How to be a Better Parent

This information will help guide you in using your greatest strengths–your love for your children, your concern for their well-being and skills you already have–to help keep your children away from drugs and other kinds of problem behaviors. If you learn just one new way to communicate with your child it may be the most important thing you do today.

Click the buttons to page through tips and methods to use in your critical role as parents.

Yes, You Can

When David entered middle school, I was scared to death.

What can Jessica say when her teenage friends pressure her? I don’t know what to tell her.

I wouldn’t know what to do if I suspected Keisha was getting high. She’s only twelve.

When we parents talk about our children, we voice some of our greatest fears and concerns. With good reason. The education our children are getting in school is often not as influential or far-reaching as the “street education” they get from their peers and popular culture. They get news and entertainment not only from movies and TV, but from videos, CDs, billboards, magazines, websites and chat rooms–information sources and formats that didn’t even exist a generation ago.

Even the lyrics piped into clothing store dressing rooms can reinforce the impression that sex, drugs, drinking and smoking are glamorous activities, or–even more worrisome–a normal, expected part of growing up.

blue-two-facesSo what can parents do? Schools, churches and law enforcement can certainly help. But no one can replace the family. Actively preventing risky behavior lets our children know that we care, that we are the kind of parents they want us to be (even though they may not always show it).

As parents, we have a powerful influence on the choices our children make. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that teenagers who reported feeling close to their families were the least likely to engage in any of the risky behaviors studied, which included drinking and smoking marijuana or cigarettes. This finding supports what a majority of parents believe: that we can teach our children to regard drugs and other anti-social behavior as serious concerns–and that we can influence our children’s decisions.

Laying the Groundwork

Once your children begin to talk, it’s not long before their questions follow. “Why is the grass green?” soon gives way to “What’s wrong with that man sitting in the park?” If you show your child that you’re ready to give honest answers at any time–even when the subject makes you uncomfortable–you’ll forge a trusting relationship. Your children will come to you with their concerns because they know you take them seriously.

mother-childBeing a good listener gives you insight into your children’s world–the sights and sounds that influence them every day. Since they’re the experts about fashions, music, TV and movies, ask them what music groups are popular and what their songs are about. What their friends like to do after school. What’s cool and what’s not and why. Encourage them with phrases such as “That’s interesting” or “I didn’t know that” and by asking follow-up questions.

In these conversations you can steer the talk to social problems: drugs, sex, drinking and smoking. If you can communicate your values to your children before they’re faced with difficult decisions, experts say they’ll be more likely to make the right choices. By introducing these topics you’re not “putting ideas into their heads”–any more than talking about traffic safety might make them want to jump in front of a car. You’re simply letting them know about potential dangers in their environment–so that when they’re confronted with them they’ll know what to do.

With families juggling the multiple demands of work, school, after-school activities and religious and social commitments, it can be a challenge for parents and children to be in the same place at the same time. It helps to plan for togetherness.

Weekly family meetings at a time everyone has agreed on provide a regular forum for discussing accomplishments, complaints, projects, discipline questions and any topic of concern to any family member. Ground rules: Everyone gets a chance to talk; one person talks at a time without interruption; and only positive, constructive feedback is allowed. To get a rebellious child to go along with the idea, try an incentive like pizza after the meeting, or assign him an important role such as taking the official notes.

Getting together with your children at set times eliminates the need for constant planning and gives each child personal time with you to count on. Try taking the long way home from school every Tuesday and getting ice cream. Or make Saturday visits to the library together. Even a few minutes of conversation while you’re cleaning up after dinner or right before bedtime keeps open the channels of communication and helps establish common values.


Setting Clear Rules

Research has shown that young people are three times more likely to use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs if their parents don’t set clear rules about them. But to make these rules stick, it’s vitally important to get your children used to obeying established rules about basic daily activities early on. Keep your list of house rules short–just enough to be sure that children are finishing homework, doing chores and staying involved with friends who are good influences.

At the same time that you set up the rules, it’s important to establish specific consequences for breaking them, penalties that aren’t too harsh but fit the seriousness of the violation. Hesitating to punish small infractions only teaches children that rules don’t have to be followed. If you wait for major misbehavior, you may be too late. Avoid arguing and criticizing when you impose a consequence. Ignore any negative reactions that follow–sulking or shouting, for instance.

mom-with-report-cardHouse Rules

  1. Don’t go to a friend’s house–or invite friends to your house–when there are no adults around.
  2. Finish homework before watching TV.
  3. Complete chores before going out with friends.
  4. Be home by set curfew.
  5. Call if you’re going to be late or if you go somewhere other than planned.

…and the consequences of breaking them

  • Removal of a privilege for a day (because you didn’t feed the cat).
  • Staying home Friday night (because you didn’t come home on time Tuesday).
  • Grounding from social activities for two weeks (because you were smoking).
  • Making a two-minute speech at the next family meeting on specific ways to regain family trust.

Don’t worry that your rules will alienate your children. They want you to show that you care enough to set rules and go to the trouble of enforcing them. Rules about what’s acceptable and expected–from curfews to callins– make children feel loved and secure. And rules about drugs give them something to fall back on when they feel tempted to make unwise decisions–a reason to say, “No, thanks.”

The Power of Praise and Rewards

Praising and rewarding our children’s behavior helps them develop strengths and interests that leave little room for drinking, smoking, sex, drugs and crime. When we emphasize what our children do right instead of focusing on what’s wrong, they learn to feel good about themselves, and they develop self-confidence.

