Every person on this earth exists at the end of a sturdy, unbroken chain of ancestral parentage that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. In that vast expanse of time, you can imagine our ancestors have seen and solved every version of every parenting problem imaginable. And yet, with all that experience and success, if there’s one thing that has come to define modern parenting it’s the nagging insecurity that we don’t really know what we’re doing a lot of the time.
We know we’re doing our best, but we don’t know if our best is good enough, so we look anywhere and everywhere for the latest and greatest in parenting advice. This has become a problem. Because much of modern parenting advice ignores or takes for granted the hard-won wisdom of our ancestors in favor of ever-changing, trend-driven, issue-specific tricks and hacks that, like so much other advice out there, treat the symptoms instead of the underlying cause.
In this article, we’re going to cover the best parenting tips of all time, and in the process learn that the best parenting advice does exactly the opposite of what modern advice so often does. The best parenting tips solve problems at their root, and because of that, the advice applies equally regardless of age or gender or race or socioeconomic status. This advice is grounded in the lessons of human history and the wisdom of the ancients. It invokes timeless philosophical principles and practical insights that will not only make you the best possible parent but also help you raise your kids into the people they are destined to become.
How to Become a Better Parent First
The dream of every parent is to live long enough to attend their kids’ college graduation parties, their wedding receptions, the births of their grandchildren, and for their kids to stand up in one of those moments to say you were the best parent they could have ever wished for and that they only hope they can live up to your example. We all want to be the kind of parent who receives this kind of love and appreciation. And if we’re being honest, we want to know all the things we can do for our kids that will not only set them up for success but also, hopefully, create these kinds of moments in the future.
The reality though, is that the best thing you can do to become a better parent, to become the kind of parent you can be proud of and your kids can admire, has nothing to do with the things you do for your kids and everything to do with what you do for yourself.
The core tenet of Stoicism is that we do not control what happens to us, we only control how we respond to what happens. If you were to port that idea over directly into parenting, you might say that as parents, we don’t control what our kids do, we only control how we respond to them—which is to say that the only thing fully within our command is how we choose to raise them and what kind of example we set for them.
That all might sound self-evident and maybe a little simplistic, but raising your kids well and being the kind of example that produces great kids is incredibly difficult if you don’t have your house in order first. If you’re constantly reactive. If you’re chronically over-tired. If you’re physically unhealthy. If you’re struggling with addictions and psychological issues. If you’re worried more about what your neighbors think than about being on the same philosophical page as your partner. These things stand in the way of great parenting, no matter how good your intentions are, because they are corrupted filters that affect how you receive and perceive the world.
Imagine your life as a long hike through the woods to a beautiful, peaceful meadow. Imagine parenting as your attempt to help your kids take that same hike to their own meadow some day. Now imagine that you walked the last half of your path wearing glasses with a pair of lenses that are the wrong prescription. The world you end up describing to your kids, the one you attempt to sear into their minds with the best of intentions, will look nothing like the world they actually encounter and will very likely get them lost through no fault of their own.
To be a better parent–to be the best parent possible–you need to shed yourself of the things holding you back. You need to clear and focus the lenses through which you engage the world. Only then, once your own house is in order, can parenting tips (even the best parenting tips of all time) be useful to you and effective for them.
Top 10 Parenting Tips of All Time
The best advice is always the simplest, easiest to remember stuff that applies across time, throughout your life. That is never more true than with parenting advice. Indeed, the best parenting tips of all time have that one feature in common. They are timeless ideas that are relevant to your relationship with your kids no matter how old they, or you, are.
1) Stop focusing on quality time vs. garbage time. All time is quality time.
You’ll often hear parents talking to each other about the need to find more “quality time” with their kids. It’s a strange phrase, if you think about it, because it implies three unhelpful things: 1) that there is this particular type of time that is out there somewhere for you to get; 2) that there is a kind of undefinable hierarchy of time where one kind is less valuable than the other; and 3) that maybe somehow the time or experiences you—the busy, ordinary, doing-the-best-you-can parent—give your kids is not enough.
The reality is no one minute is inherently more valuable than another…and you’re in control of all of them! And because of that, every moment you spend with your kids can be a quality moment. You don’t need to wait for the annual boys camping trip or the family vacation or a “special day” to listen to them, to be open with them, to share with them, to teach them. In fact, you shouldn’t wait for those kind of planned events because that kind of thing puts you at risk of not paying attention, not listening, not being open or present on all those other days.
Those other days, what is sometimes called ‘garbage time’, have the same value as the days deemed quality time–because they are equal opportunities for formative, quality interactions with your kids.
The comedian Jerry Seinfield, who has three teenage kids, has talked about this a lot when he’s asked about parenting. In his opinion, every day is special. Every minute can be quality time:
“I’m a believer in the ordinary and the mundane. These guys that talk about ‘quality time’ – I always find that a little sad when they say, ‘We have quality time.’ I don’t want quality time. I want the garbage time. That’s what I like. You just see them in their room reading a comic book and you get to kind of watch that for a minute, or [having] a bowl of Cheerios at 11 o’clock at night when they’re not even supposed to be up. The garbage, that’s what I love.”
