I spent 11 years writing and editing for parenting publications before I had my son. “Oh, you’ll be so prepared,” people said. Ha! I wish, but no. There is nothing that prepares you to be a parent: It’s all about trying to make the right call in the moment. But I did get to talk to plenty of experts over the years, and there were some insanely simple parenting tips that can help you do just that. These are my favourites.
1. Instead of saying, “okay?” tell him, “understand?”
As in, “we’re leaving for school in five minutes, understand?” It doesn’t matter if he thinks it’s okay or not. Saying it this way reminds him (and you) who the parent is. (It’s you.)
2. Establish a bedtime before they can talk.
In the contentious world of parenting advice where opinions vary on nearly every subject,bedtime is a bit of a unicorn—all the experts agree on the importance of having one. So start putting little ones down (in a crib they can’t climb out of) before they’ve even formed the ability to argue with you. That way they’ll at least see it as a given later when they can talk. Yes, they’ll still fight it, but there’s a different look in the eye of a kid who knows he won’t win.
3. You don’t have to get them that drink of water before bed.
This is about trusting yourself. Once you build your confidence as a parent, it’ll be easier to remind yourself that the drink of water is just a stalling tactic and you gave your child plenty to drink at dinner, says Jo Frost, the parenting expert behind Jo Frost: Nanny on Tour. Kids inherently know what’ll get to you (“Is my sweet darling boy going to dehydrate overnight?!”), so trust that you know what they need—and what they don’t.
4. When they ask you to read a book, say yes.
An older mom I met—and never saw again—told me this when I was a piece of emotional cheesecloth with a four-month old. It’s so snuggly, and it’s obviously good for their brains. I’m not perfect at it, but I’ve found that most picture books take approximately four and a half minutes. So I try.
5. Don’t ask, “How was school?”
It’s too vague of a question and won’t get you any real answers. Go for, “Who picked their nose today?” instead. It’s more specific and it communicates to your kid that you care about what he cares about. Even if what he cares about is gross. I won’t divulge who drools or who had a potty accident yesterday at my son’s school…juuust in case their parents are reading this.
6. Make siblings go to each other’s sporting events or play performances.
Full disclosure: My parents did this. I adore my brother and am so proud of him, and he says the same of me. I’m confident this is one of the biggest reasons why—we’ve been each other’s support system since we were young.
7. Or at least make sure the family calendar is decipherable.
I know it’s easier to scribble shorthand. And that’s fine, so long as the kids understand your hieroglyphics. It makes it easier for siblings to say things to each other like, “Have a good game!” or “Good luck on your test.”
8. “Great effort” is better than “You’re smart.”
Studies show kids who assume they’re smart don’t try as hard as the ones whose parents value effort, even if they’re not bringing home an A.
9. And “You’re a kind person” wins out over “That was a kind thing you did.”
Other studies have found that people who identify kindness as a character trait, not a behavior, are more likely to exhibit those actions toward others. They’ll unconsciously think of it as something that’s ingrained in them, rather than something they have to work at to achieve.
10. Don’t be the first—or last—adopt of whatever new technology is being targeted at kids.
If your kid is the first to get the newest phone or gaming system, then she’ll never learn to wait for what she wants, says Ron Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled. (And hey, something better might come along by the time you’re ready to spend the money.) But if you can afford it and approve of it, then there’s no need for her to be last, either: She can have that comfort of being like the other kids as it fits into your values and budget.
11. On their birthday or adoption day, always tell them the story of the day they came into your family.
I’m not sure I can count how many times I’ve worked on articles that encourage family traditions and family storytelling. It’s all about bonding, and this is one of the best ways to do it because it’s a story everyone can tell, even if you’re not a “remember that time…” kind of person or a cute-tradition kind of family.
12. Pause for three seconds after asking a question.
Kids don’t operate on adult time, says Mary Reckmeyer, Ph.D., author of Strengths Based Parenting: Developing Your Children’s Innate Talents. Don’t rush them and you’ll get a real answer.
13. Tell them the real ending to fairytales.
I know you’re not all going to agree with me on this, but don’t you remember loving all that ghoulish stuff as a kid? I cringe, too, at the cutting open of the wolf and the dead witch in her candy-house oven, but I was heartened to learn that Heather Shumaker, author of It’s Okay to Go Up the Slide (another lesson not all of the playground parents agree on, believe you me) agrees. Good stories with endings that make sense are deeply satisfying, whether you’re a child or an adult.
14. If you feel like a “no” machine, say, “yes, but…”
As in, “Yes, I know you want breakfast dessert, but you can have it tomorrow.” I said this exact thing today, and it worked pretty dang well (excuse me while I dust off my shoulders 😋). Bonus tip: Learn from my mistakes and don’t ever introduce the phrase “breakfast dessert” to your child.
15. Another alternative to no: “Wait!”
It’s specific, it’s not a punishment (yet), and it can miraculously make its way from a child’s ear to their brain (I’m convinced “no” cannot).
16. Don’t invite a friend on every family outing.
Prioritizing family so that only family members do certain activities is the key to raising kids who make good decisions, says Leonard Sax, author of The Collapse of Parenting. He says it’ll also help them be resilient and respectful, and grow into adults who feel fulfilled by life.
17. Parent the child you have, not the one you thought you wanted.
Whether you have a toddler or a teen, this one works. Every child is different, and yours is uniquely yoursso treat them as the special people they are, rather than the ones you imagined they’d be.
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