10 Tools for Parenting Happy, Healthy Children

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Doing some of these things may be hard work; some of them will come naturally. Irritatingly, some of the pieces you find difficult will come naturally to your partner, but that works both ways. On the plus side, however, working on the difficult pieces will help you realize just how much of what you do for your children isn't so important. Best of all, after you have these 10 bases covered, you can stop stressing about the rest, and get on with being a great parent and enjoying your child.
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Make Their World Solid

Few things are more important than giving your children confidence and self-assurance. Those are qualities that will enable them to get the rest of what they need for themselves.

Self-confidence comes largely from being confident in the world around you. If you can trust your own world to be solid and unchanging (in the right ways) it's far easier to be sure of your own place and personality within it. Your job is to make sure that everything important in your children's world is consistent.

On top of that, you need to make sure they feel good about themselves. You need to tell them how kind they are, not how selfish they are. You need to remind them that being the fastest swimmer isn't as important as being a good loser. You need to show them that they can do more than they realize, and that you believe in them.

More: Make Sure They Know Their Strengths

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Give Them Some Magic

I've never understood how so many parents join in the Santa Claus conspiracy (well, you have to, or you would be ostracized by all the other parents at school) but don't provide their children with any other magic. Yet, magic is what childhood is all about—freedom from tedious reality, freedom from responsibility, freedom from the constraints of adult life. Over the 18 years we have to raise our children, we have to slowly feed them reality, responsibility, and obligations, but we should be fighting to keep the magic alive as long as we can.

Give Them Space

The first and most basic requirement children need to enjoy the magic is a blank canvas. They can do magic all by themselves, they just need us to get out of the way. Small children can believe in all sorts of things we can't. Their bedroom floor really is a miniature battlefield, the backyard kiddie pool becomes an Olympic pool, and those Legos are really a spaceship.

What's more, children are free of the forethoughts that can ruin things for us. When I was about 18, I laid on a beach and let the waves wash round me. As much as I enjoyed the sensation, I couldn't entirely shake off the thought of what a pain it was going to be to wash all the sand out of my long hair. (I didn't know the half of it—it took hours.) Small children can get blissfully covered in mud or paint without a thought about all the cleanup they'll have to go through to get it all off—as long as we keep our mouths shut and don't spoil it for them by pointing it out.

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Show Them How to Separate Right from Wrong

We all make mistakes. We know we do, and we also know it's human and it's normal. Trouble is, we often don't like admitting it in front of our children. But it's important that our children can tell when they've made a mistake. They should know that it's mostly fine to make mistakes, but they also need to know the difference between right and wrong in every situation. They need to be able to make the morally right choice when it matters.

You want them to think for themselves. But as a parent you want to underpin this by making sure that what they think for themselves isn't, "If I steal this chocolate bar no one will catch me," or, "I know my friend's in trouble but I'm busy and, if I don't help, someone else is bound to step in." You have 18 years to instill in them the values you believe are important, so that when they think for themselves, they do it on the foundations you've laid.

More: How to Instill the Right Values

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Teach Them to Think

Thinking isn't only about being able to apply logical mental processes, though that's an important part of it. It's also about being able to formulate ideas and opinions, and make decisions for oneself. Good teachers can help with this skill, but the bulk of the job is up to us as parents. Certainly if our children reach 18 unable to think effectively, we've no one to blame but ourselves.

More: Decision-Making Techniques for Children

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Let Them Lead You

It's so easy as a parent to see yourself as the leader of the family (barring the odd wrangle over which parent is boss). You're the oldest, so you take charge and the kids do what you say, all being well. And, in one sense, this set up is true. There's definitely a time and a place for the "do-as-I-say-without-question-and-now" approach.

But in a family you're the leader of a rather special team, with avery special purpose: to develop all team members to reach their maximum potential. And the way to do that will vary according to the team members' unique personalities. Whether you have one child or several, a good leader will listen to her team and adapt each task to suit the individual members.

This doesn't mean not having control or discipline or expecting respect: All the team members still have to get involved and pull their weight. It's just a case of how you go about things in order to get the best from your children, and to make the most of who they are, without trying fundamentally to change their personality and natural strengths and weaknesses.