Your job is not to curate every minute of your kids’ lives so that everything they experience is “meaningful” and “important” and “edifying” according to some set of criteria that they were not a part of selecting. That creates a level of expectation that inevitably leads to disappointment—yours and theirs. Your fundamental job is much simpler than that. It’s to be there. It’s to help them see that quality is what we make it, and that it’s always within our reach if we so choose.
Eating cereal together can be wonderful. Blowing off school for a fun day together can be wonderful—but so can the twenty-minute drive to school, stuck in traffic, looking out at their hometown through the car window. So can taking out the garbage or watching a garbage truck meander through the neighborhood.
All time with your kids is created equal. What you do with it is what makes it special and gives it that quality we’re all wishing for from our interactions with our kids. As soon as you realize that, the opportunities for meaningful moments become more abundant and your relationship with your kids becomes richer.
Think about that tomorrow as you start your day, and make a point of grabbing those little moments in between the big events of the day, and being present with your kids. Then do the same thing again the next day.
2) Get Help
When you look at successful people with kids, whether they’re CEOs or athletes or artists, it’s very easy to find yourself marveling at how they do it and wondering what is wrong with you by comparison. But there’s nothing special about these people. It’s not magic that makes them successful. It’s just help.
Great CEOs have great employees.
Great coaches have a great staff.
Great writers have great editors and publicists.
And great parents have nannies and tutors and cleaners and gardeners and house managers. They have chiefs of staff. They have personal assistants. They have personal trainers. They have subject matter experts who are members of their village.
They do this because when you hire help, what you are really buying is more time, which is one of the best investments you can make in raising great kids. A while back, the New York Times profiled Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, a couple who focus on the economics of happiness and family life. One of their important findings is that one of the most happiness-maximizing investments you can make is paying for help. Whether it’s help in cleaning the house, maintaining your yard, or babysitting your kids, a dollar spent on help is one of the wisest things you can do in terms of bang for your buck.
Now, what many of these high flyers and elite performers are able to afford is not really possible for most of us. But the point of talking about all this is not to make you jealous or feel inadequate, it’s to nudge you into following in their footsteps with the understanding that there are creative ways to hire help and buy time.
We’ve talked to thousands of parents from all walks of life and many of them have found relatively inexpensive solutions that have given them back hours if not days that they get to spend with their kids. This is just a short list of examples:
- Hire someone to clean all the bathrooms every other week.
- Use a meal service two nights per week
- Sign up for a delivery service like Shipt
- Buy a robot vacuum cleaner and/or lawn mower
- Hire someone from a service like Taskrabbit to do difficult/tedious chores
What we’re talking about here is nothing lavish or outlandish like a full house staff of butlers and nannies and housekeepers (though that must be nice!). What we’re looking at are the things on your daily/weekly/monthly to-do list that almost always steal your free time on the weekends and that could more easily be done (and possibly much better) by someone or something else. Things that might make your house cleaner, not necessarily more full of love. Think about how much more present you could be for your kids if there was less of that stuff on your plate!
Surely there are things you are doing that you don’t have to do, that you could afford to pay someone to do for you. Think about all the things that are on your plate, all the things you’re worried about, all the things you rush around doing right now. Figure out what you can afford and apply it to whichever of those things you hate doing the most, either because they are tedious, exhausting, or they happen at times you would rather be with your family.
“Only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all,” as Greg McKeown writes in Essentialism, “can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
Behind every successful company or team or book or movie was a team of people who contributed in a major way toward success. It is the same for families, for parents, for children. They all have a team of people–a village–who contributed in a major way to their development.
Make a list of the things you hate to do or don’t need to do. Then find your people (or robots). Create that village of subject matter experts. Get help.
3) Develop routines and systems—for them and for you
Have you ever heard the saying that “kids crave structure”? The idea is that the world is a big, scary, unfamiliar place, especially when you’re young, and solid structure helps to take a lot of the uncertainty and anxiety out of day to day life for them. Structure provides security, safety, reliability. When kids act out often it’s not in rebellion against these routines and systems that parents impose, but rather it’s a reaction to a lack of them—things like bedtimes, mealtimes, behavioral boundaries, disciplinary expectations, etc.
It’s a great piece of advice, as much for parents as for kids, if not more so.
Many of us have chaotic lives. Some nights we turn in early, other nights we stay up until the wee hours. Some days we go out for a huge brunch and take a nap afterwards, other days we skip a meal, or eat an energy bar in the car. Maybe you have a job that provides some kind of 9-to-5 structure—but in the gig economy, and especially after the pandemic, that kind of structure is a lot less common than it was in our parents’ generation.
If this arrangement has worked for you up to this point, that’s great. But it’s not going to last. Flying by the seat of your pants is going to end up putting you on your ass, and that’s the last thing you want if your goal is to be a great parent. Adding structure to your life, however, will make your life exponentially easier, and it will give you the time, space and energy to put everything you have into the hard work of becoming that great parent.
This doesn’t need to be complicated, either. You can start simple. Consider a daily routine built around the things you know you’re going to do and the things you want to make sure you get done. Here’s a quick example:
Wake up at __________
Breakfast at __________
Lunch at __________
Dinner at __________
Go to the gym at __________
Read for 30 minutes at __________
Go to bed at ________
You know these things are going to happen in your day. If you know when they’re going to happen as well–-if you decide–-then they become tentpoles in your day that you can build a dynamic, robust life around for yourself and your kids.
