How to cut through the chatter and cultivate your child’s most important qualities

Raising healthy, optimistic children and setting them on a path to a successful and happy adulthood is relatively simple, not rocket science

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 6:01am

Have you ever heard a parenting expert say push your kids to breaking point, sign them up for multiple extracurricular activities, make them take all honours classes, allow technology in their bedrooms to keep in touch with friends all night, eating on the run is fine, and free time is a waste? Neither have I.

Yet this is precisely what our generation of parents is doing, and it’s not serving anyone well. Why don’t we follow the evidence-based advice we receive?

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Unlike most fields of study, where expert opinions vary, parenting experts are remarkably similar on just about every topic except sleep training for babies. In getting kids to sleep through the night some advise letting infants cry it out, while others recommend co-sleeping, for example. While there is some variation in advice for infant care, when it comes to older children, and especially adolescents, the advice becomes strikingly consistent.

Over the years I have attended dozens of lectures, taken copious notes and read many books to try to pick up some tips to be a more effective parent to my three children. Most advice falls into broad topics such as how to help cultivate resilience, perseverance, self-motivation, purpose and mindset. While each expert frames the advice a little differently, they all end up with similar recommendations and (even more compelling) similar statistics.

To raise healthy, balanced, kind, optimistic and accomplished children with good prospects to become successful and happy adults, parenting experts consistently offer simple, intuitive advice. First, make sure they get enough sleep, have regular medical check-ups, eat healthy food and regularly share family dinner. Second, praise real effort and acts of kindness, not the child. Third, limit technology and never allow it in their bedrooms, but have healthy, open communication about it. Finally, protect their unstructured free time fiercely.

I have been unable to identify a dissenting voice with this advice. Yet we persist in running all over town after school to take children to lessons, fighting to get them on “the right” sports teams, hiring a tutor when they’re faltering in a class instead of speaking to the teacher, and so on. We reason that kids are happier when they’re busy, that they take pride in accomplishment and will thank us later when they get into a good college and set their lives on a successful path. This may be true for some children, but not for all. And, on a practical level, one afternoon with a group of kids in a Hong Kong apartment with “unstructured time” is enough to prove this advice harder to follow than it seems.

Nonetheless, we do it because we want the best for our children and are scared of the competition and an unknowable future. We do it because everyone else does, too. We do it because some parents did the same and it’s all we know. We believe we are being helpful, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

A wise friend advised me to tell my children: “Your health, your education and your safety are up to your father and me. The rest is up to you.” The more I tried to find fault with this advice, the more I realised how brilliant it is. If I stick to this advice, I can more efficiently tease out the truly important issues from the merely irritating ones. So far, so good, although I admit that if my child asks about a tattoo, I may have to reconsider.

Even after all these years and so much advice, the one piece that continues to ring loudest in my head comes from British parenting expert Penelope Leach. She advises speaking to children as you would have them speak to you when you’re old. As you yell at your children to get their shoes on, chastising them for their lack of attention to your command or lack of ability to tie them despite your having shown them how, picture the opposite.

“Mum, put your shoes on. I can’t believe you don’t have them on yet. This is ridiculous, I told you 10 times to get your shoes on. Hurry up!”

With that in mind, perhaps you’ll consider giving them the same courtesy you would like from them down the road a bit. Life around the house may become generally more respectful and calm. After all, don’t we all feel a little better when we’re treated with courtesy, kindness and respect?

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me A Book, the leading advocate for family literacy in Hong Kong (www.bringmeabook.org.hk).