Here’s a Little Quiz:
• Can you name all of your child’s teachers?
• Do you know who your child’s best friends are?
• Do you know what he is studying in school?
• Do you know what book she is reading (or if she even is reading)?
• Can you name some of your child’s favorite athletes, celebrities, movies, and music?
• If your child is a teenager, do you know how she spends her time after school, in the evenings, and on weekends?
• If your child has an allowance or works for pay, do you know how he spends his money?
• Do you know if your child is happy or sad, popular or lonely, anxious or untroubled?
If you can’t answer yes to these questions, you are not involved enough in your child’s life.
You need to fix this ASAP.
The strongest and most consistent predictor of children’s mental health, adjustment, happiness, and well-being is the level of involvement of their parents in their life. Children with involved parents do better in school, feel better about themselves, are less likely to develop emotional problems, and are less likely to take risks or get into trouble. There is nothing more important to your child’s psychological development than your deep and sustained involvement. This is true whether your child is an infant, a teenager, or at any point in between.
There is no getting around the fact that, in order to be involved, you have got to spend time with your child. It seems almost too obvious to point out, but I can assure you that I’ve known parents who spend so little time with their children that you really have to wonder why they became parents in the first place.
One of the reasons it’s important to spend time with your child is that you never know when he is going to open up and tell you about what’s going on in his life, and knowledge about your child’s life is the key to your involvement.
Parents often think that they can learn what they need to know by asking their child questions, but in reality, this only provides a partial picture. Your child is more likely to disclose what’s really important in a casual way, when the two of you are doing something together that may be entirely unrelated to what your child wants to tell you. Your son will tell you about a fight he had at school while you’re tucking him into bed at night, not when you ask him “What happened at school today?” You’ll learn about your daughter’s latest crush when the two of you are out shopping, not when you ask her how her social life is going. You’ll learn more about how your child is doing in school when you overhear a conversation while driving a group of friends to their soccer game than you will through direct questioning at the dinner table. But if you don’t tuck your child in, go on excursions to the mall together, or take your child and his friends to soccer games, you’ll miss these moments. So the more time you spend together, the better your chances of finding out what’s going on in your child’s life and the easier it will be to be involved. This is easier when children are younger, but if you give it some thought, I’m sure you can think of plenty of activities that will allow you to spend more time with your teenager.
It’s also important to be involved in your child’s life outside of the home. Go to your child’s basketball games, piano recitals, swimming meets, and school plays. When she looks out into the crowd, it will make her feel good to see your face, and you’ll want to be there to praise her when she’s done well or reassure her when she hasn’t. Make sure you have regular contact with your child’s teachers and attend the functions your child’s school puts on for parents. Make your house one of the places where your child and his friends hang out. The knowledge you gain will more than pay for the extra snacks and soft drinks you’ll have to stock in the cupboard.
Parenting is not a part-time endeavor. It’s not something you do only when you feel like it, or only when you remember to pay attention to your child, or only when your child is in some sort of trouble.
Committing yourself to be fully involved in your child’s life doesn’t mean you can’t have a career. It will probably mean, though, that you will have to work harder to be involved than a parent who is not employed outside the home. The key to using daycare and babysitters effectively is making sure that these aids permit you to be more involved when you are not at work, rather than falling into the trap of thinking that these care providers can substitute for your own commitment. Babysitting is not the same as parenting, and you should not expect it to be.
Being an involved parent takes time and is hard work, and it often means rethinking and rearranging your priorities. It frequently means sacrificing what you want to do for what your child needs you to do. It may mean skipping an unnecessary meeting at work or arranging an out-of-town business trip to be as brief as you can afford it to be. But it’s worth it. Your involvement in your child’s life will give him a legacy of psychological well-being that will last him his entire life.
If you talk to most parents with grown children, they will tell you that they feel as though their child’s childhood slipped by in a heartbeat. When your child is about to leave home as a young adult, you won’t say “I wish I had spent more time working.” You’ll wish you had been more involved when you had the chance.
Savor this stage of your child’s development. Get involved in your child’s life, and stay involved as your child grows up.
Get more tips on how to raise a happy, healthy child with The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting by Laurence Steinberg.
About the Author
Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., is the Distinguished University Professor and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, and his work has also appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Meet the author Dr. Laurence Steinberg.