LeBron James is one of the most committed, routine-based athletes of the modern era. He watches his caloric intake at every meal and is absolutely religious about getting 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night. A routine that includes the perfect room temperature, total darkness, no electronic devices and soothing white noise. If you’re wondering how LeBron’s body has held up so well over nearly 20 seasons in the NBA, that consistency is a huge part of it.
While it’s no 82-game season against the world’s greatest athletes, parenting is going to be one of the most physically and mentally demanding things you’ve ever done. It’s a marathon comprised of a million little sprints, with a high wire act and an endless series of psychological tests added in for good measure. The best way–we would argue, the only way–to win this race, to pass this test, is to build consistency into as much of your life as possible, ideally from the very beginning. That’s because creating structure sets major daily decisions on autopilot, and the more you can reduce decision fatigue (which increases stress and anxiety), the more mental energy you have to flexibly and creatively adapt to all of the curveballs parenthood throws at you.
It doesn’t end there, however. There is a systemization layer beyond routine that is invaluable to anyone with limited bandwidth who wants to be more productive or have more time to dedicate to being a great parent. You could call that layer ‘automation.’
Tim Ferriss’s multi-million bestselling book, The 4-Hour Workweek (If you haven’t read it, many of the principles and techniques Tim lays out apply as much to parenting as any other occupation), is structured around his DEAL system. And the A in DEAL is for Automation. Some two thousand years before The 4-Hour Workweek, in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talked about how automation was the recipe for being happy and effective. And the fact that it came from a father of 14 should not be forgotten. “If you seek tranquility,” he wrote, “do less.” And then he follows the note to himself with some clarification. Not nothing, less. Do only what’s essential. “Which brings a double satisfaction,” he writes “to do less, better.”
Some people hire an accountant or a financial advisor to handle their retirement and savings accounts. Just as easily, you can use the automation features in something like Wealthfront (highly recommend!).
Some people never have to cook because they have a personal chef. Just as easily, you can stock up on a week’s or month’s worth of ready-to-eat meals, or do all your meal prep for the week on the Sunday before.
Some people complain about what a pain their inbox is to manage. Just as easily they can set up filters and folders or use tools that block their spam or unsubscribe them from marketing emails.
Some people spend hours a month opening mail, paying bills and doing administrative paperwork. Just as easily they can sign up for paperless billing, or auto-schedule payments.
Almost everything we do as parents—as responsible adults in the world—is set up inefficiently. By first eliminating the inessential, and second improving our systems with routines and automation, we buy ourselves time and energy, and then with this time and energy we are able to be better parents. A double satisfaction.
Spend tonight building your routine for tomorrow. Use the rough template we included above. Use the notes function on your phone. Use a journal. It doesn’t matter. Just commit to building a routine and systems for yourself. Start now.
4) Set Family Boundaries Early
The comedian Jim Gaffigan observed how strange the term “in-law” is.
Are you related?
Uh, legally, in a court of law.
Are you in love?
Yes, no, well, we’re in law.
Your in-laws, Gaffigan jokes, are a family you’re assigned. You decide you want to spend your life with a person but then you have to take ten or twenty other people too. And regardless of how well you get along with your partner’s family, there’s no way around the fact that merging two families is complicated.
Another comedian, Sebastian Maniscalco, talks about this too. He and his wife had totally different upbringings. His wife came from money that afforded a certain kind of lifestyle, Sebastian…did not. His dad worked so much, Sebastian once joked, that he thinks he was formally introduced to his father at his high school graduation.
Sebastian’s parents’ reality and his wife’s parents’ reality were worlds apart. Their experiences and perceptions of how involved the extended family could and should be were worlds apart. When these two families merged, and when Sebastian and his wife began having kids, we can imagine the range of expectations their respective in-laws had was not totally harmonious.
The same is true for you. Your extended family and your partner’s extended family are not going to be on the same exact page. Everyone has different experiences, perceptions, and expectations. Everyone has different thoughts and beliefs about what it means to have a grandson or granddaughter, niece or nephew—whatever their relationship is to your son or daughter. Everyone is operating from different assumptions about what is and isn’t ok.
They think when they just show up unannounced that it’s a pleasant surprise. You feel like it’s disrespectful.
They think that showering your child with toys is what a loving grandparent does. You worry that it’s spoiling them.
They think booking you flights to visit them on the other side of the country is a gift. You can’t begin to express how much you do not want to travel cross-country with a toddler.
The basic requirements of good parenting are already a heavy lift for a busy person. These contentious and oftentimes confusing moments will continue throughout your children’s lives and make your job incalculably more difficult if you don’t set boundaries early and enforce them consistently. If you don’t tell all those involved: this is what we are trying to accomplish, this is the kind of person we are trying to raise, so this is what we need from you, these are the rules (for example)…
- You have to call—no dropping in unannounced.
- Must be vaccinated and wear a mask until the kids are vaccinated
- No kissing the baby
- No politics
- No smoking in or around the house.
