As a parent, have you ever wished for a training manual about raising kids — a book that would tell you what page to find information about disciplining your child or on which page there’s advice on how to praise your child? Dr. Erica Reischer, a clinical psychologist and parent educator, has written just such a manual called, “What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Fantastic Kids.”
This manual of invaluable advice is broken down into 75 approaches to help parents work with their children and their behavior. Each strategy is contained in a two- to four-page chapter that can be skipped or skimmed over if you feel you’ve already grasped the concept. The book can be read in a day or two and can be referred to in any situation in which parents may not know how to handle their children.
“Underlying the parenting practices described in this book are three key principles that I call the ABCs of great parenting,” explains Reischer. The A stands for Acceptance, which is about accepting your child for himself. For example, an athletic father may have trouble accepting his son is quiet and musically inclined. The child’s self is separated from that of his behavior, which can be modified by parents by following the steps that Reischer provides.
The B stands for Boundaries. When parents communicate limits to their children, kids “ultimately feel safest in a family environment where expectations and rules are clear and reasonable.” And C stands for Consistency, which means parents must follow through on what they say they will do. Parents are role models for children, who will copy their behavior, especially if the parents act in the same positive manner repeatedly.
Reischer devotes a lot of her book to discussing D for Discipline, and how to properly do it. She says it is not about punishing children, but rather teaching them to behave appropriately. Any form of physical punishment, including spanking or even holding a child’s arm tightly, teaches children to handle problems with aggression and violence. Yelling at children is also portrayed as detrimental to a child’s development.
“Research has also shown that yelling can have harmful effects on children comparable to physical punishment, such as hitting,” Reischer observes. “Children whose parents are verbally aggressive also exhibit lower self-esteem, higher aggressiveness, and increased rates of depression.”
Reischer advises disciplining children in private so as not to embarrass them in front of their peers. She also advises against disciplining children at inappropriate times, such as when the parents or children are tired and hungry.
One of the strategies for correcting children’s behavior is to show empathy and assist him in identifying how he is feeling. For example, if a 6-year-old boy hits his 4-year-old brother for taking away his toy train, parents can say, “Son, I know how frustrating and angry it can be to see your brother taking away your toy from you without asking, but hitting you brother is not going to solve the problem.”
Next, Reischer advises, you should talk to your son about other ways to teach his brother to respect his toys. You could give your older son different options to solve the problem, so he feels a sense of self-control and autonomy.
The most obvious option would be for the older brother to tell his younger brother that he must ask permission before playing with his toys. If the younger son still doesn’t ask permission before using the toys, the older child can choose to get a parent involved.
Once both sons know the appropriate behavior for resolving the problem, those actions should be repeated if the dilemma should appear again. If you find the boys sharing the toys cooperatively, take the opportunity to praise them. Praise reinforces positive behavior.
But be careful how you bestow praise.
Reischer suggests that parents not label their children by saying, “You’re so smart.” If a child believes he is smart, she says, he may do everything possible to look smart and not take risks at things that would be mentally challenging.
Praise should be given when children put forth effort. Parents are encouraged to give kids positive feedback for their hard work. For example, when a child’s grade in math improves from a C to an A, it’s better to say: “I saw how long you spent every day on your math homework, and I saw you study a lot for your math tests. Your hard work in math has really paid off. I’m very proud of you.”
In addition, Reischer says, teach your children habits for being happy. According to the author, there are three types of happiness: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
“The focus of pleasure,“ the author writes, “is gratifying desires and preferences — for example, having delicious food, fun experiences, and beautiful things.”
Pleasure provides instant gratification for kids; however, it is really engagement and meaning that emotionally fulfill children. Engagement means that kids apply their skills to meet challenges. When these activities become complex, children learn to develop their “skills through practice and persistence.” This again reinforces the idea that through consistent effort and hard work, children can achieve goals that give them self-confidence and self-esteem.
Meaning is defined as “service” to contribute to the greater good. Great parents teach their children to be charitable. Acting charitably is not for putting on the college application but for kids to build self-confidence by using their skills to help others. When kids learn to be caring and compassionate, they learn about empathy, which will help them in their interpersonal relationships with other people.
Another key to happiness that great parents impart to their children is gratitude, the importance of being thankful for what they have. According to Robert Emmons, a prominent gratitude researcher, “Practicing gratitude alleviates anxiety and depression and improves mental, emotional, and physical health.”
Being a great parent all boils down to having a strong relationship with your children and treating them with respect. In reciprocity, kids should treat their parents in the same manner, which also means using the words “please” and “thank you.”
If you are reading her manual and feel overwhelmed by all of the advice, Reischer reminds parents that being great is not about being perfect, because no parent can do everything perfectly. When they make errors, great parents admit their mistakes to their kids and apologize for their behavior.
Allison Plitt is a frequent contributor to NY Parenting and lives in Queens with her 10-year-old daughter.