What good parents teach their children (and why it’s hard to do)

by Claire McCarthy on October 30, 2012

The oddest thing happened at my son’s soccer game the other day. We had to pull one of our kids to play for the other team—because some kids on the other team didn’t want to play.

Now, these are first graders, who aren’t always reasonable. And since I don’t know the whole story, I should give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe those three kids who were playing together on the sidelines really didn’t feel well, or had terrible performance anxiety, or sore ankles. But it didn’t look like that; they didn’t seem at all sick, upset or hurt. It looked like they didn’t feel like being in the game, and the coach and parents said: okay, no problem.

Really? Not sure this sets them up for future life success. Teachers and employers may not be so accommodating.

These days, it seems like I’m seeing more extremes of parenting. It’s either the Tiger Mother approach, with expectations of straight A’s, athletic championships and admission to Harvard, or the Coddling approach, where parents helicopter, do their kids’ homework for them, give them what they want, tell them they are wonderful and don’t make them do things they don’t want to do (like play soccer). And while the Tigers get to feel good for having an achieving (albeit possibly stressed and miserable) child, and the Coddlers get to feel like the Good Guy, neither approach is good for kids.

Now, I don’t have all the answers when it comes to raising kids. But I’ve been a parent and a doctor for more than twenty-one years now, and those years have given me not just the experience of struggling with parenting my own children, but of watching lots and lots of parents do the same. And twenty-one years is long enough that I’ve been able to see how a lot of kids turn out.

From that experience, here’s what I think good parents teach their children:

  1. Do your best
  2. Always be honest and kind
  3. Keep your word

This sounds so simple—but it’s not. Because not only does it take being consistent and firm, which can both be really challenging (especially with some children, and especially when you are tired), it takes two more things that can be really tough.

It takes flexibility. It takes understanding that your child’s “best” may not be the best, and may vary depending on your child’s health, how much sleep they’ve had, how anxious they are and other things that change from moment to moment. It’s also not always clear what their best is—we’ve all had the experience of being both pleasantly surprised and disappointed by what we achieve. Being a good parent means being in touch with your child, knowing when to push, and knowing when to step back, cut your losses, or just give hugs. That’s really hard, and even the best parents don’t get it right all the time. But good parents understand this concept.

“It takes understanding that your child’s “best” may not be the best.”

It also takes leading by example. If we want our kids to do those three things, we have to do them too. Our children need to see us working hard and trying our best. They need to see us being kind and honest—and keeping our word, especially to them. The classic parenting adage is true: kids pay more attention to what we do than what we say.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I think this applies to parenting, too: Be the people you want your children to be.

(As for sports: don’t sign them up if they don’t want to play, it will be miserable for everyone. But if they say they want to play, and you sign them up, they should be good teammates and play. Okay, stepping off my soapbox now).

3 comments

  • Jenn

    Thank you! A reasonable post on parenting! I’ve found I have to tune out so many opinions on how children should be raised. My in-laws never think I protect my children enough from their teachers, society, etc. My mother thinks I do too much (as in volunteering at school). I’ve seen the way in brother and sister in law turned out, with the assistance of their helicopter parents (29 and 24, neither have had a job, and still live at home). On the other hand, I wish my parents had stood up for me a little bit at school because I was the target of every bully around. A healthy dose of moderation is in order.

  • dsws

    First-grade soccer is a job now? Ugh. I’m glad I haven’t signed my kids up for it.

    Can’t anything be just for fun? If anything could, it seems as though running around with a ball as first-graders would be it.

  • Kylie

    Glad to read some rational thinking about this topic. It is so important that we teach our kids that their actions effect other people…on the soccer field, in the classroom, at home, and everywhere. It’s a difficult balance between allowing them to be kids and preparing them for adult life. I struggle with this daily. Thanks for your thoughts!

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