Marianne Neifert, M.D
My life has been devoted to children and families—my own, and those I’ve encountered in my career as a pediatrician. My first baby was born only a few months before I started medical school, and my fifth child arrived seven years later, on the final day of my pediatric residency. These two paths—medicine and motherhood—have been inextricably intertwined; they’ve often enhanced—and sometimes competed with—one another.
But over the years, as I’ve helped my own children journey into young adulthood and worked with countless families in my career, I’ve gained some hard-earned perspective and insights into raising kids. No parent will have all the answers all of the time, but these simple parenting guidelines can help make your time together as a family that much richer.
Provide unconditional love and encouragement
As her parent, you’re the first one to convince a child of her worth and help her venture into the world with confidence. You can make her feel cherished by giving her your time and attention daily, whether by reading a book, playing, or talking together. For instance, try to spend a little one-on-one time with your child when you get home, before you do anything else. After picking her toddler up at daycare, one mom I know uses the walk home as a way to reconnect. If she runs into friends, she’ll wave at them but won’t stop to chat; she’s learned that it frustrates her daughter too much.
Show your child that you value her by acknowledging her feelings, and by listening when she talks. It’s easy to let your mind wander as a toddler or preschooler babbles on, but kids are very good at picking up on when you’re distracted. Having a focused conversation with your child—rather than just responding with the occasional “Uh-huh”—builds up her vocabulary at the same time that it boosts her self-esteem.
The way you encourage your child is also important. By emphasizing her efforts (“You sure seemed to enjoy working on this picture for Grandma”) over her results (“I like the way you stayed inside the lines this time”), you’ll show support and foster self-approval, and make her less reliant on the acceptance of others.
And finally, the best way to encourage your child? Simply tell her that you love her as often as you can.
Make your child your highest priority
We all face enormous demands on our time, and our family life is always threatened by competing priorities, whether or not we work outside the home. But we have to learn to distinguish the important things, like spending time with our youngsters, from the urgent things, like ever-present project deadlines and chores. The truth is that in order to be an effective parent, you have to continually re-rank your priorities.
When I had my first four babies during college, medical school, and my internship, I breastfed each one. But I didn’t make it to the one-year mark, the ideal goal. It wasn’t until I made a conscious decision while I was pregnant with my fifth baby to put breastfeeding higher than other priorities that I succeeded. To do that, I had to say no to several opportunities—including taking over a busy practice—at the end of my residency training.
Putting your kids first doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr, or a superwoman. No one is saying that you can’t take time for yourself. But it does mean that sometimes you have to make choices. A hospital administrator I knew gave up her job to accept a less prestigious position so she could spend more time with her daughter. The turning point came as soon as her daughter’s preschool teacher told her, “Whenever Kaitlyn draws a family picture, you’re not in it.”
Strengthen your team
Generally speaking, moms act as the principal caretakers of immediate physical and emotional needs. Dads, on the other hand, tend to promote risk-taking and independence, and build self-reliance and assertiveness because they are more apt to let kids work out their problems by themselves.
Each of these responses—the security of knowing you have a nurturing home base and the space to figure out what you need—communicates an important message to your child and gives him the ability to handle whatever life throws at him. Thanks to my husband, my daughter Tricie learned to swim during one of our family vacations when she was 4. While he was busy encouraging her to go down the pool’s water slide, I was busy admonishing her to be careful.
The best way to start operating like a team is to agree with your partner on the big things—like what rules you’ll have and how to discipline—and then let each of you handle the day-to-day routines as you see fit. Moms, especially, must let go of the feeling that they know what’s best for their children. Otherwise, dads will always be consigned to the helper role.
What about single parents? Do everything you can to cultivate meaningful relationships with other loving adults, whether relatives or trusted role models, like teachers and scout leaders. And, as hard as it may be sometimes, it’s important for divorced parents to work together with an ex-spouse so their child doesn’t feel like he has to choose between them. If your ex is out of the picture or unable to give emotional support, be honest about the circumstances, and help your child work through his grief.
