try and calm yourSELF down. You can say, “Let’s slow down for a second before we react. I’m noticing that I’m feeling [whatever feeling].”
In this way, you can use their challenge to your advantage — letting it be an opportunity to practice self-regulation in front of your child, which will help give them the tools to do the same.
11. How To Raise A More Optimistic Child
Model optimism – explain a setback in terms of SPECIFICS, not universal beliefs about yourself or the world. “I didn’t get the job because I wasn’t the right fit for this one” (specific) vs “I didn’t get the job because I’m a terrible interviewer” (universal).
Explain a success in terms of UNIVERSALS, not specifics. “I got the job because I’m smart and qualified” vs “I got the job because a junior associate interviewed me.”
Remember, children are listening, and we are scripting them in how to respond not just to setbacks — but to success.
12. How Would You Parent If You Weren’t Afraid?
If you’re worried about your child, pause and ask: who is more upset, you or them?
Sometimes, our kids don’t interpret their challenges in the same anxious way we might. Unlike our kids, we’re lugging our own childhood baggage around (I am no stranger to this, hi, I wrote a book called “Odd Girl Out”). As parents, many of us repurpose our past worries into fears about our kids’ futures: will they be lonely? Unhappy? Unsuccessful?
Remember that we script our children in how to respond to challenge. So before you start a conversation about the day, or how it’s all going, try staying in the present moment by asking yourself, “How would I parent right now if I weren’t afraid?”
13. Fail Young, Fail Well
What’s the difference between learning a skill (think language or sport) as a child vs. as an adult?
We absorb more easily as kids. Because we’re still growing, our learning becomes part of our muscle memory, and indeed part of us. What if we thought this way about learning to fail?
Wait too long to learn this vital skill, and we are invariably more intimidated and less flexible. What’s that thing a child in your life can go out and learn to fail at? A cake they bakes with you? A new sport? A big game?
Fail young, and fail well.
14. Be A Failure Role Model
Parents, think about how you fail in front of children. We know all about being a role model for success, but what about being a good failure role model?
How do you talk to yourself when you fall short? Do you say, “I’m such an idiot” or “I guess I just learned something”? How do you explain why it happened — by blaming yourself, or considering the circumstances? How do you take the next step — by pausing and brooding, or brainstorming your next step? How we fail sets as important an example, and maybe more important, than how we succeed.
Parent Tips For Older Kids
15. Helping Your 20-Something Cope With Uncertainty
Hey, families-greeting-twenty-something-children-home-for-the-holidays, here’s a gift idea.
If your kid is uncertain about their future, their current job, and life in general, don’t let them blame themselves. Remind them that it’s their developmental task to be in the grey, undecided muck of their twenties — it’s their JOB to not always know, to not be able to ace something just because they’re smart and work hard. It’s their job to be clumsy, to make wrong turns and bad choices, and it’s your job to stick with them, not let them shame themselves, and keep reminding them how hard it is to go from a life where everything was planned and structured (college) to one that isn’t. Promise them they will figure it out slowly but get there, and that one day they’ll look back and realize that every step was getting them closer to where they needed to be. (And don’t forget that big fat glass of holiday wine if you need it.)
16. Parents, Stop Idealizing College
Everyone might be college is going to be the best four years of their life, but yeah no, guess what? College is often like any other time of life, and the first few weeks — or months — can suck. Help your kid let go of the pressure to act like it’s all good, and please DO NOT idealize an experience that is filled with anxiety, friendship shifts, self-consciousness and the occasional crying in one’s bed (I don’t know anything about that myself).