More: Let Them Be Themselves

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Forget Quality Time

Here's a lesson I learned for myself quite unexpectedly. When my second child was born, my oldest was two. My new baby was big and hungry, and for the first few weeks I spent most of the time with him, breastfeeding him. I could read to the older one while I was doing this, but, of course, two-year-old boys prefer running around, and I couldn't very easily follow him around the house, fetch him drinks, bathe him, pick him up when he fell over, push him around on his tricycle, and play on the floor with him while I was breastfeeding. Of course, I could have done it if I'd had to—plenty of mothers manage—but I was lucky and I didn't have to because my husband had taken a month off work.

I missed spending as much time as usual with my two-year-old, so my husband and I decided that for an hour each after-noon he would mind the baby during nap time and I would have an hour of "quality time" with the older one. I'd spend an hour playing out in the garden, or doing jigsaw puzzles, or messing about with play dough. But something wasn't right. My two-year-old just wasn't comfortable, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it. There was something stilted and unnatural between us. The system just didn't work.

Then one day the baby barely slept until early evening. So by the time I got my hour off, it was time to feed the older one and put him to bed. That's what I did. It seemed a shame, because I had to be quite tough with him—he could be quite tricky about mealtimes and he hated ever getting out of the bath—and I didn't want to have to get firm when I had only a short time with him. But the extraordinary thing was that I got a completely different response from him. Suddenly he was responding normally with me, and seemed far happier and more relaxed (except about getting out of the bath, obviously).

From that day we switched the system, and we made sure that although my time with him was limited, I used it for the routine things, not "special" activities. In other words, we stopped doing "quality time" and started doing real time instead.

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Make Sure You See the Forest and the Trees

It can be infuriating when your six-year-old still won't use a knife and fork to eat. Or your 12-year-old can't pack his school bag on his own without forgetting half the things he needs. Sometimes you want to scream at your kids for the mess they leave lying around, or their inability to think ahead, or to hold a conversation with an adult without clamming up.

The key thing to keep in mind, for your sake as well as theirs, is that you have 18 years to prepare them for the big wide world. When you despair of them, step back and look at how far you've come (at least you're not spoon-feeding your six-year-old any more) and how far you still have to go (she does need to learn to use the knife properly).

It's important that you pace yourselves here—both you and your child. It's not fair or necessary to pile on the pressure so that your children are fully independent by the age of seven, but neither is it fair to send them out into the world unable to use a washing machine or to eat a meal in public without disgracing themselves. So the best thing you can do for your children is to concentrate on the immediate objective without losing sight of the final target.

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Teach Them the Value of Money

When your children finally grow up and leave home, you don't want them getting into debt. Very possibly you want them not only staying out of debt but also not wasting their money, or spending when they could be saving. Nor do you want them to be insensitive toward other people who have less than they do, whether it's a friend on a lower salary, or a child starving on the other side of the globe.

Give Them Some Money So They Can Start to Understand It

It's not as if the kids aren't costing you enough already. But, yes, it is the norm to give your children money as well. You could insist they have only what they can earn (which is pretty tough when they're small), but the vast majority of parents do give their children an allowance or money in some form. We look at earning money later on.

More: Pay an Allowance

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Show Them That Broccoli Can Be Fun

If you feel there's a lot to do to get your children's lifestyle as healthy as you would like, take it in stages. Set yourself a time-line—maybe decide to get their diet healthier by the end of May, and then spend the summer getting them into the habit of spending more time outdoors. Don't set yourself an impossible target, but do have a clear plan to keep yourself and the family on course.

More: Set Up Healthy Patterns

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Give Them Each Other

I firmly believe that if you have more than one child, the absolute most important thing you can possibly do is to make sure that they have a really strong bond with each other for life. However good your friends are, family is better. When you go through the real crises in life—divorce, bereavement, the big stuff—it's your family you want beside you. And if things go right, it's your family who you want to be there, dropping everything and flying halfway round the globe if need be.

More: Encourage Them to Play Together