The World’s Shortest Parenting Course

Parenting is hard but requires not perfection but using a few guidelines.

Posted Feb 27, 2017

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Parenting is hard even if you have a Harvard degree. It’s not that parenting is that complicated. Indeed, it can be reduced to one sentence: Balance freedom with limits, reason with your child, and be relatively consistent.

Parenting is difficult because it’s easy to, in frustration, give in or lose your temper.

There’s no need for perfect parenting but you’re more likely to be a good-enough parent if now, when you’re not in conflict with your kids, you can consider these guidelines:

Invoke guilt.   "What?!", you cry. "I'm still trying to overcome the guilt my parents and church instilled in me. That's good parenting?!" Yes, if used judiciously. Invoking guilt builds your child’s intrinsic motivation so s/he’s likely to behave well when not under your watchful eye. For example, if my three-year-old refused to come to the dinner table, rather than a bribe such as “If you sit down, I’ll let you have ice cream for dessert,” I’d say something like, “Want to have dinner with us like a big boy or not be part of tonight’s family dinner?”  If I caught my teen smoking, I would say something like, "Of course, I'm disappointed. I would have thought you'd use better judgment. Do you want to talk about it?"

Reason with your child. “Because I told you so” is bad parenting. Even with toddlers, reasoning can work. For example, “I know you don’t want everyone’s dinner to get cold. Ready to join us?” That uses reasoning and invokes guilt.

Give modest time extensions. Often, it’s difficult for children (and adults) to stop doing a pleasurable activity on command. A respectful solution is to say, “Okay, two minutes ‘til dinner. Finish up with the game.” Or if dinner is already served, you might say, “I see you’re not quite done. Do you want one minute more?”

Give choices. You may gain compliance by giving choices, all of which are acceptable to you. For example, dinner’s served. Do you want one minute more, two,  or no minutes more?”

If those tactics don’t work, your best alternative may be to invoke guilt with something like, “I’m disappointed in you, Junior. I know you like being part of our family and I’m surprised you don’t want to be part of us tonight. You’ll have another chance tomorrow.” Then start dinner. If s/he chooses to join you, I wouldn’t recommend the punitive, “Sorry, no dinner for you.” Better would be,  “I’m glad you decided to join us. Perhaps tomorrow you’ll be more grown-up and join the family for the entire dinner.” It's important for your child to know s/he'll have another chance..

No corporal punishment. That’s one of parenting’s few clear no-nos. Hitting your child conveys that problems should be solved with violence. That also doesn’t get at the core problem. Rather, it may generate short-term compliance but the long-term desire to show who’s boss: to behave badly and hide it.

Prioritize your child making good friends. An influential book, The Nurture Assumption, asserts that peers have greater influence than parents do. That may not be universally true but certainly parents are wise to encourage good friendships: Enroll your child in a school in which most kids are kind, intelligent, and achievement-oriented, and which substance abuse isn’t part of the dominant culture. Visit your child’s class during recess, noting which kids seem like good kids. After school, to keep such kids in your child’s consciousness, you might ask your child, “How’s that nice kid, Stephanie doing?” Invite such kids to your home after school, on weekends, and to join the family in recreational activities, even on a family trip.

Except for substance abuse, try to honor your child’s recreation preferences. You may think it’s a good idea for your child to, for example, take music lessons but most kids have little talent for it and practicing becomes a laborious pain with results too meager to justify the opportunity cost. Similarly, if your child doesn’t like sports, don’t push it. Build on natural preferences. If s/he’s bookish, don’t push too hard for your child to be social. If your child’s an athlete, stop with the birthday presents of books—Get your child a private baseball or basketball coaching lesson.

That said, it’s usually worth nurturing your child’s enjoyment of reading. Even after your child knows how to read, consider including read-aloud in your child’s bedtime ritual. You might read aloud to your child, have your child read to you, or alternate pages. TIME lists 100 best children’s books of all time. Here is Common Sense Media’s well-curated list of books for kids from toddlers to teens:

Avoid overscheduling your child. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of lying on the grass looking up at the clouds floating by or sitting at the window watching the snow alight on the tree.

Don’t worry so much about TV or video games. If your child wants to play more video games than you think desirable, except in the extremis, it may not be worth fighting about. Indeed recent research cites video games’ significant benefits. And logically that makes sense: Many games maximize individualized-level problem solving in an immersive environment. Here’s a list of 50 good video games for learning.

Even preschoolers love and benefit from time on the computer. For example, my wife Dr. Barbara Nemko has won four national awards for demonstrating that 3 to 4 year-olds learn a lot and learn joyously by using iPads in preschool.

Even TV is more benign than you may think:

You probably have bigger issues to take a stand on than an extra hour a day of video games or TV. 

Discourage substance abuse. Lectures about tobacco, alcohol, and drugs can result in rebellion, especially in a rebellious child. If your child isn’t that way, brief mention and your role-modeling may be all that’s necessary. But do make clear your worries about those substances and help your child develop friendships with non-abusers and to find healthier alternatives than substance-infused parties.

Do note that marijuana is more dangerous than the activists (many who are funded by Big Tobacco) would have us believe. The National Academy of Sciences just released a report on marijuana’s dangers. I reviewed the literature on pot in TIME and came to the same conclusion. Also, in Psychology Today,  I interviewed the director of the Obama Administration’s National Institute on Drug Abuse who also is worried about marijuana use. The last thing your child, let alone society, needs is legalizing a second alcohol.

The takeaway

Of course, no parenting efforts ensure that your child will be all you wish. After all, kids are affected not only by your parenting but by genetics, peers, and school. But if you set and usually enforce reasonable boundaries, reason with your child, give choices where possible, and invoke appropriate guilt, even if you make plenty of the inevitable parenting mistakes, you’re far more likely to raise a child you’ll be proud of.

HERE I offer a short video on parenting.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach. You can reach him at

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