Most parents base their parenting on what their parents did or did not do. There is no full-proof good parenting guide and we don’t learn by osmosis, but rather by what has been modeled for us and then trying to do better. There is an immense amount of parenting literature, often providing contradictory advice which can leave parents uncertain about what is best.
The good news is that we actually do know what works. More than 50 years of research has established that certain parenting practices produce better results than others. Scientists have identified the most effective skill sets or competencies associated with better parent-child relationships, leading to a stronger bond and healthier, happier, and better-functioning children (Epstein, 2010).
A University of California at San Diego study introduced in Scientific American went a step further by comparing what experts advise, what really seems to work and what parents actually do, to develop a list of the top 10 essential parenting skill sets that are predictors of a strong parent-child bond and a child’s happiness, health and success. Ranked in order of importance, they include:
- Love and Affection – Giving love and affection tops the list as the parenting skill associated with the most happiness in children. The best thing we can do for our children is to give them lots of physical affection, quality time, support, love and acceptance.
- Stress Management – The study found that parents’ ability to manage stress was second only to love and affection as a predictor of the quality of their relationship with their kids and how happy their children were. In the happiest families parents employed regular stress reduction techniques for themselves and their children, and modeled a positive outlook on life. When parents are under significant stress, the brain redirects resources from the prefrontal cortex to the more primitive brain systems. These over-reactive limbic stress responses keep parents locked into less rational, defensive, and less empathic responses to their children.
- Relationship Skills – Another predictor of good outcomes for children is when their parents are able to maintain a good relationship, work together as co-parents and treat each other well. Maintaining a healthy relationship with an ex is particularly important. Children inherently want their parents to get along and suffer when they don’t. Children are uncomfortable with conflict, especially when it involves parents. Modeling effective relationship skills is also very helpful. It is important not to argue in front of children and to show them that you are able to apologize and forgive each other. How you treat your partner or ex is being observed and filed away. This becomes their model for operating in intimate relationships in the future.
- Autonomy and Independence – Our relationship with our parents provides a solid foundation in which to discover our independence. Mature and loving parents create a safe environment in which children can freely express themselves. Stable families can handle the stress of “letting go” and can tolerate their child’s autonomy. They encourage exploration of the environment, allow mistakes, and permit disagreement. Healthy family systems promote both connection and individuality, accountability and independence. Unhealthy family systems discourage individuality and promote dependence. Parents in these families tend to interpret individual differences as an attack on their authority. They undermine healthy development by reinforcing dependency and helplessness.
- Education and Learning – Parents promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for their children.
- Life Skills – Parents provide financial security, a steady income and a plan for the future. They model responsibility, self-motivation, communication and anger management skills.
- Behavior Management – Children do best when parents consistently provide positive reinforcement, set boundaries and teach them about reasonable consequences for undesirable behaviors. Consequences allow children to learn from their mistakes and do better. Keep in mind, consequences are not the same as punishment, which harms children and often backfires (Read more.)
- Health – When parents model a healthy lifestyle and good habits such as regular exercise and proper nutrition their children tend to continue these habits into adulthood.
- Religion/Spirituality – Supporting spiritual or religious development and participating in spiritual or religious traditions, helps build a values model for children. When parents have and teach (often through their religious or spiritual beliefs) ethical convictions, care about the needs of others, respect, tolerance, fairness and honesty, they model acting in right and honorable ways.
- Safety – Parents take precautions to protect their child and maintain awareness and interest in their child’s friends and activities.
Some of the findings in the UC San Diego study about essential parenting skills came as no surprise. Love and affection are certainly the most important ingredients in good parenting. At the same time, many of the predictors for positive outcomes are rooted in the behaviors we model for our children. When we take care of ourselves, manage our stress, maintain positive relationships and live according to our values, our children do better and are happier.