Parenting tips are everywhere but most have zero legitimate research behind them. So what does science have to say? And how can you remember what’s important so you actually use it?
Remember to WACC your kids.
No, I’m not saying to hit your kids. “WACC” is a good acronym to help you keep in mind 4 things that come up in the research again and again:
- Work on yourself
These four things can make a big difference in whether you end up saving college money or bail money.
Let’s break down the how and why on these parenting tips so that your kids end up healthy, smart and happy.
1) Work On Yourself
This is what many of the parenting books ignore — and it may be the most important.
Want happy kids? Then make sure you’re keeping yourself joyful. Happy parents make for happy kids and parental depression causes child behavior problems.
Extensive research has established a substantial link between mothers who feel depressed and “negative outcomes” in their children, such as acting out and other behavior problems. Parental depression actually seems to cause behavioral problems in kids; it also makes our parenting less effective.
And this is not merely due to genetics.
…although the study did find that happy parents are statistically more likely to have happy children, it couldn’t find any genetic component.
So other than feeling good about you own life, what’s key here? That ol’ work-life balance.
In fact, what’s the #1 thing kids wish for when it comes to parents? They wish you were less tired and stressed.
In a survey of a thousand families, Ellen Galinsky, the head of the Families and Work Institute and the author of Mind in the Making, asked children, “If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?” Most parents predicted their kids would say spending more time with them. They were wrong. The kids’ number one wish was that their parents were less tired and less stressed.
Your stress isn’t just your stress — it’s their stress too. When you’re stressed out it hurts your children’s intelligence and immune systems.
…Studies have shown that parental stress weakens children’s brains, depletes their immune systems, and increases their risk of obesity, mental illness, diabetes, allergies, even tooth decay.
Yup, you are a role model. So the first step to taking good care of your kids is taking care of you.
Studies of young adults find that more than seven out of ten regularly measure themselves against their parents in terms of either their career or relationship status. – Glasman 2002
(For more on the research-backed ways to raise happy kids, click here.)
Okay, so you’re taking good care of yourself. What else do many of the parenting tips miss?
Tiger moms and helicopter parents: your children thrive when they have some room to be individuals.
Kids do better when they make plans themselves or at least have a say.
You should even allow them to pick their own punishments. It creates greater motivation to obey the rules.
Scientists at the University of California and elsewhere found that kids who plan their own time, set weekly goals, and evaluate their own work build up their prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain that help them exert greater cognitive control over their lives. These so-called executive skills aid children with self-discipline, avoiding distractions, and weighing the pros and cons of their choices. By picking their own punishments, children become more internally driven to avoid them. By choosing their own rewards, children become more intrinsically motivated to achieve them. Let your kids take a greater role in raising themselves.
Which kids say they like going to school? The ones who get to pick which extracurricular activities they’re involved in.
Children who regularly participate in structured extracurricular activities (including clubs and sports teams) of their own choosing are 24 percent more likely to report that they like going to school. – Gilman 2001
You don’t have to overschedule kids or be involved in every moment of their lives. Unstructured play has huge positive effects on children.
Researchers believe that this dramatic drop in unstructured playtime is in part responsible for slowing kids cognitive and emotional development… In addition to helping kids learn to self-regulate, child-led, unstructured play (with or without adults) promoted intellectual, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Unstructured play helps children learn how to work in groups, to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, regulate their emotions and behavior, and speak up for themselves.
(For more scientific tips on how to make your kids smarter, click here.)
So everybody always talks about communicating with kids… but what’s that actually mean?
You know much real conversation happens at family dinner? 10 minutes.
I interviewed Bruce Feiler, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Secrets of Happy Families and he said the research shows most of the talk at the dinner table is “Take your elbows off the table” and “Please pass the ketchup.”
So what’s the best way to make use of those 10 minutes? Here’s Bruce:
So number one, the first big thing to be aware of is that parents do two-thirds of the talking in that ten minutes. And that’s a problem. So your first goal should be to flip that and let the kids do more of the talking. So that would be issue number one. Number two, I would say a great thing to do in that ten minutes is to try to teach your kid a new word every day. There’s a tremendous amount of evidence out there that one of the biggest determinants of success in school has to do with the size of vocabulary.
And I asked Bruce what he would recommend if he could only give one piece of advice.
He said: “Set aside time to talk about what it means to be a part of your family.”
Ask yourself: “What are your family values?” In business-speak: Develop a mission statement for your family.
Initiate a conversation about what it means to be a part of your family. Sit down with them and say “Okay, these are our ten central values. This is the family we want to be. We want to be a family that doesn’t fight all the time.” or “We want to be a family that goes camping or sailing” or whatever it might be.
…researchers at Emory did this study that showed that the kids who know more about their family history had a greater belief that they could control their world and a higher degree of self-confidence. It was the number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being.
