What does it mean to be a "good parent"? The answers to that question are probably limitless — but the good news is that none of them involve money or status or the latest iPhone. Good parents come in all forms (and shapes, sizes, genders, colors, abilities, sexual orientations, you name it) — as do kids, of course. Each child needs something unique from their parent. But across the board, there are certain goals all parents can — and should — focus on to benefit their kids in the long run.
We asked family therapists — aka the people who spend their lives helping parents be the best parents they can be — how all parents can be good parents. Below, their top 10 tips.
Forget multitasking; the secret to getting shit done (when you have 27,000 things to do) as a parent is compartmentalizing, which in turn lets us really focus on our kids when they need us. This applies to all parents, whether you work or not, whether you have babies or school-age kids, whether you are with a partner or doing the parenting thing solo.
"Compartmentalizing means you focus on your children when they are with you — and it’s a safe bet you are already tending to their most important needs during that time — loving, feeding, supervision, etc.," explains clinical psychologist Melanie English. And when your kids aren't with you, compartmentalizing lets you focus on you and other tasks in your life — whether that's working, working out, paying bills, doing chores or anything else not directly involving your children. "Many of us long for our children when they aren’t with us, and that slows us down with our other tasks and expectations," says English. "Then — when our children are with us — we think of the other things we have to do: the lingering deadline, the unfolded laundry, the dinner prep, etc. Be the best at what you are doing when you are doing that thing. You are the best worker when you are working. You are the best chef when you are cooking. You are the best friend when you are with someone else, and you are the best parent when you are with your children."
2. Set limits
You are your child's parent, not their friend, and taking the soft approach to boundaries and discipline won't do your kid any favors in the long run. You're in this for the long haul, and you want to raise a child who will one day become a healthy adult — who knows how to treat people with respect. You can accomplish that by setting limits and disciplining your child without being punitive; the key is finding a balance, says licensed marriage and family therapist Carrie Krawiec. "A good parent is a healthy mix of warm and firm," she says. "The ratio of positive, encouraging parenting moments to firm, limit-setting moments should be 5-to-1."
It's natural to try to "fix" whatever is upsetting your kids — it's tough to see them angry, frustrated or sad. But rather than automatically trying to solve the problem (and thus change their emotions), a good parent will mirror those emotions. "That means reflecting back the feeling to the child so they know that they are seen and understood," explains clinical psychologist Natalie Feinblatt. "For example, if your small child is crying, instead of responding with, 'That's nothing to cry about!' or 'Let Mommy fix that for you,' a more mirroring response would be, 'I can see you're sad and upset. I'm sorry you feel that way. I'll be here with you until you start to feel better.'"
It's totally cool to want your kid to go to an Ivy League college or win America's Got Talent or find a cure for cancer — if you keep those dreams to yourself, that is, and accept that they may never come true. "Often, parents have preconceived notions about how they want their children to be and respond poorly when the child doesn't live up to those expectations," explains Feinblatt. "Things typically go much better for parent and child if the parent does their best to wait and see who their child turns out to be — and is then loving and accepting of that person."
5. Be flexible
If parents think of the notion of a "good parent" as something set in stone, they might actually find it harder to be the best parent they can be. There are very few absolutes in parenting. "A good parent is one who has a more flexible approach to parenting in order to take into account each child’s individual temperament and personality," says licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Racine R. Henry.
6. Make mistakes
All parents make mistakes. That doesn't make them bad parents. It's how you deal with those mistakes that matters. "I define a good parent as one who makes mistakes and knows how to talk about it with their children," says licensed marriage and family therapist Mallika Bush. "We rupture the trust of our children in various ways. Trying to be perfect is not the goal, actually. The most important lesson we can impart to our children is how to handle a rupture and what the process of repairing it feels like. This is actually what builds a stronger bond and greater trust in us."
If you're letting yourself make mistakes, you've got to let your kids make them too. A lot of them. "A good parent knows when to harp on things and when to let things go," says Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, licensed marriage and family therapist. "Amidst the structure of it all, a good parent understands that it’s OK to be silly, let things go and forgive mistakes over and over and over again. It’s the only way that kids can gain resilience and self-respect."
8. Be trustworthy
Parents provide wisdom and guidance, but in order for a child to accept this wisdom and guidance, the child has to trust the parent. So how does a parent establish trust? By being dependable, consistent and predictable," says licensed clinical social worker Lynn R. Zakeri. Plain and simple: Do what you said you were going to do or take responsibility when you don't. No surprises — from not showing up to showing up drunk. Be predictable. Kids like to know who you are and what to expect. Don't freak out over something one day and not even notice it another day. And be compassionate so that when things go wrong for your child, your child knows a safe ear and heart is right there."
9. Encourage independent thought
Your kids won't share your opinions about a lot of things, and that's a good thing. In fact, difference in thinking should be actively encouraged, says child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Mary Davis. "A good parent encourages their child to have thoughts and feelings different from the parent, shows interest in those thoughts and feelings and encourages independent thought."
10. Show love
It should go without saying that good parents are those who love their kids, but some people might struggle to show that love. "Parents should love their children unconditionally and show that to their children in a number of ways each and every day," says Dr. John DeGarmo, director of the Foster Care Institute. "Indeed, you can never say 'I love you,' to a child enough times. They need to and deserve to hear it several times a day. 'I love you,' reminds children that they are valuable, that they matter and that someone truly cares for them."
If we were writing a list of what a good parent is not, it would be just as long as this one. One thing worth mentioning is that a good parent isn't a perfect parent — because there's no such thing. Accept that, and you're a better parent already.