Sharing and Caring
Giving your child the guidance and support he needs to grow up healthy involves all the skills of parenthood: nurturing, guiding, protecting, sharing and serving as an example or model. Like other skills, these must be learned and perfected through practice. Some will be easier for you than others. Some will seem easier on certain days than on others. These variations are a normal part of raising a child, but they do make the job challenging.
Enjoy Your Child as an Individual
Recognize that your child is unique, different from everyone else, and appreciate his special qualities. Discover his special needs and strengths, his moods and vulnerabilities, and especially his sense of humor, which starts to show itself early in infancy. Let him show you the joy of play. The more you enjoy your child and appreciate his individuality, the more successful you'll be in helping him develop a sense of trust, security and self-esteem. You'll also have a lot more fun being a parent!
You probably know much more than you think you do about being a parent. You spent years observing your own parents and other families. Perhaps you've taken care of other people's children. And you have many instinctive responses that will help make you a giving parent. In other times, this probably would have been all the preparation you needed to raise a child. However, our society is extremely complex and is constantly changing. In order to guide their children in this new world, parents often benefit from some extra education. Talk to your pediatrician and other parents, and ask questions. Read about issues and problems that affect your family. Contact your local religious organizations, school systems and PTAs, child-care centers, parent education classes and other groups that specialize in child-related concerns. Often, these groups serve as networks for concerned and interested parents. These networks will help you feel more comfortable and secure when issues seem puzzling or frustrating, a not uncommon state today.
As you gather advice, sift through it for information that is right for you and your child. Much of what you receive will be very valuable, but not all of it. Because child rearing is such a personal process, there is bound to be disagreement. You are not obligated to believe everything you hear or read. In fact, one of the purposes of educating yourself is to protect your child from advice that does not fit your family. The more you know, the better equipped you'll be to decide what works best for your family.
Be a Good Example
One of the ways your child shows his love for you is by imitating you. This also is one of the ways he learns how to behave, develop new skills and take care of himself. From his earliest moments he watches you closely and patterns his own behavior and beliefs after yours. Your examples become permanent images, which will shape his attitudes and actions for the rest of his life. Setting a good example for your child means being responsible, loving and consistent not only with him but with all members of the family. The way you conduct your marriage, for example, teaches your child about male and female roles and how he's "supposed" to behave as he gets older. Show your affection and take time for yourselves as a couple. If your child sees his parents communicating openly, cooperating and sharing household responsibilities, he'll bring these skills to his own relationship.
Setting good examples also means taking care of yourself. As an eager, well-meaning parent, it's easy to concentrate so hard on your family that you lose sight of your own needs. That's a big mistake. Your child depends on you to be physically and emotionally healthy, and he looks to you to show him how to keep himself healthy. By taking care of yourself, you express your self-esteem, which is important for both you and your child. Getting a sitter and resting when you're overtired or ill teaches your child that you respect yourself and your needs. Setting aside time and energy for your own work or hobbies teaches your child that you value certain skills and interests and are willing to pursue them. Ultimately, he will pattern some of his own habits after yours, so the healthier and happier you keep yourself, the better it will be for both of you.
Show Your Love
Giving love means more than just saying "I love you." Your child can't understand what the words mean unless you also treat him with love. Be spontaneous, relaxed and affectionate with him. Give him plenty of physical contact through hugging, kissing, rocking and playing. Take the time to talk, sing and read with him every day. Listen and watch as he responds to you. By paying attention and freely showing your affection, you make him feel special and secure, and lay a firm foundation for his self-esteem.
Communicate Honestly and Openly
One of the most important skills you teach your child is communication. The lessons begin when he is a baby gazing into your eyes and listening to your soothing voice. They continue as he watches and listens to you talking with other members of the family and, later, as you help him sort out his concerns, problems and confusions. He needs you to be understanding, patient, honest and clear with him.
Good communication within a family is not always easy. It can be especially difficult when both parents are working, overextended or under a great deal of stress, or when one person is depressed or angry. Preventing a communications breakdown requires commitment, cooperation among family members and a willingness to recognize problems as they arise. Express your own feelings, and encourage your child to be equally open with you. Look for changes in his behavior that may signal sadness, fear, frustration or worry, and show that you understand these emotions. Ask questions, listen to the responses, and offer constructive suggestions.
Listen to yourself and consider what you say to your child before the words leave your mouth. In anger or frustration it's sometimes easy to make harsh, even cruel, statements, which you don't really mean but which your child may never forget. Thoughtless comments or jokes that seem incidental to you may be hurtful to your child. Phrases like "You stupid idiot," "That's a dumb question," or "Don't bother me" make your child feel worthless and unwanted and may seriously damage his self-esteem. If you constantly criticize or put him off, he may back away from you. Instead of looking to you for guidance, he may hesitate to ask questions and may mistrust your advice. Like everyone else, children need encouragement to ask questions and speak their minds. The more sensitive, attentive and honest you are, the more comfortable he'll feel being honest with you.
Spend Time Together
You cannot give your child all that he needs if you only spend a few minutes a day with him. In order to know you and feel confident of your love, he has to spend a great deal of time with you, both physically and emotionally. Spending this time together is possible, even if you have outside commitments. You can work full-time and still spend some intimate time with your child every day. The important thing is that it be time devoted just to him, meeting his needs and your needs together. Is there any fixed amount? No one can really say. One hour of quality time is worth more than a day of being in the same house but in different rooms. You can be at home full-time and never give him the undivided attention he requires. It's up to you to shape your schedule and direct your attention so that you meet his needs.
It may help to set aside a specific block of time for your child each day and devote it to activities he enjoys. Also, make an effort to include him in all family activities, such as meal preparation and mealtimes. Use these times to talk about each other's problems, personal concerns and the day's events.
Excerpted from Caring for Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam 1999
© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics