Remember bringing your baby home from the hospital? I do. We placed our son, in his pumpkin seat, on the dining room table and stared at him. We wondered, “What should we do next?” After all, children don’t come with a manual. (Later, I used this to excuse my parenting mistakes.)
Fast-forward ten years. When our son was in sixth grade, he and I were asked to participate in a parenting study conducted by the University of California, San Diego. The study continued for six years and looked for parenting practices that correlated with healthy children – that is, those who are not engaged in risky behavior such as sexual activity, smoking, drinking and taking drugs. Interviewers called my son and I separately to ask a series of questions. The conversations were confidential so that our son could answer honestly, or at least without fear of being grounded.
They asked me questions about whether we’d talked with our about sex, the health risks of smoking, the importance of drinking responsibly, and the dangers of taking non-prescribed drugs. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. We’d discussed the “necessary” information. Not surprising answers.
Next came questions about relationship. How frequently did we eat dinner together as a family? Did we go on family outings? We ate dinner together most nights and nearly every meal on weekends. Onto household rules: Did we assign chores? Did we have a curfew? Did we have rules about clothing? Going out with friends? Spending money? No, no, no, no, and no. The interviewer was surprised. How is it you don’t have these rules? The implication was that our children might be unruly.
I explained how while we didn’t have assigned chores, everyone pitched in – well, most of the time. When our children came down to the kitchen near dinnertime, they’d ask how they could help. Does the table need to be set? The garbage taken out? Vegetables chopped? Now, this didn’t happen every night. Sometimes I don’t like to cook dinner or clean the house. While we didn’t have a household curfew, neither of our children stayed out late. When plans were made, we’d talk about what might be a reasonable time to come home. We’d negotiate. The fact that the law set a curfew helped: “Do you want to risk losing your junior license by driving after 11 pm?” we’d ask.
As the study continued, I realized that our family’s life together wasn’t hemmed in by rules, but through relationship. I imagine that from the outside we looked like a family with a lot of rules. If you think of it as a rule of life, I suppose we did. One of our rules of life was conversation and give and take. This required the hard work of knowing one another as respected individuals capable of forming values and making decisions and compromises.
So, what has research said about parenting? Last fall Robert Epstein, a professor at the University of San Diego, reported findings of a study he conducted. The top three may surprise you:
- You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
- You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxation techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
- You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relation- ship skills with other people.
Behavior management is #7 on the list.
What surprised me is #2 and #3. While they don’t appear to be directly related to parenting, I see why they are important. #2 to support good relationship with your child and #3 to model relationship. I can relate to #3. We called our son “Radar O’Reilly” when he was young.
For the complete list and a description of the study, read “What Makes a Good Parent?” in the November/December issue of Scientific American of the Mind.
Jenifer C. Gamber is the author of My Faith, My Life and Your Faith, Your Life. She is a sought after retreat leader and speaker on youth spirituality.