Do time-outs work? Should I set more rules, or encourage my kids to make their own choices? Should arguments be kept behind closed doors? We all want to be the best parents we can to our kids, and sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how to go about it. Opinions, advice, and I-swear-by-this-method stories are all very helpful in their own right. But what does science say about good parenting skills? Our understanding of good parenting has changed a lot over the past few decades, and for good reason — there’s been more and more research on effective (and not-so-effective) parenting skills. Without further adieu, we give you the top 10 successful parenting skills and the scientific verdict on if they actually work.
The Top 10 Parenting Skills
1: Give love and acceptance.
The number one thing parents should do for their kids: Provide a constant flow of quality time, support, physical affection, acceptance, and love. Experts agree that above all else, giving love and affection is the parenting skill most responsible for our children’s happiness. In fact, studies show that children raised in a loving, nurturing environment perform better at school and are more emotionally-developed than kids in non-nurturing environments.
Research suggests that showing love may even affect the size of your child’s brain and help to develop his memory. You’re probably wondering, How could that be possible? How could external actions have an effect on my child’s brain? According to Dr. Joan Luby, a psychiatrist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, we know for a fact that “the psychosocial environment has a material impact on the way the human brain develops.” A study by Luby and other WUSM researchers showed that a mother’s love had a physical effect on the size of her child’s hippocampus — the area of the brain responsible for memory. In the study, brain scans showed that the kids with loving, nurturing moms had 10% larger hippocampuses than kids whose mothers showed less affection. Conclusion: Loving and nurturing our kids may cause them to have a better memory later on, and help them perform well at school and in their relationships. Amazing!
2: Reward kids for efforts, not results.
We all want to see our kids win big! But too often, parents praise kids for excellent results rather than for excellent efforts. Effort and dedication is the part that your child can control. Child psychology experts encourage parents to reward good efforts, because it helps children come to see themselves as in control of their success or failure. Praising natural intelligence or skill does the opposite — it makes the child feel that his or her success is not in their control, and that there’s no hope of getting any better. Praising kids for a solid effort teaches them that even though things don’t always go as planned, it’s important to persist and improve.
Too much praise, however, can cause major problems. How, you ask? It’s actually very simple: Praising kids does motivate them… to receive more praise. If the only reason behind a child’s persistence is the reward, the effort will stop the moment the reward stops. Experts recommend praising intermittently – and keeping the substantial praise for tough times when the results don’t reflect how much heart and soul your child really put into it.
Another tip for how to praise: Be specific. Sheila Eyberg, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida who specializes in parent-child relationships, recommends providing “labeled praise” — specific feedback telling the child exactly what they did that the parent liked. Saying “Good job!” could never have the same effect as saying “I really love how patient and calm you were as you waited to hear your name be called.” Labeled praise is an excellent way to help hone your child’s behavior and jolt their memory the next time they’re in a similar situation — they’re highly likely to repeat the specific behavior you rewarded them for!
3: Put them to bed!
As parents, sleep deprivation just might be our specialty. But did you know that losing an hour of sleep here and there has a serious impact on your kids, too? We dug in to find recent research on children’s sleep patterns, and our findings were a little startling:
Losing one hour of sleep reduces the intelligence and focusing capabilities of a sixth-grader to that of a fourth-grader. Studies show that the performance gap from a sixth grader losing an hour of sleep is much larger than the gap between normal sixth- and fourth-graders. These findings suggest that a kid staying up too late can mean the equivalent to losing two years of cognitive development. Can you believe it? Now there’s something to whip out the next time a kid resists going to sleep 😉
Kids’ sleep issues can cause permanent problems. Science shows that sleep problems during younger years can permanently change a child’s brain structure — and that’s damage that you can’t just sleep off. In fact, some scientists theorize that the classic characteristics of being a teen (like moodiness, depression, even binge eating) might just be symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation during childhood.
Report cards and sleep patterns go hand in hand. Studies have shown that the grades kids get in school are directly correlated with their sleep patterns. One study of over 3000 high school students suggests that even getting a little more sleep — like 15 minutes on average — can have a huge impact on your child’s grades. The study’s results showed that teens who typically received A’s in school averaged about 15 more minutes of sleep per night than the B students, who averaged 15 more minutes than the C students, and so on. Who knew that averaging just 15 more minutes of sleep could have such a dramatic impact?
Our conclusion: If you want to do the right thing for your kids, get them to bed on time!
4: Reward kids for telling the truth — you don’t always know when they’re lying.
Hate to break it to you, but your “parent senses” may not always be on point. One study by Victoria Talwar, PhD, tested hundreds of parents to see if they could tell when their kids were lying. Their results? No better than chance. Parents simply can’t tell when their kids are lying.
So how can we get kids to tell the truth? It’s simple — reward nothing but the truth. Says Talwar, “Kids want to please you. Tell them that the truth makes you happy – not just the right answer — and you’re more likely to get the truth.” Talwar suggests telling your kids something along the lines of, “I will not be upset with you if you peeked, and if you tell the truth I will be very happy.” It may seem simple, but what you’re really offering your child by saying this is a double-whammy — immunity from punishment, and a clear route back to good standing. Young kids only lie because they’re trying to make their parents happy, so by telling your child that the truth will make you happy, you’re challenging the original thought that hearing good news (rather than the truth) will please you.
