Steven, the father of a 2-year-old boy, wrote me to ask: “What do I need to know to be a great parent?” What a great question; and one I hope all men and women who are expecting a child ask. First, let me say, it isn’t possible to learn much about being a parent without having kids. That’s why you so often hear “great lessons” in parenting from childless people. You know the “If that were my kid, I would do—” kind of advice. They are the ones with red faces when they do have children. I can’t tell you how many times I heard parents say: “I was an excellent parent until we had kids.”
I’m reminded of what William Osler (1849–1919), the father of modern medicine, and the first chair of medicine at Johns Hopkins, said about studying to be a doctor: “He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all.”
Let me reword it: “He who gives parenting advice without reading books sails an uncharted sea, but he who gives parenting advice without having a child does not go to sea at all.”
With that in mind, I sent the following note to Steven:
“You are right, Steven; try to learn as much as you can about parenting. As a pediatrician for 40 years and father of four kids and grandfather to 14, I have learned some things that might help you.
1. Be the person you want your son to become, because, like it or not, he will become you!
2. Sit down at a table with your wife and whoever else is in your family, and have dinner, breakfast, or lunch with them at least five times a week (15 to 20 is even better). As soon as children can sit in a high chair, they should join you at the table; for you, Steven, that was about two years ago. All electronics should be turned off to enhance your family’s conversation. Don’t let anything interrupt your family’s meals; make them last!
3. Read to him at least 20 minutes two times a day. More is better. If you haven’t registered him to get free books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, do it now!
4. Put him to bed at the same time every night. Make sure he goes there with a smile on his face by ending the day with a bedtime story. Make it just one, or he’ll have you up until dawn reading one book after the other.
5. One hour of TV or other screens a day is far more than enough, (The American Academy of Pediatrics says two hours, but I think that’s way too much), and keep TVs, computers, cellphones, and any other electronic devices out of his bedroom even when he’s 15 or 18!
6. Don’t worry if he doesn’t like to eat something, or if he seems not to eat anything. From age 2, he should eat only at mealtime. If for some reason a meal is delayed by more than two hours, give him a fresh fruit snack. When mealtime comes, put the food you and his mom are eating on his plate and say no more. Toddlers and little kids don’t eat much, so if he doesn’t eat what’s on his plate don’t comment, nag, beg or in any way pay attention to it. He will eat more at the next meal.
7. If he is not toilet-trained, you need to get on that. Dads, not moms, should train boys. You both have the same plumbing, stand and show him how to use it. Get him a little step stool to stand on, and he’ll catch on in a day or two.
8. When he is going to be exposed to a new experience, or one in which he may not feel comfortable, tell him what to expect and advise him how to react. If he fails to follow your advice, tell him quietly, when you get him alone, what was expected and what the consequences will be if he fails again. Also remind him of any positive effects from doing what you expected. But tell him only once. Counting to 3, 10, 100, or 7 times 70 rarely is effective.
Rare is the child who needs physical punishment; kids of every age, even teens, want direction and desire to please their loving parents. There are many other consequences for misbehavior. Be inventive. When he is older, second grade and up, ask him what he thinks would be an appropriate reaction. Don’t be surprised if he is stricter than you might have been!
9. Tell him often how much he pleases you and how much you love him. Demonstrate that love by being a parent—adviser, teacher, confidant, good role model—but not a friend. He needs friends his age, and so do you!
10) Get involved in an organized religion and attend services regularly. If your place of worship has a child care center, take him there, if not, he can be with you. And for heaven’s sake, don’t take a box of juice or Cheerios! He won’t starve to death or die of dehydration in an hour. You’ll have to stop sometime, so why start?”
I haven’t seen Steven in many years, but the last time I talked to him, he, his wife, and three kids were doing fine.
Enjoy the children in your life, and may God continue to bless you and your family!
Dr. Parnell Donahue is a pediatrician, military veteran, author of four books and the blog ParentingWithDrPar.com, and host of WBOU’s “Parenting Matters” show. He and his wife Mary, have four adult children; all hold Ph.D.s, two also are MDs. Contact him at Parenting-Matters.com.