Parenting

Three Principles of Good Parenting

Toward a child you can be proud of.

Posted Feb 06, 2020

Good parenting includes only three core principles:

Err toward positivity

Of course, it’s easier said than done, especially if you’ve come home after a long day of work and now must turn to parenting. But if only aspirational, the goal should be to set a tone of kindness, setting only moderate limits, reasonable but not rigid enforcement, giving earned praise where possible and dispensing criticism with a minimum of words and never with corporal punishment. Simplistic though it may sound, it also helps if your home is filled with pleasures: reading to your child, playing together, listening to music, from humming in the kitchen to pleasant music on your stereo or Alexa.

Reason, but minimize lecturing

Of course, there will be times you’re tempted to say, “Because I said so!” But the aspiration should be to provide a reason for what you're asking of your child. It should be brief and, often better, a question that encourages your child to come up with a reason. For example, let's say your child says, “Homework is stupid! Why do I need to compute the area of a parabola?” You might respond, “Can you think of a good reason?” If s/he doesn't, you might say something like, "It teaches thinking skills and discipline, plus you’ll get a better grade on your report card.” Brief, rational, not accusatory. One more example: Your younger child is playing with your older child’s toy and the older one yells, “That’s MY toy!” A possible response: "That's true. Does it seem right or wrong for you to share it with your sister at least for now?” 

The same principle applies when expressing your opinion, whether about politics or why you’ve chosen a particular movie for the family to watch. Give a solid reason or create an opportunity for learning. For example, let's say your child asks, “Why do you hate President Trump so much?” In response, the two of you might watch a brief YouTube of one of his speeches and then ask, “Well, what do you think?”

Build intrinsic motivation

The previous principle will help build intrinsic motivation to behave wisely but, of course, no one’s perfect. So your child will sometimes misbehave. It’s helpful to have these possible responses ready:

1. Ignore. Not everything is worth a battle.

2. The schoolmarm look. Sometimes, a look is better than a lecture. When your child knows why you’re not happy, that look can gain compliance without your expending energy on a lecture that may yield only defensiveness.

3. A brief explanation. For example, “Even if for a number of nights in a row, we just make small talk at family dinner, having it nightly gives us a time we can count on when we can tell and ask each other anything.”

4. Guilt invocation. Staying with the previous example, let’s say your child refuses to come to the dinner table: "Mom, I'm in the middle of this amazing video game!" A possible response: “You’re a big boy now and know why it’s important that we have family dinner. I’m a little disappointed having to debate this with you again.” 

Here's a more serious example: Let's say you smell marijuana in your child's room or find a stash in his drawer. Rather than expressing anger or punishing the child, guilt-invocation might be a wise first approach, for example, "Johnny, while putting away the laundry, I found a bag of marijuana in your drawer. I'm scared. The evidence is frightening on marijuana's risks, especially for teens: lower IQ, mental illness, even heart disease while still young!" I can't force you not to do it but you're often such a mature kid. I'm hoping you'll be wise enough to stay off that stuff and befriend kids who do." I'd then give my child a hug.

Guilt-invocation has an undeservedly bad reputation. Of course, a relentless barrage of denigration is inappropriate, but in small doses, invoking guilt can yield that valuable intrinsic sense of right and wrong. Contrast that with the parent who attempts to gain compliance with rewards and punishments. When a child with insufficient intrinsic motivation is away—at school, with friends, at  college—s/he is more likely to make poor choices.

5. Rewards and punishments.  With some kids, reasoning and guilt-invocation are insufficient to yield even moderately good behavior. Such children often need firm limits with rewards and punishments for violations. For example, you might say, "You can watch TV only after you finish your homework and it's done well."

A word about corporal punishment. Nearly all experts agree that hitting your child is an absolute no-no. It’s likely to yield short-term compliance but long-term resentment and a desire to rebel when away from your watchful eye (and belt.) The biblical, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” flies in the face of nearly every authority as well as defying common sense.

The takeaway

Except in the extreme, parenting is less central to how your kids turn out than many people believe. We’re learning that ever more of who we are is under genetic control, and Judith Rich Harris' research found that peers are more influential than parents. Plus, there’s the influence of school and neighborhood.

Yes you matter, but good enough parenting is good enough. Aim to follow the three principles and even if you frequently err, you'll likely have a child you can be proud of.

I give a half-hour talk on parenting on YouTube.