Talwar suggest one quick trick for getting kids to be honest: Asking for a promise. Say to your child, “I’m about to ask you a question. But before I do that, will you promise to tell the truth?” One of Talwar’s studies shows that asking for this promise of truth-telling automatically cuts lying down by at least 25%.
5: Set rules. Kids need them.
Studies have shown that parents who set ground rules and consistently enforce them were also the warmest parents – and their children lied less than most kids. “Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids,” says Dr. Nancy Darling of Penn State University. The key is to set a few rules over “certain spheres of influence,” explain in full why the rules are there, and expect your child to obey them. Over life’s other spheres, encourage your child’s autonomy (see #7) and allow them freedom to make their own decisions. Kids of these types of parents are consistently the most honest.
Setting too many rules, though, drives a child to boredom — and boredom can be a much bigger problem than anything that could have happened with fewer rules! Studies confirm the belief that teens turn to drinking and drugs because they’re bored in their free time. Even the really busy kids can suffer from boredom if their parents are highly controlling; a child may be involved in a huge amount of activities, but if these activities were the parents’ decision, there may be no intrinsic motivation to perform well in said activities. Kids who are accustomed to their parents filling their free time won’t know how to fill it on their own. Bottom line: Keep a healthy balance between making and enforcing rules, but don’t forget to let your child make their own decisions, too.
6: Don’t be afraid to fight in front of your kids — as long as you resolve the argument in front of them, too.
We’ve all heard that fighting in front of children is a big no-no. But research suggests that fighting in front of kids can actually be highly valuable for them — as long as the argument is resolved. When kids see an argument start and end, they learn a lesson in conflict resolution. The argument gives them an example of how to compromise and reconcile — a lesson lost for kids whose parents argue behind closed doors. The verdict: Arguing in front of the kids can actually be a good thing, as long as the argument is resolved. And we mean a genuine reconciliation. If you fake making peace for their benefit, kids will see right through it.
There’s some amazing research to back up the idea that witnessing conflict can be good for kids, so long as there’s a resolution. In one study, one-third of kids reacted aggressively after witnessing a staged conflict; these kids shouted, got angry, or punched a pillow. But in the second round of the study, something happened that eliminated the angry reaction in all but 4% of the kids. What was this magical difference? In the second round, the staged argument included a complete and genuine resolution.
The researchers experimented with varied intensities of arguments (some of them got pretty intense), and it didn’t matter; no matter how bad the fight was, as long as there was a resolution, kids were totally calmed. Science also suggests that being exposed to conflict resolution improves a child’s sense of security over time, and increased their pro-social behavior at school. These findings illustrate that being exposed to constructive marital conflict can be good for children, as long as it doesn’t escalate, insults are avoided, and the child witnesses an affectionate make-up.
7: Do time-outs right – or not at all.
Time-outs can be just about the most ineffective method of correcting behavior if they’re done incorrectly — which they often are. For that reason, some experts have recommended banning time-outs altogether. But most experts remain in favor of the timeless time-out tactic, as long as parents do their part to really understand what works about a time-out and how to do it correctly. This often means a complete overhaul of the way time-outs are used at home. If you’re one of the many people who think that a proper time-out looks like a chair in a corner, you’re in for a surprise!
What a time-out should be: A break from attention
Let’s start with what a time-out isn’t: “Time-out isn’t a chair; it isn’t a corner; it’s not a length of time,” says pediatrics professor Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., of Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO. “It’s supposed to be time-out from positive reinforcement.” Simply put, time-out is supposed to be a break in a parent’s interaction with a child. The purpose of the pause is to allow the child a chance to practice self-calming skills. As soon as the concept of a time-out becomes a chair, says Christophersen, the time-out is ruined.
Use as few words as possible…
“Time out. No hitting. Hitting hurts.” Using as few words as possible is the most effective way to introduce your child to a time-out. Start with a super-short withdrawal of your attention (around 5 seconds) and repeat the process as necessary, adding a few seconds each time. “The key is to completely ignore your child,” says family doctor Burt Banks, M.D. “A lot of misbehavior in children is done to get attention. Scolding gives them the attention they are seeking,” so verbally berating kids is pretty much the worst thing you can do when you’re trying to enforce a time-out period.
…Or no words at all
When it comes to time-out, sometimes no words are needed. “I’m not going to play with you until you stop that” is a message you can send in a lot of different ways, depending on the child’s age. Moving away, or simply looking away, for a small amount of time can be enough to give your child the opportunity to pause and take control of his own behavior.
Don’t stress about time limits
You may have heard the rule, “One minute of time-out for each year of age.” As it turns out, this rule is meant to be a guide to maximum time-out time — not a hard-and-fast rule. The whole point of a time-out is to “give a child a break from a situation that overwhelmed him into unacceptable behavior,” says Christophersen. “The sooner the child can get back in charge of his emotions and join the rest of his family, the better. If that turns out to be 45 seconds or even less, that’s fine.”