The best way to help teach your child to distinguish right from wrong is by setting clear limits and enforcing them consistently. If you feel as though you’re slipping into a power struggle, step back: Give your child a time-out or simply tell her you’ll deal with her in a few minutes—and don’t decide on a punishment until you’re more calm.
When she does break the rules, respond in a way that won’t deal a blow to her self-esteem: Ignore attention-getters like whining; give a brief warning or scolding for minor infractions (such as jumping on the furniture); issue an age-appropriate time-out to stop aggressive or antisocial behavior (like biting and hitting); and use logical consequences, such as putting their toys aside for a day whenever your kids fight over them.
But discipline isn’t just a question of punishment. It’s also about modeling positive behavior—like remembering to say “please” and “thank you” to teach your child the value of manners—and praising her when she’s been cooperative and helpful. By spending extra time with your child, you can minimize whining and other misbehaviors triggered by a need for attention.
One of the best gifts you can give your child is to help him understand that he’s responsible for the choices he makes as well as the consequences of his actions, and ultimately, his own happiness. The first step toward building self-reliance: Offer your child choices that are right for his age. Toddlers are capable of picking what they want for breakfast or which shirt to wear (as long as you give them two choices). A three-year-old can also pitch in and do simple chores—helping you pick up toys or unload the dishwasher, for instance. Delegating these tasks not only lets your preschooler make a contribution to your household, but teaches him accountability.
The next step: Encourage your child to tackle new skills, like riding a trike or reading a story aloud. If he makes mistakes, let him work through them instead of rushing in to fix things. You’ll promote a sense of competence, and he’ll learn to weigh consequences before acting.
When he faces inevitable setbacks and failures, help him discover how to look for solutions rather than view such obstacles as beyond his control. If your toddler cries when another child takes his toy, for example, say, “Let’s go see if she’ll give it back.” Or if your preschooler tells you he has no friends, you can show him, through role-playing, ways to ask other kids to play, or together invite someone to come visit.
Lastly, encourage your child to think, even if his opinions differ from your own. You’ll free him from a fear of disapproval that will make him less dependent on others for his happiness.
Use routines to create a sense of togetherness
Family rituals and familiar patterns provide kids with a sense of security. Little children are reassured by knowing that their morning outing—whether to the park or the library—is followed by lunch, or that naptime will come after story time. School-age kids also look forward to predictable shared events, such as eating dinner together or spending time with Dad on weekends. These routines increase your child’s perception of control, which in turn increases her confidence.
Traditions also provide the social glue that bonds one generation to another, creating many of the special “anchor” memories within a family. In my own case, I hosted a multigenerational Thanksgiving reunion for years that gave our children both a strong family identity and sense of connection to their past.
Take time to recharge
You know the adage: “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Chronic sleep deprivation, isolation, and self-neglect can leave a parent physically depleted, emotionally discouraged, and, ultimately, ineffective. So give yourself permission to take a break—to renew your perspective, enthusiasm, sense of humor, and energy. That may mean an afternoon off to visit a friend or go to a movie. Or it may be as simple as learning to ask for what you need, and accepting help from others.
I once met a woman who had lost her mother, but whose mother-in-law had become like a second mom to her. She explained that the older woman had helped her raise her children and preserved her marriage. “I never could have done it without her support,” the woman insisted. Her mother-in-law just smiled and modestly acknowledged, “Everybody needs somebody to steady things up.”
“That’s it!” I thought, as a virtual parade of helpers flashed through my mind—individuals who had steadied things up for my husband, Larry, and me when we were overwhelmed with responsibility for five children. In fact, we were aided every step of the way by the experience and generosity of grandparents, aunts and uncles, babysitters, teachers, coaches, pastors, neighbors, and friends. On many occasions, Larry and I enjoyed a night out, and even a weekend getaway, because we had asked someone, and someone had agreed to stay with our kids. And we were then better able to take care of our children because we had taken care of ourselves.
Marianne Neifert, M.D. is the author of three books, most recently Dr. Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding.
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