“Parents who are afraid to put their foot down usually have children who step on their toes.” This Chinese proverb has a lot to say about establishing and enforcing effective boundaries for kids to become successful adults.
Rather than trying to correct an attitude of entitlement when kids are going into adolescence, childhood development research strongly suggests that some of the most important life skills, such as regulating emotions, learning how to communicate, and social awareness, are all formed from the time kids are born until they reach school age.
What can parents do to take full advantage of this unique window of opportunity? We’ll look at 12 of the best practices that can help parents create an encouraging environment for self-sufficient kids to succeed in life.
1. Set Boundaries … and Stick to Them
Children are naturally curious about the world around them. They are still in the process of acquiring the knowledge and experience that will help them navigate the world on their own. It is vital for parents to create a space where they can explore and discover but where the consequences of actions are made clear.
As a 2004 report from the journal Paediatrics Child Health puts it, “The goal is to protect the child from danger, help the child learn self-discipline, and develop a healthy conscience and an internal sense of responsibility and control.”
These boundaries can cover the way the child treats other people, animals, and property. They can include rules about safety, what to do around dangers like streets, cars, and strangers. Children will test these boundaries, so it’s up to parents to make sure they are respected.
2. Create Healthy Routines
One of the best ways for parents to give themselves and their children much-needed stability is to set up routines. How many of us would go into a grocery store without knowing what we want to buy?
In the same way that we make a shopping list, making a checklist for things that kids need to do every day, such as brushing teeth and bathing, helping out around the house, and spending time outdoors, is a great way to help everyone know what to expect.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology showed that having routines sets kids up for success later in life. Study leader Dr. Jennifer Weil Malatras explained that “regularity in daily routines may help to promote time management skills and, in turn, reduce the experience of attention difficulties in adulthood.”
3. Early to Bed
Sleeptime is often one of the biggest battlegrounds between parents and kids. However, this is one area where it’s crucial for parents to exercise their authority.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has clear guidelines for children’s sleep needs, which can range from 11 to 14 hours (including naps) for infants, to 10 to 13 hours for toddlers. It’s also important that all screens be switched off 30 minutes prior to bedtime according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Televisions, computers and other devices should not be allowed in their bedrooms, either.
Routines are just as vital at naptime and nighttime as they are during the day. Having rituals like brushing teeth, getting into pajamas, reading or telling stories in bed, and switching off lights, all give kids a chance to wind down and go to sleep.
4. Learning Compassion
Empathy isn’t something that just magically develops in all children. Putting themselves in someone else’s shoes might not be the natural instinct. Why share when you can have it to yourself? This is something that plenty of adults struggle with, so starting early is important.
How can you teach empathy? Focus on relationships with siblings, cousins, friends, and other peers, then branch out from there. Why not get your kids involved in volunteering and charitable work so they can encounter firsthand the needs of others who are less fortunate than them?
Work in this area will pay big dividends when they are grown.
5. Physical Affection
A hug a day actually can keep the doctor away. A 2013 study showed that “parental warmth acts as a protective factor, buffering against the harmful effects of toxic childhood stress on health.” Even more striking, receiving affection as a child continued to protect people after they had grown up.
Being affectionate with kids lets them know they are loved and reduces their anxiety. So that daily hug is more than just a gesture.
6. Playtime Is Vital
Kids love using their imagination and this is a great way of practicing many real-life situations (whether it’s playing house, doctor, or school). Engaging with your kids on a humorous and even silly level means a lot to them.
Play is just as useful for adults, as the American Academy of Pediatrics notes, “It provides time for parents to be fully engaged with their children, to bond with their children, and to see the world from the perspective of their child.”
7. Get Outside
With the omnipresence of screens in our society, getting fresh air and a chance to run around is more important than ever. In addition to sunshine, which provides vitamin D, getting outside also gives kids much-needed exercise. The President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition recommends 60 minutes of physical activity each day for children, so plan a trip to the local park or green space.
Better yet, get kids involved in team sports from a young age. In addition to making them move their bodies, this will also teach them about working in a group and following rules.
8. Focus on Doing Instead of Buying
While kids and preteens are heavily targeted by advertisers for all kinds of things—toys and candy to electronic devices—buying things isn’t always the way to be a good parent. Quality time with family and friends is worth more than anything that money can buy.
That furry toy that everybody is getting for Christmas will go out of style by next year, but a cool experience, like visiting faraway family members, camping in a rainforest, going to see a Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker, or going caroling for charity, will leave a much-more-lasting impression.
9. Hit the Books
The ancient Chinese text the Tao Te Ching states, “Without going outside, you may know the whole world. Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.” Just by reading different kinds of books with your kids and encouraging them to find what they like, you can open the world up to their curiosity.
Here too, pediatric research shows that reading aloud to kids when they are young will help them succeed in school by reducing hyperactivity and disruptive behaviors. Making time every day for reading together and alone is a great way to give your kids a leg up.
10. Turn Off the TV (and Tablet)
While it’s easy for busy parents to forget how important face-to-face interaction is, pediatricians have shown that too much screen time for young children can be extremely destructive.
The World Health Organization (WHO) advises, “For 1-year-olds, sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended. For those aged 2 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better.” Rather than spending time on screens, spend it reading, playing, exercising, and doing chores.
11. Chores Prepare Kids for Life
Speaking of chores, one key to raising successful children is to give them responsibility. Whether it’s helping out loading the dishwasher, prepping food for meals, taking care of pets, or just making the bed and cleaning up the room, these low-stakes tasks help kids learn about the value of work and teach them life skills.
12. Music Makes Life Better
Listening to and making music isn’t just fun; it’s good for your child’s brain and your own according to a Stanford University study published in the journal Neuron. “The process of listening to music could be a way that the brain sharpens its ability to anticipate events and sustain attention,” co-author Jonathan Berger wrote. Sharing your favorite music with kids is also a great way to bond.