Many parents provide their kids with the big essentials: unconditional love, protection, structure, and limits. But as a pediatrician and the mom of five (now grown) children, I've learned that there are also small things parents can do to make a major difference in their kids' lives.
1. Keep an Eye on the Big Picture
It happens to all of us: We become so preoccupied with the moment-to-moment aspect of child rearing that we lose perspective. When my first baby, Peter, was born, I was a premed student in college. Several weeks after returning to class and caring for my newborn, I became so sleep-deprived and depleted that I recall thinking, "There's no way I can do this for eighteen years!" I had momentarily lost my optimism and enthusiasm about parenthood. Fortunately, I got help from the people around me: My husband, Larry, cared for our son so I could catch up on my sleep at night; my neighbors offered to babysit so Larry and I could go out one evening; and a more experienced mom who lived nearby assured me it got easier as the baby got older. Thanks to them, I was better able to juggle the demands of my newborn with my schoolwork. And, more important, I knew I could ask others to pitch in when I felt overloaded.
Losing sight of the big picture also makes it easier to overreact when your child misbehaves. It helps when you can look at the context of his behavior. A 2-year-old isn't capable of remembering reprimands; despite repeated warnings not to scribble on the wall, he's liable to take a crayon to it again. Try to remind yourself that he's just learning what's acceptable and that most of his behavior is appropriate for his age.
The next time he begins to mark up a wall, say no again, coupled with a brief explanation ("It makes the wall dirty"). Then sit him at the table with a piece of paper. Or buy a kid-size easel if he seems to enjoy standing up when he draws.
Sometimes children have a better sense of perspective than the adults around them. When my niece developed juvenile diabetes at 3, my entire family was devastated. For months we could only focus on the many ways her life would be limited -- by the daily testing, the dietary restrictions, and the potential medical complications.
A year later, while we were grocery shopping, she kept pointing at each item that had the sugar-free label on it and saying, "I can eat that! I can eat that! I can eat that!" While the grown-ups around her were caught up in what had been lost, my little niece had already learned to appreciate what remained.
Savor the Moment
Between work, chores, and our kids' activities, life can become so hectic and harried that you find yourself racing from one deadline to the next. The result: little room for spontaneity. And that's too bad because being spontaneous drives home the point of flexibility better than anything else.
Kids need routines to give them a sense of predictability and control, but they don't have to be rigid. Even bedtimes and mealtimes can be more easygoing to allow for a special event -- when grandparents come to visit, for instance.
The key to being more flexible is to underschedule your day: Plan on doing fewer errands or chores. Say you're washing laundry when your preschooler exclaims, "Let's have a picnic!" Why not have one? Your willingness to modify your schedule to do something fun will teach your child the art of reranking priorities, validate her ideas, and demonstrate how important it is to spend special moments together.
Read Stories Aloud
By the time your baby is about 6 months old, you can begin to help him acquire a love of books. Stories expose him to a more complex language structure than people usually use in conversation. By reading them aloud as often as possible, you can boost your baby's vocabulary and comprehension and expand his range of experiences. Just stop when he squirms on your lap or turns his face away.
When he's a little older, don't be surprised if he wants to hear the same books read over and over; toddlers learn through repetition and familiarity. He may also prefer to skip pages to get to his favorite picture or phrases, since many kids this age are less interested in the narrative than in absorbing certain pages that capture their imagination.
Once he's a preschooler, help him identify rhyming words and learn to recognize letters of the alphabet as you look at books together. Pause to ask questions, look at illustrations, and make connections between the story and what's going on in his life. Although his attention span has increased by this age, be prepared to digress completely if he wants to ask more questions or backtrack.
And once your child learns to read, continue to read aloud for as long as possible. Most kids, no matter what their age, enjoy the intimacy of having their parents' direct attention. Even after our five kids were all fluent readers, I remember they looked forward to the times when Larry read their favorite stories aloud.
We all blow it from time to time -- whether by breaking a promise, being irritable and short-tempered, or wrongly accusing our kids. If we hurt our child's feelings, simply acknowledging, "I'm sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?" can mitigate much of the damage.
A sincere apology not only conveys respect for your child and shows that you value her, it also helps her learn compassion and that no one is perfect. She'll be more likely to admit her own shortcomings if she can expect you to forgive her.
If you find yourself apologizing over and over for the same offense -- such as punishing your child too harshly -- think about why you keep repeating the behavior. If you need to find better ways to handle your temper, for example, you could talk to a trusted friend, your pediatrician, or your pastor or rabbi to get some advice. Repeating "I'm sorry" won't mean anything if you can't show your child you're willing to change.
Spend Focused Time With Each Child
It's natural for siblings to compete for their parents' affection. But sharing your love is easier for your child to accept if he feels certain that he enjoys a unique relationship with you.
When parents are too concerned with being fair and spending equal time with each sibling, they may focus their energies on doing group activities as a family. While that's a good thing, remember that kids also crave some one-on-one time alone with you. Try to take advantage of the many daily opportunities to find out what's on your little one's mind. As tempting as it is to put your toddler to bed at the same time as his baby sister, give him a later bedtime so the two of you can enjoy a quiet half hour together. Or alternate which child goes with you on your errands, whether it's taking the dog to the vet or returning a video.
When my kids were young, I rotated which one came along when I went away on business. They loved those excursions with me. To them, it meant having my undivided attention as well as traveling on a plane and getting to order room service. Today, thanks in part to this, I'm rewarded by having a very special relationship with each one of them.
Another way you can make your children feel special is by avoiding comparisons ("Wow, you got ready faster than Taylor"). Instead, emphasize the positive attributes of each child ("I like the way you put away your books without my having to remind you"). And be careful not to label or typecast them ("Matthew's the athletic one; Sarah's the social butterfly").
Put It in Writing
Written expressions of love are tangible and can be saved. Children of all ages delight in reading your words, whether it's an annual birthday letter, a short note of encouragement tucked into a lunch box, or a picture you've drawn.
After my daughter Paige, now a doctor in the military, was transferred to a new Air Force base, she spent a nostalgic weekend unpacking and rereading old cards and letters. Then she called me so she could share some of the messages expressing my love and pride that I'd written over the years. It was an emotional moment for both of us.
Spending the time and energy to write a note or a card -- or to take any of the steps I've suggested -- is a labor of love. Your reward? A child who's secure in the knowledge that he's well worth the effort.
Marianne Neifert, M.D., a contributing editor, is the author of four books, including Dr. Mom's Prescription for Preschoolers (Zondervan).