We all know that the most important thing in raising a child is to offer unstinting love. But what are the next two most important things? Surprisingly, neither have to do with how you specifically relate to your child, as I learned from a fascinating article in the current issue of Scientific American Mind by child psychologist (and fellow PT blogger) Robert Epstein.
Epstein points out that parents are deluged with advice -- there are more than 40,000 books on the topic listed on Amazon. So he and his colleagues set out to see if they could determine which techniques were the most important in raising healthy, happy, successful children. Epstein analyzed responses to an online parenting-skills questionnaire that had been completed by some 2000 people. The survey asked respondents to rate themselves in 10 different categories of parenting skill, which Epstein calls "The Parents' Ten," since prior studies have shown them to be crucial tools. The test-takers were also asked how well their children had turned out.
As expected, Epstein found that the most important parenting skill is simply love them. "Our... findings confirmed what most parents already believe," Epstein writes, "that the best thing we can do for our children is to give them lots of love and affection." But the second and third most important factors related not to how the parents treat the child, but one another and themselves.
Number three was relationship skills, or how we treat our significant other. Epstein relates a heartbreaking example from his own experience:
Getting along with the other parent is necessary because children inherently want their parents to get along. Many years ago, when my first marriage was failing, my six-year-old son once led me by the hand into the kitchen where his mom was standing and tried to tape our hands together. It was a desperate act that conveyed the message: "Please love each other. Please get along." Children do not like conflict, especially when it involves the two people in the world they love most. Even in co-parenting situations where parents live apart, it is crucial to adhere to practices that do not hurt children: to resolve conflicts out of sight of children, to apologize to one another and forgive each other (both can be done in front of the kids), to speak kindly about the other parents, and so on.
Even more crucial, ranking at number two in the list, was the parent's own stress level. That is to say, how you treat yourself can be more important to your child's welfare than how you treat them.
In our study, parents' ability to manage stress was a good predictor of the quality and of their relationship with their kids and also of how happy their children were. Perhaps more telling, people who rated themselves as great parents scored more highly on stress management than on any of the other nine parenting competencies.
Though I've written elsewhere about how damaging stress can be to one's health, I was shocked by how crucial it turns out to be in parenting. It seems deeply counterintuitive that our internal levels of anxiety should have such a profound, though indirect, effect on a child's emotional state. And anyway, isn't parenting supposed to be stressful? The finding apparently surprised a lot of parenting experts, as well. As part of the same study, Epstein asked 11 experts to rank the 10 skills in order of importance; on average, they rated stress management at number 8.
Ironically, the proliferation of advice that rains down on parents (as my wife and I know, having a two-year-old son) can only serve to make them more anxious, and therefore worse parents. This effect bears directly on the issue of safety, which turned out to be the least important of the "Parents' Ten" skill categories that Epstein identified.
Keeping children safe -- a matter of almost obsessive concern among American parents these days -- seems to have both positive and negative outcomes. On the bright side, in our new study safety skills did contribute to good health outcomes. But being overly concerned with safety appears to produce poorer relationships with children and also appears to make children less happy.
In other words, if you worry too much, you should really worry about that. Maybe a good first step would be to stop reading alarming articles and focus on the basics: Love your kids; Love your partner; Encourage your kids to be self-reliant; Teach them to value learning; Lead a healthy lifestyle. Above all, relax and enjoy the show. They won't be kids forever.