- Ask us before purchasing them anything.
- Ask us about sharing photos.
- No countermanding our rules.
Come up with rules for your extended families in collaboration with your partner. More important than what the house rules are is that you and your partner agree on them. If you two aren’t on the same page, how can you expect the ten or twenty in-laws to be?
You can’t. So sit down with your partner tonight or this weekend and set your family’s boundaries. Come up with the rules that everyone will have to live by.
5) Be patient and get down on their level
Life is filled with difficult, frustrating people. Few of us are able to be successful without patience and empathy. In fact, most people who are great at what they do are great precisely because they are able to connect with and understand even the most difficult and frustrating characters among us.
Angela Merkel’s father was a pastor in East Germany. He was beloved by his flock. He forged a deep bond with them over many years. “My father was good at approaching people and getting them to talk,” his daughter would reflect with admiration many years later.
But at home? At home things were a little different. There, he was stern and impatient. “What really made me angry as a child was his way of showing so much understanding for everyone else,” she said less fondly, “but if we children did something wrong, his reaction was completely different.”
Clearly he was capable of being understanding and kind—he did it all day, everyday as part of his job. But maybe that was the problem: he’d used up all his patience at work and had none left for his family when he got home. Or maybe he held himself to a different standard professionally than personally, because it wasn’t in public. Or maybe he made the mistake that many of us do, forgetting that our children are little people, with the same kinds of problems as everyone else, just a different size.
The mistake, though, is not so much that we forget that their problems are a different size and shape, but that we forget our responses to them need to be a different size and shape as well. When an adult is losing control of their emotions, we can try to talk them down, and explain reasonably and logically that they’re okay, that everything will be fine. When a toddler or a young child has a tantrum or seems to be crying for no reason, you cannot tell them that they have no reason to be upset, that they’re okay. You can’t say “don’t cry” while they’re in the middle of crying. Not only is that an ineffective approach to soothing, it can make things worse because the child feels unheard. Instead, get down on their level. Literally, get down on the floor, on your knees, eye to eye, and hold them. Make them feel your effort to comfort them. Tell them you understand, that you’re there, that they’re safe, that it’s okay for them to have these big feelings.
Kids of all ages–from toddler to teen years–struggle to understand the substance of their emotions, especially the negative ones. They know they’re feeling something, and they know it hurts or they don’t like it, but they’re often at a loss to explain what those emotions are, where they came from, or why they hurt so much. Your desire to explain it to them, from your position as an adult who has been through some version of the same circumstances, doesn’t help them sit with these feelings and process the emotions. It only intellectualizes the issues, which pulls your kids out of their bodies and into their heads–which are nowhere near as evolved as yours.
To be the best possible parent to your children, at every age, you have to do your best to meet them where they are–physically, mentally, emotionally, developmentally. You have to resist the urge to explain, you have to empathize. You can’t intellectualize, you just have to be present and patient.
Whether they’re 2, 12 or 20, your kids need to know that you are there for them on their terms. They need to know that you understand them, not that you understand the solution to their problems. Oftentimes, they don’t even want you to solve their problems, they just want you to listen. If you can do that, more often than not the problems will resolve themselves or your kids will resolve them on their own.
So next time one of your kids comes to you with a problem, or acts out unexpectedly…take a beat, recognize the situation you’re in, and just listen.
6) Prepare for the worst
There’s a sign at the training academy for the New York Fire Department: “Let No Man’s Ghost Come Back to Say My Training Let Me Down.”
On the one hand, it’s a great reminder, right? Firefighters are training to deal with life or death situations, and the consequences of screwing up are about as big as consequences get.
On the other hand, it’s very uncomfortable. Do you really want to be thinking of death, and ghosts, and fatal screwups in a place where you’re supposed to be learning how to do your job?
Actually, you do.
Part of learning how to do any high-pressure job—parenting very much included—is learning how to deal with inevitable failures, crises, and catastrophes. And part of dealing with those is anticipating them—not just so you’ll know what to do when the worst happens, but so that you’ll be mentally prepared for it.
On July 11, 2021, the physician Peter Attia’s one-month-old son suffered a cardiac arrest. “He was lifeless and blue,” Attia wrote, “not breathing and without a pulse.” Attia’s wife kept her composure and initiated CPR. Their nanny dialed 911 and three minutes later, paramedics arrived. If Attia’s wife had not been mentally prepared, if she had not known and performed CPR, the paramedics told them, their baby boy would have died before they got there.
Attia takes to Instagram on July 11th each year to remind his followers: “The list of skills you can acquire in a relatively short period of time that can literally save a life is pretty small…Please make CPR one of them.”
Some people see a crisis unfolding and freeze. Other people leap into action. You can’t say for sure which category you’ll fall into before the fact, but one way you can increase your odds of falling into the latter group is making sure you’re mentally prepared. Don’t just tell yourself “bad things happen sometimes.” Actually imagine it, down to the ugliest detail—not obsessively, not fearfully, but as a way of familiarizing yourself with worst-case scenarios so that, when and if they come, they aren’t entirely new.
The Stoics called this premeditatio malorum—the premeditation of evils. It’s kind of like inoculating your mind against worst-case scenarios. Just as a vaccine teaches your immune system what a virus looks like, so it can fight it off, premeditatio malorum teaches your brain what a crisis looks like, so it can respond constructively.
There’s no bigger crisis than seeing your kid suddenly choking and unable to breathe, or bleeding profusely from a large gash or a compound fracture, or laying there lifeless for reasons that aren’t immediately clear. Learning what to do in that situation is like a life insurance policy for your kid. Take a look at emergency response times in your area: a nationwide study found that the average 911 response time is 7 minutes, but that time doubles in rural areas, while nearly 1 in 10 callers wait almost half an hour for a response. Even if you’re at the lower end of the scale—those 7 minutes would seem like an eternity when your child is in the midst of a medical emergency.
So to mitigate all of that, here are some things you can do to be prepared for when the worst happens:
- Learn CPR (for both infants and older kids)
- Carry an EpiPen (allergies can be deadly)
- Practice the drive to the emergency room closest to your house
- Always be aware of your surroundings (where you are and what’s around you)
- Always know where the nearest ER is when you’re traveling
- Learn how to apply a tourniquet and dress a wound.
Some people may call you paranoid or a worrywart when you tell them that you’re doing some or all of these things, but it’s also less likely that they’ll be calling you with condolences because you’ll have been prepared when the crisis came.
Sometimes, though, the worst case scenario doesn’t happen to your kids, it happens to you, and it’s your kids who are left trying to figure out what to do. To prepare for that, it’s imperative that you create a will.
There’s nothing complicated or unusual about having a will, we all know that we’ll need one eventually, yet according to one recent survey, 68% of Americans don’t have one. Why? It’s unclear, though lt’s likely that, just as with CPR training, people just don’t like thinking about death and worst-case scenarios. Of course, burying your head in the sand will do little to fend off accidents and even less to ward off death. Along the sufficiently long timeline of a life, both will find you.
Indeed, you are guaranteed to die. You are also very likely to die before your child. But you are equally likely to die before you are ready or before you expect. Don’t be in denial about the fact that your life is finite, and don’t let that denial—expressed in something like a failure to make a will—affect your child in concrete, negative ways.
Make no mistake: dying without a will can hurt the people close to you. Just look at the story of Prince’s estate. Years after his sudden death, the musician’s heirs, lawyers, and the State of Minnesota were still arguing over who would inherit his massive estate—because Prince died without a will. His estate was exceptionally complicated, but that is hardly an excuse. As USA Today made the point three years after his death, “…the most obvious lesson of the Prince tragedy remains, and it is utterly prosaic: If you die without a will, you might leave behind confusion.”
It’s not fun to think about worst-case scenarios, but the cost of being in denial about bad things happening is almost always paid by someone else. In the case of not having a will, if you and your partner aren’t legally married, they may be left out of your inheritance. What if you have stepchildren, or children from a previous marriage? What if one or both of your parents outlives you, or if you want to support your siblings after your death? Who would have custody of your kids if you and your partner died at the same time before they turned the age of legal majority? There are a lot of complications, and the only way to ensure that they’re sorted out in the way that works best for you and your family is to get it in writing.
The good news is that making a will, getting CPR training, learning to treat wounds, knowing where the closest ER is—these are all incredibly easy and cheap. There is no excuse for not doing any of them. The only impediment you have to worry about is one that you already have control of: your own sense of denial that you’ll ever need any of them.
Pick one thing, one class, one route, and find the one closest to you. Look at your calendar and sign up for the first available session that works with your schedule. Use this time to potentially save a life.
7) Explain Yourself
It was early in the morning in the winter of 1870 that five-year-old Rudyard Kipling’s parents roused him and his three-year-old sister, Trix, from their sleep to say goodbye. And then, suddenly, with awful surprise, they were gone. “No word,” he recounts, “of for how long or how necessary it was, simply ‘Don’t forget us…Oh my little son, don’t forget us…”
The truth was that his parents, British expatriates living in India, were sending their children back to England for schooling. But in the fashion of parenting at that time—British parenting especially—all of this explanation was thought to be beyond the children or beneath the parents.
“We had no preparation or explanation,” his sister Trix would explain, “it was like a double death, or rather, like an avalanche that had swept away everything happy and familiar. We felt that we had been deserted, almost as much as on a doorstep, and what was the reason?”
Of course, we would never do something like this today. And thankfully, far fewer parents have to abandon their children for any reason at all—permanent or temporary. But that does not excuse the regularity with which parents of all socioeconomic levels make major decisions without even the slightest effort to explain or reassure their children. From long business trips to divorces, from moving house to witnessing world events, we just assume our kids will understand. Or worse, we don’t even think about their understanding. We assume that because they probably don’t fully get what’s going on, that what’s going on won’t really affect them all that much. What ends up happening is that we implicitly ask them to bear these changes without explicitly bothering to bring them into the process, or to reassure them or to prepare them. We simply expect that they will endure it all.
