parent opinion

The 5 parenting rules that no one is talking about.

Want to know how to fix your parenting? Jump onto any social media platform and you’ll find an endless parade of influencers and ‘experts’ with long lists of ideas to ‘help’ you as you rear your kids. 

Ideas like:

“Treat each child the same.”

“Only keep healthy food in the house.”

“If your child has a tantrum, just ignore it.”

“Praise your kids to boost their self-esteem.”

“Kids who aren’t smacked don’t have any respect.”

“If your child has a tantrum, get on the ground and have a bigger one yourself.

And then there are the parenting style fads: 'Tiger parents' push their kids to achieve and be all they can be; to live up to their full potential. No. Matter. What! 

'Free-range' parents give their children flexibility to find their own boundaries and limits, and explore the world – without parenting interference. 

'Helicopter parents' hover over their kids to protect them and keep them safe from harm, even if it's not always good for their development. 

And 'Gentle parents' put their children's emotional wellbeing front and centre, and try to guide their kids rather than command and control them.

Two things still amaze me, no matter how many lists and styles that I read about. First, I’m astounded at the lack of research evidence supporting the ideas that are parroted for parents to practice. Second, there's the really, really valuable stuff that no one seems to be talking about.

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I get it. I used to have plenty of opinions about parenting – even before I had kids. People want to be helpful.

But now with a PhD in the psychology of parenting, regularly speaking with parents from all over the country who attend my seminars and listen to our podcast, up-close insights into individual families with varied parenting styles (through my role on the TV show Parental Guidance), in-depth research for eight parenting books under my belt – plus six of my own kids – I’ve learned that not all ‘help’ is created equal. 

Below are five things parents need to be doing that no one’s telling them.

1. Be involved. 

Okay, so this one is probably on a bunch of lists, but it’s the how of our involvement that matters. Kids thrive and are motivated when their ‘relatedness’ need is met. And that happens through non-controlling involvement. 

Involvement is what happens when we stop what we’re doing and really connect with our child. Or when we help out with their chores. Or we ask them to come in the car with us to collect the groceries for dinner rather than stay home. Or we bring them on the walk with the dog each night and talk about our day, rather than putting them to bed early. 

Involvement, perhaps more than anything else, is the key to resilience and wellbeing.

2. Stop fixing and correcting. 

A child makes a mistake. A parent feels it’s their duty to correct the mistake. The response is predictable. Most children feel upset that their parents are always telling them what to do!

Correction and direction (also known as command and control) is necessary, but how we do it matters. Most of our ‘fixing’ is done in a controlling way. We step in, explain the problem, and tell our child to try again. This approach is not usually well received. Toddlers scream. Children aged five to 12 withdraw, become surly, or refuse to listen. Adolescents yell, “I know!”. 

The problem is that our correction and direction undermines our kid’s need to feel competent and capable. It’s a fragile need, and when our children feel we don’t think they’ve got the goods to get the job done, they react poorly. It leads to avoidance (and ruptured relationships).

A better response to mistakes is a gentle acknowledgement followed by some simple support. “Oops, that didn’t go quite right. Would you like a hand, or do you think you’ve got this?”

3. Get out of their way. 

A child’s most prized possession is their sense of autonomy. From the time we begin feeding them to the time they’re all grown up and are living away from home, our children want to be in control of their decisions and lives. And how do parents feel about that? We also want to be in control of their decisions and their lives.

Giving full-blown independence and autonomy to a child is foolish. But we can offer far more autonomy support than most of us do. Studies show that one-year-old children whose parents ‘teach’ them how to use their toys tend to persist less. The same goes for six-year-olds. Studies also show that parents who tell their teens and bigger kids what to do have children who resent their parents and become sneaky so they can do things their way.

Supporting autonomy means we notice what’s going on with our children’s struggles and ask them if they want us to help or if they want some space. We explore their challenges, explain our boundaries, values, and standards, and empower them to find solutions that fit their ideals along with our preferences. We step in when we must, but we keep a loose leash at all other times.

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4. Have fun.

I get it. Life is busy, stressful, expensive, exhausting… sometimes overwhelming. Children only further amplify all of those things (and more)! Yet the happiest families are invariably the ones who are having the most fun.

Finding a way to get away from the pull of priorities, the seduction of your screen, and the desire to just do nothing for a while is key here. 

I recommend a few things that can make life more fun: 

  • Music! Dance together in the kitchen or living room. Use music when you’re tidying up. Sing. Make music everywhere you go. 
  • Wrestling. I’m not talking full-blown WWE. But rough-and-tumble play is great at every level for kids to connect and realise life isn’t all about the serious stuff all the time.
  • Super Saturday. Pick a day (it doesn’t have to be Saturday) when you can have two hours together doing a no-cost or low-cost activity that requires a modest amount of planning and intentional family time. 
  • Family Date Night. Make it a treat each Tuesday to have fish ‘n chips in the park or at the beach. Or perhaps make Friday night pizza and movie night. Perhaps it’s a Sunday afternoon that you go to the local football ground and watch the game together. Pick a day, any day, and make it a weekly date – no screens! 
  • Camp. Okay, so this is a stretch, but believe me… it’s actually good for you and your family. The great outdoors. Nature – it’s fuel for the soul.  
  • Joke and laugh. This, more than anything, makes life work. Find the funny. Enjoy one another. Smile.

5. The power of unconditionality.

 Whenever I ask parents what the three most important words that a child can hear are, they’ll tell me, “I love you”.

Those three words matter enormously. But the three words that come next matter more – particularly on a tough day when things aren’t going so well. What are the next three words? No. Matter. What. Want to make sure your kids know they’re loved. Tell them: No. Matter. What.

Raising a family can be tough. These five tips are built on solid research, and they are proven to make a difference in the way we interact with our kids, and the way they grow up to be happy and resilient.

Dr Justin Coulson is the author of The Parenting Revolution: A guide to raising resilient kids (Out Now, ABC Books)

Feature Image: Getty.

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