All parents want their children to be happy, healthy and ready for success later in life, but since kids don’t come with a playbook, it can be hard to know if you are doing it right.
As a mom to a 3-year-old boy, I want the best for him and I worry that I am not doing enough.
Do I do enough educational activities with him? Do I indulge him too much? Is it ok if he plays games on my iPad sometimes (so I can close my eyes for five more minutes on a Saturday)? The list could go on and on.
To make sure I am on the right path with my little guy, I reached out to a few Carilion Children’s experts to get their take on what parents can do when their children are young to help make sure they are happy and successful little people now and well into the future.
And while each expert noted that there are many things that help shape a happy and confident child, a few common themes did emerge.
1. Establish Open Lines of Communication
According to Lori Dudley, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Carilion Children's, communication should be a top priority for parents.
“Communication is extremely important for maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of your child,” she said. “Parents should always maintain open lines of communication with their children. No question, thought or feeling is ‘off the table’.”
Dr. Dudley recommends that parents focus on spending time each day talking with their children about their feelings regarding their physical and social well-being.
“Even just a few minutes every day goes a long way and prepares children for the time when they may really need to talk to their parents about something very important,” she noted.
Parents also need to show their children how to communicate.
“Parents need to model appropriate ways to communicate their feelings and how to label those feelings, including the difficult ones such as embarrassment, anger, sadness, vulnerability and frustration,” Dr. Dudley explained.
For Brooks Michael, an adolescent health educator at Carilion Children’s and a mom to four children, ages 3 to 14, individual and uninterrupted communication with each child is something she strives for every day.
“It is easy to get distracted trying to balance work, schedules, sports and life, so I am always working on being a better listener,” she said. “I think it's really important to take time each day to sit with them and give them your undivided attention without your phone in your hand or any other distraction.”
Michael also noted that she finds this to be true for all ages.
“My 14 year old needs this every bit as much as my 3 year old,” she said.
2. Build Confidence
Tara Mitchell, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Carilion’s Pediatric Behavioral Health department, believes that building confidence is vital for every child.
“Whether it is a school sport or an extracurricular activity outside of school such as a special hobby, every child should have something that they enjoy and feel like they are good at,” she explained. “This helps build self-confidence and resiliency.”
Michael agrees. Her four active kids have varying and changing interests.
“Two of my kids play sports, but my other child has no interest and that is completely fine,” she noted. “My husband and I try to make sure that we support what he is interested in whether it is robotics, art, etc.”
Dr. Mitchell added that encouraging a child’s interest and helping to nurture that interest goes a long way in ensuring that child that you believe in them.
“Every child needs someone to believe in them!” she noted emphatically.
3. Set Clear Expectations
William H. Craft, M.D., a Carilion Children’s pediatrician who has been practicing for over 30 years, encourages parents to be clear about what they expect from their child.
“Children develop healthy behaviors and relationships when parents provide clear and consistent expectations for behavior and stick to them,” he said.
If children understand what you expect of them, it makes it easier for them to behave accordingly.
So rather than continually telling your children what not to do, come together as a family and develop some simple family rules that focus on what they should be doing.
The rules could focus on what you expect from your children on a daily basis or things such as how they should resolve differences or how they should speak to one another.
Keep in mind that this does not mean perfection. Mistakes often provide a good learning opportunity to talk more about what you expect of them as well as how to positively relate to others and express themselves.
And don’t forget to praise your children when they do what you have asked. Positive reinforcement goes on long way in ensuring that they continue to follow the rules you set for them.
4. Put Down the Phone and Get Outside!
This last guideline is something that I think we all know, but in today’s world it is getting harder and harder to do.
The average American child spends over seven hours a day in front of a screen and only four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors.
Dr. Mitchell is a strong advocate for putting down your electronics and getting outside and enjoying nature with your kids.
Studies have shown that children who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.
I know that some of my favorite times with my son and husband are when we go camping and have no internet connection or cell service!
So, overall, it is not about perfection, it is about connection! I think I can do that.