Explaining your decisions, explaining what is happening to and around your kids, explaining how things work and why–these are simple things you can do to help your kids navigate an uncertain world and to build trust with them. Choosing not to explain, or insisting it doesn’t matter because they won’t remember, is a very easy way to create distance between you and your kids and, in some instances, to sow seeds of doubt that can grow into distrust and trauma. Because while you may be right that your kids won’t remember particular events, their bodies will remember how the fallout from those events made them feel. And since their minds will lack the information necessary to explain and integrate those feelings, your kids will end up shackled to heavy emotional burdens with no idea how to find the keys to free themselves.
To be clear, none of this means you have to give your kids a say in what the family does–whether it’s what you have for dinner, where you go on vacation, if you go to church, etc. You are still the parent after all, and making these decisions is both your duty and your privilege, but you still owe them an explanation.
Resilience isn’t genetic, it’s engineered. It’s built. It requires preparation. Give your kids the respect of an explanation when bad things happen or difficult decisions get made. Then give them the window they need to absorb the shock, to recover…and not only will resilience result but trust will follow.
Is there a big change coming in your family? Do you have to make some weighty decisions soon? Start thinking about how you’re going to explain them. Practice in the shower, or in the mirror, so you can hear how they sound coming out of your mouth.
8) Say I love you all the time, at random
Your kids shrug when you say it. It feels weird saying it in public. It feels cliché, lame, vulnerable. Plus, you don’t want to embarrass them or bother them or interrupt. And it’s not like they don’t know how you feel, right? You’ve told them many times before.
We have a million reasons not to say these words, but all of them are wrong. It’s impossible to say them enough:
I love you.
I’m proud of you.
It’s you I like.
You are special.
You are enough.
You’re the most important thing in the world to me.
At the end of your life, do you think, for one second, that you will kick yourself for saying that too much? Or, is it more likely that you’ll wish you’d said those things more? Because it would absolutely kill you if you thought for one second that they might not know, that they might not feel in their hearts, how much you loved them, how proud you were of them, how nothing–success, money, or lack thereof—could change what they meant to you from the moment they were born.
So the next time your kid is running upstairs, stop them: “Hey, before you go…” If you’re watching TV and your daughter is walking into the other room: “Hey, I need to tell you something…” When your boys are wrestling in the backyard, go out there: “Hey guys…”
They’ll probably think you’re going to remind them about some piece of school work, or criticize what they’re wearing, or tell them to stop roughhousing. But you’re going to hit them with those words we can’t say often enough:
I love you.
I’m so proud of you.
You’re such a special kid.
You’re the most important thing in the world to me.
That it catches our kids by surprise when we tell them these things? When all we want is to put our feelings about them out there in the open, just so that they know, and they’re confused by it? That’s our fault, not theirs. It says something about us, not them. And it’s something we have to fix, not them.
If you want to see what it looks like when a child doesn’t get that comfort and loving affirmation, just look to Lyndon Johnson. Though he ultimately did very well for himself, LBJ grew up poor and carried around with him a Texas-sized chip on his shoulder about his upbringing; particularly about the fact that he went to Southwest Texas State Teachers College and not the kind of schools most presidents (most notably, his predecessor) went to. George Ball, a diplomat and advisor to Johnson, once observed that LBJ was hardly disadvantaged by this lack of an Ivy League education. Rather, he said, LBJ suffered from his sense of lacking that education. That is, LBJ’s insecurity about his deficiency was far worse than any actual deficit that may have existed.
And that insecurity began well before he ever enrolled at Southwest Texas State. He never felt like he was good enough because his mother placed unfair expectations on him and made him feel like he had to earn her love, that her pride for him was contingent on him succeeding. She made him feel terrible when failed—like when he decided to stop playing the piano or dancing. “For days after I quit those lessons,” he remembered, “she walked around the house pretending I was dead. And then I had to watch her being especially warm and nice to my father and sisters.”
Stories like LBJ’s are sometimes used as examples of the power of tough love and high expectations. After all, he was Senate Majority Leader, Vice President and President. And yet, to watch LBJ move through the world was to watch a prickly, angry, vindictive, paranoid little boy searching for his mother’s approval and terrified of losing it. Imagine if Lyndon Johnson was made to feel like he was enough. Imagine if his mother came into the room while he struggled with his piano lessons and told him that she loved him, that he was enough, that she was proud of him…for who he was, not just what he did.
Maybe he doesn’t become president, but you can be sure he’d have lived a happier, friendlier, more peaceful existence. Not so angry and churlish all the time. As a parent, when it comes to the likelihood that your child grows up to be happy, healthy and fulfilled, the odds are much more in your favor if you choose love, support, and understanding as a matter of course, from the very beginning. And if you show that to them, if you tell them you love them all the time and at random, the odds get even better.
Go find your kid. It doesn’t matter where they are or what they’re doing. Buttonhole them and tell them you love them.
9) It’s what you do, not what you say
Socrates’ students said of their teacher that for all the genius he possessed, Plato and Aristotle and all the other sages who learned from him “derived more benefit from [his] character than [his] words.” So it was for Zeno and Cleanthes, the two earliest Stoic philosophers. “Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno,” Seneca would write, “if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules.”
Is there a better description—a better bar to set—for a parent than this? If you want to teach your kids, it’s not going to be with words. It’s not going to be with lectures. It’s going to be through showing them that you live according to the rules you set and the values you are trying to tell them are important.
