Parenting – the most important job

Raising children is the most important job we take on, but most of us are ill prepared for this important role. There are no college courses and no degrees in parenting, it’s a trial and error process, so what can we do to ensure that we are bringing up our children to be the happiest, healthiest and most successful they can be? Is there a simple rule that ensures that everything we do is in our children’s best interests?

I believe there is. Place self-esteem at the heart of our parenting practices and we won’t go far wrong. Probably the most important thing parents can do for their children is to help them build their self-esteem.

Be the best you can be

Children model themselves on parent figures and learn best by example. If you don’t value yourself, then you are incapable of teaching your children how to feel good about themselves. So if you don’t have a high sense of self-worth, lack confidence and don’t relate well to other people, work on yourself. Don’t just tell them how to behave, show them. Be the example they need. High self-esteem is not hereditary, it is learned, but it can only be learned from parents who have a solid sense of their own self-worth.

The greatest gift you can give to your children is a happy and stable family life surrounded by people who love and respect themselves and each other. Children who grow up in such an environment are likely to create a happy family life of their own when they become parents.

Demonstrate your love

Years ago it was believed that all that was required of a parent was to shelter, feed and clothe their children and teach them to conform to society’s norms. But there is much more to good parenting than this.

Psychological ‘food’ is just as important as ‘physical’ food. Children need love, security, attention and approval, given freely in ways they can understand. So show them how much you appreciate them. Tell them you love them. Let them feel wanted – for instance, by lots of physical contact. Cuddles are essential for a child’s well-being, they make them feel safe and help build their character.

Spend time with your children

There’s a lot of nonsense spoken on this subject. Some parents convince themselves that devoting a few minutes of so-called ‘quality time’ to their children each day is sufficient and compensates for not spending much time with them in total. But the truth is very different. Parents who ration the time spent with their children are actually harming them. Just being there and listening to them talk about the issues in their lives (however trivial they seem to you) is a practical demonstration of how much you care. And if they’re open about the little things that concern them, they’re more likely to open up about the big things too.

In a recent study a group of parents claimed to give their children an average of an hour’s attention a day, but video recordings revealed that the average undivided attention was actually less than ten minutes. This is the same as telling your children, ‘You’re not that important to me; other things are more worthy of my time.’

Children hunger for attention; it is much crueller to ignore them than to criticise them. Any attention is better than none; they’ll find ways of getting noticed even if this means being disruptive. Better to be punished than ignored! Lack of attention is at the root of much juvenile delinquency, drug taking and crime.

Spend time doing things together. Help them, but don’t take over. The aim is for them to learn to do it for themselves.

Watch what you say and how you say it

How you talk to your children matters – both what you say and how you say it.

Many parents are unaware of the hidden meanings communicated through their tone of voice, facial expression and body language. Research suggests that 90% of what parents say to young children is negative or indifferent – that’s nine clumsy or careless remarks for every positive one. What’s worse is that the most damaging remarks are often made when the parent is tired, frustrated or angry, and a few careless words taken to heart by a small child can have lasting repercussions.

Never say anything belittling to a child. You cannot know the damage this causes.


  • Disparaging remarks.
  • Sarcasm. Children don’t understand it, are confused and unsettled by it.
  • Lying. Children find it hard to understand why adults tell them not to lie and then lie themselves.
  • Hypocrisy; for example, telling your child not to speak badly of others while doing it yourself.
  • Labelling. Children who are constantly told they are stupid, ugly, naughty, forgetful and so on grow up believing it. Young children don’t have the same ability to reason as adults, they simply take it all on board.
  • Comparisons – ‘Why aren’t you as good as Johnny?’ is more likely to result in your child hating Johnny than trying to emulate him.


Of course children need boundaries and discipline, especially if they behave really badly. Even the best behaved children need to be told off sometimes.

When a telling-off is necessary, the golden rule is to comment on their behaviour, not their character. Comments like, ‘You clumsy idiot’ destroy self-esteem, while skilfully pointing out what they have done wrong and how they can do better can be encouraging and reassuring as long as children keep their dignity while learning to correct their mistakes.

If the offence is serious, there’s no harm in isolating them for a short time – sending to their room for instance. This gives them an opportunity to cool off and reflect on what they’ve done.

Give praise – but only if genuine

When children behave well, a few words of praise, a smile and hug reinforce good behaviour and do wonders for their self-esteem. But don’t be drawn into bribing them. Good behaviour is better taught than bought.

However, excessive praise can be just as damaging as no praise at all. Children are not stupid. They recognise empty words, and this can result in them quitting altogether.

Avoid unwarranted praise

Unwarranted praise can backfire. It can give the impression that modest effort and mediocrity suffice. The child may stop trying or conclude that nothing better can be expected from him or her.

We all want our children to do their best, but praising a child for trying irrespective of the outcome teaches that results don’t matter. They need to learn that life doesn’t reward the good try; only the winner gets the gold medal. It’s a rare boss who tolerates an incompetent employee who lamely says, ‘But I did my best.’ So when they have not reached the required standard, say, ‘I’m proud of you for trying, but we both know you can do better next time.’

Praise does not teach

In one study, children used to excessive praise went to pieces when given honest feedback, and were less innovative than their contemporaries. These children tended to work for praise as an end in itself rather than the satisfaction of achievement and were less likely to become self-motivated, independent learners.

Constant praise lacks credibility. If everything your child does is ‘fantastic’ then nothing is truly special and he or she doesn’t learn to distinguish the excellent from the commonplace.  But when parents and teachers have high standards, a well-earned ‘Well done!’ gives the child a real sense of accomplishment.

Help children to set goals

Realistic, challenging goals provide powerful motivation, but only if the child takes ownership. So help them to choose their own goals and show them how to break them down into manageable steps and tackle them in the right order. Provide plenty of encouragement and reward them when significant milestones are achieved. But don’t over-pressurise or chastise. Children respond best to loving support, not verbal abuse.

Teach them to be their own parents

Allow your children to grow up, but don’t force it. Gradually give them more responsibility, for example, by encouraging them to help at home and do more for themselves. Make them accountable for their actions by experiencing the consequences. For example, if they spill something, make them clean it up; let them help prepare their own food; make them apologise if they wrong another.

Don’t over protect them. Sheltered children rarely cope well with life as adults. Yes, there are risks in allowing a child to go to the shops alone or play in the local park, but these are usually small compared to the benefits which a little independence can bring.

When the time comes, let them go

The ultimate goal of a parent is to build their children’s self-esteem and teach them to stand on their own two feet; to encourage them to become happy, competent and contributing members of society. All parents know that one day their children will grow up and leave the nest. When they are ready, let them go and celebrate. Your job is done.

©David Lawrence Preston, 16.5.2016

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