When Toni Morrison made an appearance on Oprah to talk about her books, she just so happened to drop one of the most powerful pearls of parenting wisdom I’ve ever heard.
At the end of the day, most parents want to know if there’s something they could have done better. While “better” is a subjective word, perhaps it’s more suitable to ask ourselves if we were aware, mindful, and present as a parent.
We asked 15 experts for tips, and their answers seemed to built around three main themes: creating routines and rituals for children, leading by example, and remembering to “play.”
Here are all the ways they recommend you can improve your parenting, one small change at a time.
Whether it’s a promise or consequence, parents who don’t follow through when needed can send mixed messages to children. “You beg then yell and threaten your kids with punishment for misbehavior, so eventually they comply but you do nothing,” said Gregory Ramey, executive director for pediatric mental health resources at Dayton Children’s Hospital. “You’ve just taught your kids that you cannot be trusted to mean what you say and your credibility is lost.”
Distraction Free Free-Time
Routine is crucial for children of all ages, and a large part of this is making sure your child has your undivided attention at some point. “When kids are being the most difficult, it is often done in order to get your attention,” said LCSW Monica Berger, who recommends setting aside at least 20 minutes a day to play with or talk to your child without distractions.
One Consistent Daily Activity
Moms and dads juggle many responsibilities on a day-to-day basis, but carving out the time for a special activity enhances the parent-child bond. “I encourage every parent to have at least one specific life routine they do with their child whenever possible,” said clinical psychologist Nicole Beurkens. This could be giving your child a bath, making and eating breakfast, going for a walk after dinner, or anything else that is a part of the typical daily routine.
Label Your Feelings
Like adults, kiddos can have a wide range of feelings and emotions, and parents should help them identify what these are. Martha Mendez-Baldwin, an assistant professor of psychology and Manhattan College, said labeling a child’s emotion will help them be more in touch with themselves. “If your child is frustrated or crying, be empathetic to what the child is feeling.” It can also help to openly label your own feelings as the parent, so kids realize everyone gets sad, disappointed, etc.
Hand Out Compliments
The phrase “fill someone’s bucket” should not be forgotten in your own home. Carrie Krawiec, licensed marriage and family therapist, recommends using the 5:1 ratio. That is, for every one correction or criticism you give your child give five positive affirmations or encouragement. “Positives are light like feathers and negatives are heavy like cement. Focusing on this ratio helps build the relational and self esteem bank account to weather the more challenging storms.”
Monitor Screen Time
“Sit with your children while they’re online and participate in what they are watching, reading, and doing. Be more than a monitor; help to facilitate and participate in their learning,” said Dr. Elanna Yalow, KinderCare’s chief academic officer. “Let your children know they can always talk with you about anything, including what they see online.” Yalow goes on to remind parents to take advantage of parental controls on phones, tablets, and computers to set time limits as well as approving what content your child can see.
Choose Positive Language
It’s easy to tell a child “no” or “stop,” but putting a positive spin on phrases that start with these words helps overall behavior. “Trigger words can make things worse for children,” said play therapist Angela Medellin. “If a parent sees their child running down the hall it’s a natural inclination to tell them to stop running, but instead try saying ‘walk please.'”
Answer the Repetitive Questions
Kids are curious by nature and sometimes that curiosity has a way of turning into interrogation over a seemingly simple topic. “As a parent, the more you answer, the more you help your child learn to think about themselves, the world and their relationships,” said Paul Rand licensed educational psychologist. “Do not stifle their interest in learning — no matter how annoying the question ‘why’ can be.”
Write It Down
Packing a lunchbox provides a great opportunity to connect with your child in a creative way. “Words of affirmations can be powerful. When you give your child your note, go over all the things that are positive, valuable, and unique about your child with him or her,” said Katie Ziskind, marriage and family therapist.
Ask Daily Questions
While answering questions is beneficial, it’s also good to ask your child open ended questions about their day. “Rather than simple yes or no answers, this stimulates conversation and helps your child focus on the good in their day as well as to be aware of anything that needs improvement,” said Catherine Jackson, licensed psychologist and board certified neuro-therapist.
Take Care of Yourself
Self-care is important. Even basic things like eating right, drinking water, exercising, and getting proper rest are helpful. “You are calmer and more in control of yourself and your emotions when you are taking care of yourself,” said Barbara E. Harvey, the executive director of Parents, Teachers and Advocates, Inc. “Many time parents are too harsh in discipline or lacking patience because they are tired or hungry. Children learn by observing and if they see you taking care of yourself they will follow suit.”
Join a Support Group
Having people to lean can make parenting feel less lonely when we realize others are going through the same challenges. Tasha Holland-Kornegay, LPCS, reminds parents that support groups aren’t just for first time moms and dads or those with infants, but are just as useful when kids turn into teens.
Model Good Communication
Not only should communication include respect, but keeping those lines open helps children realize they can trust you to listen. “Show your child that you can handle what they say and how they feel,” said family coach Calvalyn Day.
It’s not always easy to set aside phones, or stop what we are doing in general, but listening fully is a good habit to practice and preach. This goes for all members of the family, not just when children are talking. “Not only are there positive neurological benefits to making eye contact and physical contact, but it is also positive role modeling to teach your children how to be active an engaged listeners,” said Rebecca Jackson, vice president of outcomes and programs at Brain Balance Achievement Centers.
Be Mindful During Meltdowns
Studies show it can take 20-45 minutes for someone to calm down and re-set after an argument (or tantrum), so don’t delve out consequences in the heat of the moment. “When a child (or adult) becomes extremely upset or agitated, our body shifts into fight or flight mode,” said Rebecca Jackson, Vice President of Outcomes and Programs at Brain Balance Achievement Centers. “In these moments our brain is focused on the present moment, and does not have the ability to reason or regulate. Allow them to get through the moment, then discuss the behavior, incidence or issue that triggered the meltdown.”