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The Keys to Being an Effective Parent

As parents, we all try to do our best to do a good job. But with thousands of books on the topic of parenting as well as countless articles in popular magazines and periodicals, sometimes it is difficult to know how to be a good parent. Should we be more strict? More lenient? Use time-outs? Let our kids play as many educational iPhone games as they want? Force them to eat their vegetables? Start teaching them to read at age 3? Buy them more toys? Give them fewer toys? Do such things matter at all in the long run? We all want keys to being an effective parent – but what are they?

Ah, I knew there was a reason I kept all of my old issues of Scientific American Mind magazine! While browsing through them recently, I stumbled upon a Nov/Dec 2010 article with the tantalizing title of “What Makes a Good Parent?” by psychologist and researcher Dr. Robert Epstein. How’d I miss this before?! This was like finding the Holy Grail! Epstein and his team developed an online survey of parenting skills (accessible at with survey items based on published studies of what skills are associated with positive parenting outcomes as well as input by 11 renowned parenting experts. Epstein gathered survey data from over 2000 parents and then analyzed the results and was able to determine which parenting skills produced positive outcomes.

Now, this begs the question of what are we defining as the “good” outcomes that we are trying to achieve as parents. I prefer the term “effective” over “good” myself. While not getting too specific with the definitions in this article, Epstein researched which parenting practices produced the strongest outcomes in the form of “better relationships between parent and child and happier, healthier, better functioning children.”

Here’s the Top 10 List of competencies/skills that Dr. Epstein and his team of researchers identified that produce “good” parenting outcomes (this list is quoted directly from Epstein’s article in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind):

1. Love and Affection – You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
2. Stress Management – You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxation techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
3. Relationship Skills – You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.
4. Autonomy and Independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
5. Education and Learning – You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
6. Life Skills – You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
7. Behavior Management -You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only when other methods of managing behavior have failed.
8. Health – You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.
9. Religion – You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities.
10. Safety – You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends.

What is fascinating about Epstein’s findings (which surprised him and his team as well) is that 2 of top 3 competencies/skills (stress management and relationship skills) don’t directly affect the child, only indirectly. However, even though the influence is indirect, the effects are very powerful. Too many parents spend inordinate amounts of time focused on education and learning, earning more income, or developing and implementing elaborate behavior management plans with the idea that these are the best ways to help their kids to become happy and successful in life.

A clear message from Epstein’s research and this article is that, first and foremost, we must be present to give our kids love, affection, and undivided attention. But it is also critical that we take care of our own needs – to have our own lives in balance so that our stress levels are managed effectively. On a related note, we must also nurture the relationship with our significant other. This is wonderful modeling for kids.  Also, as a couple, if the relationship is strong, there is greater happiness and less stress within the family system. Kids pick up the stress, and the happiness, of their parents.

Hopefully Dr. Epstein’s findings are as illuminating to you as they have been for me!


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  2. Louise McDermott

    Dr. Epstein’s findings are generalizable to many relational situations including peers, co-workers, and extended families. The article make sense that the better once can take care of oneself, the more emotional “space” is available to care for children. Like the saying goes, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you place it on others.”

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  4. Scott Swain

    I really like this model. I like the way the parent’s needs seem to be figured highly in the equation. Where would “Boundaries – make them clear and stick to them” fit in, if at all? I’m a big believer in getting away from “punishment mentality” and at the same time I see some parents seem to confuse that with “you never say no to a child.” I get the reasoning behind that, where you want your child to see the world as being full of possibilities instead of limitations. But my fear is that a child never told “no”, when encountering the world outside of the loving nest, will not have the requisite tools. Another fear is that *within* the home, child-parent respect will suffer. So, to be clear, I’m not advocating for punishment. I’m advocating for boundaries and wondering which of the categories above this fits under. Behavior Management? Safety?

  5. Dr. Mike Brooks

    I think you are right on there – that “boundaries” would fit under both “Behavior Management” and “Safety.” And the effectiveness of setting boundaries is nested within the greater context of the relationship. To the extent that we have a strong bond with our children, it makes it more likely that they will listen to us and be respectful of the boundaries we set. Over time, we are teaching our kids to develop a skill set that allows them to follow their own compass…and manage their own behavior and be safe.

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