Simple Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents
Introduction: Simple and Not So Simple
We are the holders of a priceless gift, a gift we received from countless generations we never knew, a gift that only we now possess and only we can give to our children. That unique gift, of course, is the gift of ourselves.
— Fred Rogers
Imagine a world in which parents receive every child as a miraculous gift, a new human being at once fragile and full of potential to live a wonderful life—if we provide the care that will help them make it happen. While almost any adult can help bring a child into being, only a parent in the truest sense recognizes their child as such a gift. And only an exceptional parent sees, as Fred Rogers reminds us, that they, in turn, may become their child’s most precious gift.
An exceptional parent knows that raising a child isn’t so much about buying toys, expensive vacations and the like, but about giving their time and attention. Exceptional parents help their children feel loved and valued. They teach integrity and grit by example and through the honesty with which they provide guidance and share their personal stories. They instill in their child the faith that she or he was born for a life of joy, loving relationships and rewarding adventures. An exceptional parent is a gift every day.
Now, lest you think that exceptional parenting is as unattainable as finding the Holy Grail, my years as family therapist, coach, father, son and human being have taught me something encouraging: exceptional parenting doesn’t spring from genius, Mother Theresa-like saintliness, or any other superhuman quality. Instead, it emerges from simple, conscious habits. It comes into being when you remember the power you wield in your child’s life and act accordingly, showing that you value your child’s strengths and interests, supporting rather than undermining your child’s positive feelings about himself or herself, and allowing your child their mistakes and the opportunities to learn from them.
Ironically, our most important parenting habits stretch beyond those that directly provide love and guidance to our children. I am speaking here of the behaviors that demonstrate our own positive values, effective ways of interacting with the world around us, and successful navigation of the unforeseen challenges life throws our way. All of our habits have far-reaching significance for our children because they look to us as a guiding example. In fact, we will always stand among our child’s most influential role models.
While habits of exceptional parenting may be simple to grasp, they’re not always easy to practice. When I recently advised a mother and father to let their 14-year-old son manage his own homework rather than supervise him as they’d previously been doing, they understood that allowing him to take responsibility for his work made sense. Yet they resisted doing so.
“What if he loses all self-confidence, decides that he’s stupid, and stops trying to learn?”
“What if he tosses his homework aside, fails ninth grade, and starts talking about quitting school when he turns sixteen?”
“What if he becomes depressed and suicidal?”
Such fears often confront us at the threshold of change. Other obstacles can also get in the way: entrenched habits running on autopilot, time pressure that makes it seem easier to stick with the familiar, and uncertainty about how to go about doing what is new. When it comes to trying out a different behavior, simple to understand rarely means simple to do.
This book identifies exceptional parenting habits that you can learn and offers guidance on how to make them your own. Your children will benefit greatly. They stand to gain self-esteem, belief in their own competence, respect for themselves and others, a compelling vision for their future, and the determination to work hard toward their goals. They will develop the capacity to love people more than things, greater optimism and happiness, and the certainty that they are part of something larger than themselves. Many years from now, they will remember you with gratitude.
I have written this book in user-friendly language. The chapters are comprised of brief sections, each describing a key, beneficial parental habit. I believe that in today’s time-challenged, information-saturated culture, brevity is a kindness that helps us to gain and retain understanding. Each section concludes with a list of key points as an additional memory aid. I address your habits rather than your child’s for two important reasons. First, the only behaviors we have some degree of control over are our own. Second, our habits are the most important model for those of our child.
You may find yourself using this book in a variety of ways. Simple Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents may start out as a parenting primer that helps set the course of your lifelong parenting journey. Later, when family circumstances raise important challenges, you may open to this or that chapter for a refresher. For some readers, the book may become an always-ready coach to consult regularly—for reminders or when you simply feel like affirming the great job you’re doing as a parent.
Now, an important disclaimer: While I strive to be an exceptional parent, I am, alas, only human. As my son, Erik, now 24 and working at his first post-college “real” job, can attest, I do my best to be an exceptional parent and I am also far from perfect. The years have taught me to value humility as inspiration for lifelong learning. This book shares what I have learned as well as what I aspire to achieve.
I wrote this book after several of my therapy clients suggested that I share the advice I gave them with a wider audience. I offer the pages that follow hoping that they will help you practice these simple habits, which in turn, will help your child live a joyful, healthy, and successful life. As one parent to another, give your child this gift—you, an exceptional parent. Twenty years from now, you’ll still be glad you did.
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