You tell them to be good. To be honest. To follow the law. To care about other people. That safety comes first.
You say these things, but what do you do? Do you show them what these things look like? You can’t say that you care about other people and then speed through stop signs because you’re late. You can’t tell your kids that honesty is important and then lie to get out of the ticket. What’s worth more to you: Avoiding a fine or living your values? That’s what you have to ask yourself in every situation, particularly the ones where your kids are watching. Is getting what you want worth teaching the wrong lesson and undermining the values you are trying to instill?
A few years ago, the Emmy-winning actor William H. Macy was asked for the best piece of advice he had ever been given. “Never lie,” he answered. “It’s the cheapest way to go. Lies cost you a lot and they’re never worth what they cost.”
But, as the authors of Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal noted, precisely as Macy was giving this interview, he and his wife Felicity Huffman were fabricating their daughter’s SAT scores (without her knowledge, as it happens, and they were planning to do the same for their youngest daughter). The worst part? His daughter wanted to go to a theater school that didn’t even need high SAT scores!
It was the cheapest way to go and not remotely worth the cost. Macy’s wife would briefly go to jail for her role in the fraud. His daughter was crushed. Not only was the whole scandal a massive embarrassment, but she also had to bear witness to the hypocrisy of her parents who had talked so much about being good people and then done such a bad thing, the motivation for which was that they didn’t believe in her! One can only imagine the potential damage done not just to their daughter’s sense of self-worth but also to their relationship.
No child deserves to have to deal with that. At the very least, they deserve parents who live up to what they say. As the billionaire Charles Koch once explained of the main lesson he learned from his father’s very hands-on parenting: you can’t lecture your kids on anything you don’t live up to. Otherwise you’re nothing but a hypocrite, and likely an ineffectual one at that.
As parents, we have to pay more than just lip service to the values we hope to instill. We have to up our game and be the example our kids need to see for those values to stick, lest we become the apotheosis of all those things we hope they never become. Like Bruce Springsteen’s dad, from whom Bruce learned about shame, about broken pride, and struggling with demons that you can’t quite conquer. You can hear the pain it caused Bruce in many of his songs.
As unlucky as Springsteen was to be dealt that hand, he was also incredibly lucky to have a mother who set a very different example. The right kind of example. In his memoir, Born to Run, Bruce writes about visiting his mom at her job as a legal secretary. “I am proud, she is proud,” he wrote, recalling how it felt to see her in her element, away from their house, doing her job. Bruce could see himself in her, and it called him to be better. “We are handsome, responsible members of this one-dog burg pulling our own individual weight, doing what has to be done. We have a place here, a reason to open our eyes at the break of day and breathe in a life that is steady and good.”
What are your kids learning from how you carry yourself? Are you showing them, as Bruce’s dad did, how to be angry and bitter and lost? Or, as Bruce’s mom did, are you showing them how to be brave and tough and find your niche? Is your example calling them to be better or worse? Whatever it is, it will always be more powerful than the things you say to your kids about how they should be in the world and who you wish they might become.
There’s that old saying: practice what you preach. How about you don’t preach at all, just practice. In fact, make a list of all the values and virtues you’ve talked to your kids about and do an honest audit of your actions. Do they match? Are there gaps? If so, bridge them. You’ll grow, your kids will learn. Then they’ll grow, and you’ll learn. You will all be better for it.
10) Write down the example you want to set for who you want them to become
One day, some 2000 years ago, Marcus Aurelius put up his stylus and jotted down six epithets for himself, values he said that should not be “traded” for any others. What were they?
Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested.
Modern leaders have benefited from the same exercise: writing down what you value, and constantly reminding yourself, is a way of holding yourself accountable. NCAA basketball coach Shaka Smart makes a point of drilling five key values into his players’ heads from the first day of practice: appreciation, enthusiasm, competitiveness, unselfishness, and accountability. “We have these five core values that, to be honest, we literally jam down our guys throats on a weekly, if not daily, basis,” Smart told a reporter. “I make them memorize them, give examples. I’ve made them write papers on them.” It might sound tedious, but Smart—like Marcus Aurelius—believes that your values are only as real as the effort you put into living them and reminding yourself of them every day.
The end result, of course, isn’t to have a list of your parenting values or character traits framed somewhere on the wall. It’s to get better and better at using those values to shape your actions and shape their character. You can talk about character, but your choices are always going to speak louder than your words. You tell your kid to be respectful, but how much respect do you show them or other people in the course of a day? You can admonish them for their sportsmanship during a soccer game, but how much does your own pride and selfishness creep out during friendly basketball games in the backyard? You criticize their manners, but how good are yours? Do you not have a pile of unwritten thank you notes in a basket in the guest room?
The point of pointing out this hypocrisy is not—as some lazy parents take it to mean—that you don’t get to tell your kids what to do and that authority doesn’t exist. No, it’s to push you to hold yourself to a higher standard by making those standards concrete. As parents, we have to up our game so that we can be the example our kids need to see. We need to remember that someone is always watching and therefore our best behavior—our best selves—are being demanded.
So write down the epithets you want to embody. Sketch a portrait of the person you want your child to become through the description of the virtues that person would possess. Do it to hold yourself accountable and to give yourself something to aim for as your kids continue to grow.