Additionally, a quick ending is key to a successful time-out. The moment a child regains composure is the moment they should be welcomed back into the household social circle. Says Barbara Howard, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, “Look for that first relaxation — then quickly get your child out of time-out and move her on to something else.”
Nix the Chair
A designated time-out chair can be helpful for kids who need physical space to regain self-control. But for most kids, says Christophersen, the chair is not necessary. Sitting down in a chair isn’t a hardship, and it shouldn’t be treated like one. The only discomfort a child should feel from time-out is the total absence of your attention, which is plenty distressing on its own.
8: Empower your kids by letting them make decisions.
Down with parental dictatorship! Research shows that kids do better when they have a noteworthy say in their own lives. A recent study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies suggests that promoting kids’ autonomy can have some serious benefits. For this study, University of Montreal researchers visited 75 moms and their toddlers when the kids were 15 months old and 3 years old. Researchers gave the kids somewhat tricky, game-like tasks and told the moms to help the kids figure it out. The goal was to measure to what extent moms would help their kids with the tasks while still encouraging the kids’ autonomy and own abilities.
During the follow-up visit (3 years old), kids with moms who had encouraged their children’s autonomy showed better levels of cognitive functioning — specifically, the kids were more adept at processing “higher” thinking like delayed gratification and juggling multiple concepts. What does this mean for parents? Encouraging kids to solve problems on their own will very much help them in their future endeavors — something to keep in mind the next time you’re ready to throw in the towel and show them which block goes where yourself! 😉
One great way to encourage autonomy in your child is by allowing them to pick their own punishments. By saying something like, “Okay, you broke the rules and now it’s time to pick a punishment. Would you rather lose TV time tonight, or do two extra chores?”, you’re allowing your child to feel more in control of the situation which may help reduce backlash. This dichotomy works especially great for younger kids who are resistant to certain daily activities. “It’s time to put on your shoes” may be met with a firm “NO!” But something like, “Would you like to wear your green shoes, or your pink shoes?” will often result in some hard thinking and a thoughtful response: “…Pink shoes!” Ahhh… the relief.
9: Live by example.
How many times have you told off your child for something they did wrong, only to hear, “But mommy gets to do it!” or “But daddy gets to do it!” Kids are constantly looking to their parents for real-life examples of how to behave. This is the basic principle behind the “take care of yourself” mantra. Kids will learn valuable life skills by watching how you go about your own life — and they’re sure to emulate. Living by example is a pretty big concept with a lot of different behavior areas, so we broke it down into sections:
Life Skills: Encouraging your child to work hard will only go so far if they see that you aren’t doing that. If you work hard to provide for your child, if you plan for the future, and if you model responsibility, self-motivation, and communication, you’re doing a great job at modeling important life skills to your child.
Relationships: Research shows that a top prediction of a child’s happiness is how well they perceive their parents to get along. It’s important to maintain a good relationship with your child’s other parent — especially if the parent is an ex. Children inherently want to see their parents getting along, and suffer when they don’t. It’s also important to model effective relationship skills in front of your kids, like resolving an argument (see #6) and giving verbal support and affection. The way a child’s parents treat one another is constantly being filed and stored away, and they’ll surely emulate that behavior in the future — for better or for worse.
Stress management: Interestingly enough, studies show that the parents’ ability to manage stress is the second biggest indicator of children’s happiness — second only to how much love and affection the child receives (see #1). When parents are stressed and consistently showing it, kids are sure to suffer (and experience the stress themselves). Model a positive outlook on life no matter what goes wrong, and make use of stress reduction techniques for both you and your children.
10: Spend an hour each week with your child, with your attention devoted to nothing but him or her.
All too often, the one-on-one time parents spend with their kids each week is just whatever time is left over after life’s obligations are fulfilled. Says David J. Palmiter Jr., PhD, a practitioner in Clarks Summit, Pa., and author of the 2011 book Working Parents, Thriving Families, “We often treat our relationships—which are like orchids—like a cactus, and then when inevitably the orchid wilts or has problems, we tend to think that there’s something wrong with the orchid.” Translation: Our relationships with our children need a lot of specific TLC and one-on-one care, not just what we have to spare when life is done taking up the rest of our time.
Palmiter recommends that each parent (both Mom and Dad) spend at least one hour a week of uninterrupted time with each child, doing nothing but paying full attention and expressing positive thoughts towards him or her. This hour can be all at once or in segments — doesn’t matter as long as the focus is 100% on building the child up and praising them for the great things they do. And according to Palmiter, adding this hour of special time in addition to other quality time spent with the kids is the way to go. Many families have reported back to Palmiter that adding on this hour of undivided attention each week has greatly improved their parent-child relationships.
There you have it — the top 10 parenting skills and each one’s related scientific research. Do they really work? Our verdict is: yes, they do. Plenty of child psychology studies show that these skills, like offering love and affection and encouraging autonomy, have some great benefits for kids and often help them later in life.
Which of the findings above did you think were the most interesting? Leave us a comment and let us know!