Are you a good parent? Check your skills

June 3, 2011 

Friends of mine have had their first child and I have been fascinated by their parenting techniques. No expense has been spared on technology, such as a sound and movement monitor so they can keep track of him when he sleeps. Educational toys fill up their house.

They are teaching him two languages and are carefully developing his musical skills.

But are they good parents? Were we? What makes a good parent, anyway?

Fifty years of research has given us a good deal of information on the kind of parenting that creates happier, healthier and more successful children.

Surprisingly, some of these good parenting practices don't even involve the children, finds psychologist Robert Epstein, who, with graduate student Shannon Fox, has reviewed 50 years of parenting research. He has also conducted his own study of about 2,000 parents.

In an article in "Scientific American Mind" (November/December 2010), he summarizes the research on what makes a good parent and adds findings of his own.

Here is basically what he and the experts say:

1. Love and affection: You not only love your children but you show it through physical affection and spending one-on-one time together.

2. Stress management: This is a surprise because it doesn't involve the children at all. Learning to manage stress in your own life is important because it makes you calmer and more self-controlled. You also model for your children how to interpret setbacks in positive ways and make the best of what happens.

3. Relationship skills: How you treat your spouse or partner matters about as much as how you treat your own children. Showing your children what good relationships look like helps them learn how to create healthy relationships in their own lives.

4. Autonomy and independence: You treat your children with respect. You take into account their individual temperaments, abilities and needs. I have seen so many children suffer when parents insist on things, like going into the family business, when their talents lie in other directions.

5. Education and learning: You model lifelong learning and provide lots of educational opportunities that go beyond school. Focusing too much on school success is not a good thing.

6. Life skills: You have a steady income and make sure you can financially support your children.

7. Health: You model good health habits, like eating nutritious food. In this area, you can insist that your children do the right thing.

8. Safety: You protect your children not only from physical harm but from unsafe friends and activities. Nowadays that might mean being careful to see what your children are doing on the Internet, like communicating with strangers or posting pictures of themselves that may haunt them when they grow up. But don't go overboard. Children can be too protected.

"In general, we found that parents are far better at educating their children and keeping them safe than they are at managing stress or maintaining a good relationship with the other parent, even though the latter practices appear to have more influence on children," Epstein writes.

Epstein has posted a quiz on the Internet (http://myparentingskills.com) that lets you evaluate your own parenting skills. I took the test and found it right on.

Women, it turns out, are not especially better parents than men. Older parents do just as well as younger parents. How many children you have or your age when you have children has no effect at all.

The characteristic that did make a big difference was education, more educated parents had more successful and happier children. This is not a surprise. More educated parents are apt to have higher incomes and find out in detail what they need to do.

My friends, for example, search the Internet for the latest research on how to teach their new baby two languages, how to make his food nutritious and how to develop his musical skills.

There is no recipe but you can learn how to be a much better parent. Epstein's parenting quiz helps you figure out your strong points -- and what you need to work on.


Judith Kleinfeld, who holds a doctorate from Harvard, is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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