It’s never too early to start the habit of praise. Whenever possible, for instance, let a young child select what to wear and praise the choice. Even if the clothes don’t quite match, you are reinforcing your child’s ability to make decisions. If a child’s tower of blocks collapses, play together until you turn the frustrating situation into a confidence-building success. When school starts, praise and encouragement can help improve academic performance, which is a much better way of gaining self-esteem than involvement in risky behavior.

What to Say

parkInstead of being vague or general (“You are certainly a smart boy”), direct your praise at specific acts:

  • “You got a B on the social studies test. Good job.”
  • “Mrs. Royce said you helped bring her groceries in. That was very thoughtful.”
  • “What you told me about the Civil War was interesting. I didn’t know that.”
  • “That’s a cool outfit you’re wearing. Nobody puts clothes together the way you do.”
  • “I saw you shooting baskets with Angel. No wonder he looks up to you.”

What to DO

  • Set up a small reward for every time children call in to let you know where they are.
  • Let children stay up a little longer if they complete their homework before dinner or some other agreed-on time.
  • Allow your child to invite a friend to sleep over on a weekend if they obey the rule about never having friends over without an adult present.
  • Make home displays of schoolwork and art projects for family and friends to see.

personRewards can help middle school kids get in the habit of doing some things they may not want to do–such as getting off to school on time, calling in if they’re going to be late or change plans, and doing homework before watching TV.Teens, in particular, respond to praise and encouragement when they do something well or make positive choices. When you are proud of your son or daughter, say so. Knowing that they are noticed and appreciated by the adults in their lives can strengthen teens’ abilities to resist peer pressure, and knowing that a younger sister or brother is looking to them to set an example can be important, too.

Staying Actively Involved

friendsThe more involved you are in the daily lives of your children, the more likely they are to do well in school and get along with friends. You’ll also feel more in touch with them, and better able to recognize trouble when it crops up. Getting more involved means finding activities to do regularly with your child that the two of you enjoy. It doesn’t have to take money or a lot of time.

In fact, brief, meaningful activities each day are probably best.

Activities To Share

  • Playing cards
  • Cooking or crafts projects
  • Playing video or board games
  • Doing jigsaw puzzles
  • Going to the movies
  • Following a sports team
  • Playing sports
  • Hiking, fishing or camping
  • Surfing the net

With young children at home, set aside regular time to give your son or daughter your full, sole attention. Get on the floor and play with him; learn about her likes and dislikes; tell them that you love them. You will build strong bonds of trust and affection that will make it easier for you to steer them away from risky behavior in the years ahead.

child-word-bubbleWhat Else To Do

  • Get to know your children’s friends by taking them to and from afterschool activities, games, the library and movies.
  • Invite your children’s friends to join your family for special outings or events.
  • Volunteer for school activities like dances or trips where you can observe your children with their peers.
  • Put your television and computer where you can keep an eye on what your children are seeing. (You may want to set up viewing guidelines.) Also familiarize yourself with their favorite radio stations, CDs and tapes.
  • Since listening to music is a favorite activity, you’ll want to know (and be able to explain) any questionable messages they’re hearing.
  • Familiarize yourself with the policies and education programs regarding alcohol and drug use at your child’s school. Read any materials given out.
  • Make sure your children are well versed in the reasons to avoid alcohol, tobacco, drugs and sex. Waiting for them to bring up the subjects may mean being too late. In a recent poll, for example, two-thirds of fourth graders said that they wished their parents would talk more with them about drugs.

When children enter middle school or junior high, they’re suddenly little fish in a big pond, and they want to fit in. At this time, your children may make you feel you embarrass them in front of their peers. But at the very time they are pulling away from you to establish their own identities, they actually need you to be more involved than ever.

Parental Monitoring

You don’t trust me… .

I do love you and trust you, but I don’t trust the world around you, and I need to know what’s going on in your life so I can be a good parent to you.

Monitoring what your children do is an important way to keep your children out of trouble. What is monitoring? It’s knowing where your children are, what they are doing during and after school and talking with them about it each day. Why does it work? It helps your children succeed in school and with friends, while allowing you to guide them away from trouble.

parent-child-parkWhat to do

  • Talk with your children about what happened in school today: assignments, tests, friends and problems.
  • Know where your children are after school and whom they’re with.
  • Have your children call you to let you know where they are.
  • Check that chores are completed.
  • Ask to see school assignments before they’re handed in–and after they’re returned.
  • Talk with teachers about your children’s academic and social progress.
  • Bring refreshments to your children and their friends when they come over so you can keep an eye on them.
  • Keep in touch with the parents of your children’s friends so you can reinforce each others’ efforts.

When You Can’t Be There Yourself

Leaving children without adult supervision is an open invitation to all kinds of experimentation, especially once middle school begins. What helps: having these practices in place before then.

  • Arrange to have your children looked after and occupied between the end of school and the time you get home. Encourage them to get involved with supervised youth groups, arts, music, sports, community service and academic clubs.
  • Make sure that children who are unattended for periods during the day feel your presence. Give them a schedule and set limits on their behavior. Assign household chores. Enforce a strict phone-in-to-you policy. Leave notes for them around the house. Provide easy-to-find snacks.
  • Call parents whose home is to be used for a party. Make sure you agree with their rules for behavior.
  • Make it easy for your children to leave any place where they feel uncomfortable. Discuss in advance how to contact you or another adult to get a ride home and be home when they get there.