Bonus: Our Best Practical Parenting Tip for New Parents
As we said earlier, the greatest parenting tips of all time are the ones that are timeless. They apply no matter how old kids are nor when in history those kids lived. That said, there is a bunch of really practical advice and tips that apply specifically to new parents preparing for the arrival of their first-born that we think are well worth sharing.
This advice is our favorite. It’s the most actionable and the most relevant for the longest amount of time, because it is as much advice as it is a set of invaluable recommendations.
You Must Have These Things
When we first conceived of this article, our intention was to focus on timely inspiration and timeless wisdom for parents with children of all ages. We didn’t want to wade too deeply into specific age groups or overly tactical advice or brand and product recommendations. Everyone’s situation is different. Options vary from state to state, country to country. We didn’t want to leave anyone on the outside looking in.
But as we did our research and talked to hundreds of parents, it became obvious that for many of them there were a host of products that they credit for saving them countless hours of stress and aggravation. So we decided to compile the creme de la creme of those items that will make your first years as a new parent that much easier.
For most items, we researched to find both the best option out there and the best affordable option. For some, we’ve included lifestyle options (i.e. the best jogger stroller). In some cases, you might be able to track down a hand-me-down from parents a few years ahead of you on their journey. In any case, these things will be a life-saver:
|Crib||Best: Babyletto Hudson
Best affordable: Delta Children Lancaster
Best travel: BabyBjörn Travel Crib Light
|Bedside Crib||Best: SNOO Smart Sleeper
Best affordable: Baby Bassinet
|Sleep suit||Best: Baby Merlin’s Cotton Magic Sleepsuit|
|Stroller||Best: UPPAbaby VISTA V2 Stroller
Best affordable: Summer 3Dlite
Best jogger: BOB Gear Revolution Flex 3.0
|Car seat||Best: Chicco KeyFit 30
Best affordable: Graco SnugFit 35
Best stroller/car seat hybrid: Doona
|Baby motion swing||Best: 4moms® mamaRoo 4 Multi-Motion™ Baby Swing
Best affordable: Nova Baby Swing
|Baby Carrier||Best: BABYBJÖRN Baby Carrier One Air
Best affordable: Ergobaby 360 All-position Baby Carrier
|Baby monitor||Best: Owlet Duo Smart Baby Monitor
Best affordable: Infant Optics DXR-8
|Noise machine||Best: Hatch Baby Rest Sound Machine
Best affordable: HoMedics White Noise Sound Machine
Best portable: Yogasleep Hushh Portable White Noise Machine
|High chair||Best: Graco EveryStep 7 in 1 High Chair
Best affordable: Cosco Simple Fold High Chair
|Bounce swing*||Best: Jolly Jumper
Best affordable: Evenflo Exersaucer Door Jumper
*Some child development experts are weary of bounce swings because they have been linked to delays in and difficulty with walking, as a result of keeping babies on their tiptoes for extended periods.
A great alternative to a bounce swing is an adjustable, seated activity center that allows your baby to stand flat-footed, move, work on balance, etc.
|Baby gym||Best: The Play Gym by Lovevery
Best affordable: Fisher-Price Deluxe Kick and Play Piano Gym and Maracas
|Humidifier||Best: Venta LW25
Best affordable: Pure Enrichment MistAire
|Snot sucker||Best: Nosiboo Pro Baby Electric Nasal Aspirator/Nose Sucker
Best affordable: Baby Nasal Aspirator NoseFrida
|Baby bottle warmer||Best: Philips AVENT Fast Baby Bottle Warmer
Best Affordable: Dr. Brown’s Deluxe Baby Bottle Warmer
|Baby bath tub||Best: Fisher-Price 4-in-1 Sling ‘n Seat Tub
Best inflatable: Mommy’s Helper Inflatable Bath Tub
Obviously, you don’t have to buy all of these products, or all of them at one time. But if you’re like most modern parents, you’re going to be looking for solutions to problems and situations that each of these products was designed to service.
So if you’re going to take your time, or you want to do your own research…by all means! Just keep this list handy and maybe use it as the standard against which you evaluate other options that come across your desk.
Either way, you won’t regret having this list at your disposal.
10 Best Quotes on Parenting
“Encourage and support your kids because children are apt to live up to what you believe of them.” — Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady of the United States
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass
“Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk.” — Carl Jung
“[O]ur whole job is to provide, to protect, to love, to facilitate…It’s to find out who our children are, find out their likes and their dislikes, and try to help them through life, to find themselves. It’s not about us.” — Dwyane Wade
“Life is short. Do not forget about the most important things in our life, living for other people and doing good for them.” — Marcus Aurelius
“The hardest part of parenting is you have to be the kind of human being you want your children to be. You have to do the things you want your kids to do.” — Austin Kleon
“Just as in fair weather, then, one ought to prepare for the storm, so also in youth one should store up discipline and self-restraint as a provision for old age.” — Plutarch
“As we bring up our children, we have to remember that we are caretakers of the future. By improving their education, we improve the future of mankind, the future of this world.” — Immanuel Kant
“No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books.” — Horace Mann
“Character is fate.” — Heraclitus
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