Not having family dinner together? You might want to start. It has huge benefits.
A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. Additional research found that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems.Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.
Doesn’t work for your family’s schedule? It doesn’t have to be dinner. And it doesn’t have to be every night.
Many of the benefits of family mealtime can be enjoyed without sitting down together every night. Even the folks at Columbia University’s center on addiction, the ones responsible for a lot of the research on family dinner, say having joint meals as infrequently as once a week makes a difference.
I know what some of you are thinking: isn’t all that talking going to mean more fighting? Yes. And that’s a good thing.
Moderate conflict with teens produces better adjustment than none.
University of Rochester’s Dr. Judith Smetana, a leader in the study of teen disclosure, confirms that, over the long term, “moderate conflict with parents [during adolescence] is associated with better adjustment than either no-conflict or frequent conflict.”
In families where there is less lying to the parents, there is more arguing. Arguing is the opposite of lying. Arguing is the way the kid decides not to lie. “I could lie to my parents and just do it. Or I can tell the truth and argue it out.” Those are the choices the teen has.
And what’s a quick trick for getting your kid to be honest? Po has an answer.
Say: “I’m about to ask you a question. But before I do that, will you promise to tell the truth?”
In Talwar’s peeking game, sometimes the researcher pauses the game with, “I’m about to ask you a question. But before I do that, will you promise to tell the truth?” (Yes, the child answers.) “Okay, did you peek at the toy when I was out of the room?” This promise cuts down lying by 25%.
(For more on how to have a happy family, click here.)
Final tip. What else do you need to do? Well, really, it has nothing to do with you…
Tons of research shows religious families are happier. Why is that?
Further study has shown it’s the friends that a religious community provides. A community of ten supportive friends makes families happier.
The most comprehensive study ever done on this topic, in 2010, gives some clues about why this might be. After examining studies of more than three thousand adults, Chaeyoon Lin and Robert Putnam found that what religion you practice or however close you feel to God makes no difference in your overall life satisfaction. What matters is the number of friends you have in your religious community. Ten is the magic number; if you have that many, you’ll be happier. Religious people, in other words, are happier because they feel connected to a community of like-minded people.
What influences your kids more than you do? Their peer group.
The same kids who were very vulnerable to peer pressure turn out to have great grades, do well in high school, and go to college. As they get older in life they have great relationships with their best friends, their partners, and their parents. It turns out that thing that makes a kid in seventh grade very attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others around them is what makes them feel peer pressure. It turned out that peer pressure was dragging kids toward risk behaviors but it is also dragging them to do well at school, to care what their teachers thought, to care what their parents thought, to care what the school thought, and to care what society thinks. These kids that are invulnerable to peer pressure turn out to have low GPAs. Their motivation to study just wasn’t strong enough. It was entirely based upon themselves because they didn’t care what society thought.
And your kids need more family in their lives than just their parents and siblings.
Studies of boys and girls find that the presence of a trusted nonparental adult increases feelings of support and life satisfaction by more than 30 percent. – Colarossi 2001
If you had to make sure one family member was consistently there for the young ones, who should it be?
Grandmom. Scores of studies show the incredible benefits that grandmom brings, like teaching kids to cooperate and to be compassionate.
Children who spend time with their grandparents are more social, do better in school and show more concern for others.
Countless studies have shown the extraordinary benefits grandmothers have on contemporary families. A meta-analysis of sixty-six studies completed in 1992 found that mothers who have more support from grandmothers have less stress and more well-adjusted children… So what are these grandmothers actually doing? They’re teaching children core social skills like how to cooperate, how to be compassionate, how to be considerate. Researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah interviewed 408 adolescents about their relationship with their grandparents. When grandparents are involved, the study found, the children are more social, more involved in school, and more likely to show concern for others.
(For more of the latest research on good parenting skills, click here.)
Time to round all this up and add in that last ingredient that makes your kids love you back.
Remember to WACC your kids:
- Work on yourself: Increasing your own happiness and reducing your stress have big effects on your kids.
- Autonomy: Want them to be successful adults? Make sure they have a say in what they do — starting now.
- Communicate: Family meals make a big difference. Tell them their family history. More arguing means less lying.
- Community: Their peers have more influence they you do. Make sure Grandmom is around if you want compassionate children.
One last thing you need to keep in mind if you want a close relationship with the kiddos:
Love. Don’t just be guider, protector and enforcer. Kids are nearly 50% more likely to feel close to those who show them affection.
People are 47 percent more likely to feel close to a family member who frequently expresses affection than to a family member who rarely expresses affection. – Walther-Lee 1999
They’re the next generation. They have the potential to be better than we are, so give them every chance. As Dr. Seuss said:
“Adults are obsolete children.”
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.