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Good Parenting is Hard Fun, Not Hard Work

The following was produced in partnership with our friends at Walt Disney World Resort, who invite you to discover a world of magic and memories the whole family will share.

So often, parenting is described as hard work. Understandably so. Money needs saving. Doctors need visiting. PTAs need rallying. Checklists need making regardless of how many boxes will ultimately be left unchecked. All that is true and undeniable, but it isn’t the measure of the experience or the core of it. As scholars are making increasingly clear, work matters, but it’s often fun that makes successful kids because togetherness is everything.

“We spend so much time telling parents about techniques that we sometimes overlook that core parent-child relationship,” says Gene Roehlkepartain, a social psychology researcher at Search Institute, an organization that studies childhood development. “We’ve found that the quality of those relationships really matters a great deal in shaping how kids are doing as they grow up.”

girl on her father's shoulders

In 2015, Search Institute surveyed a diverse group of 1,085 parents of 3-to-13-year-olds for a report on the factors that most impact a child’s success, character traits, and sense of self down the road. They found that the quality of parent-child relationships predicted children’s well-being significantly more than demographic factors including income, ethnicity, religion, and hometown. They also found — by observing children in families, schools, and communities around the world — common threads that tie parents to their kids.The basic takeaway was that adults who positively dictate the terms of interactions with their children raise children more prepared to engage productively with the world. Access to niceties matters, but the thing that matters more for kids is emotional access to one or both of their parents.

The research team dissected the interactions they witnessed and the relationships they documented in order to pin down the specific strategies that seemed to be working. They were able to find five:

  • Effective parents demonstrated that they cared about their kids and wanted the best for them.
  • Effective parents insisted that kids continuously improve.
  • Effective parents helped kids complete tasks and achieve goals.
  • Effective parents gave kids the opportunity to make decisions and express themselves.
  • Effective parents helped kids interact with other adults and expand their horizons.

“Sharing power means taking time to get a child’s perspective so they feel they’re part of decisions and that not everything is being done to them,” Roehlkepartain explains. “Expanding possibilities is about involving other people in their lives and introducing kids to things you can’t immediately control. These challenges are critically important for development and really hard to do as parents because you want to hold tight, keep your kids safe, and make sure nothing bad happens to them.”

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Roehlkepartain found that parents who engaged in all of these behaviors had remarkably strong bonds with their children. But even parents who only checked only some of the boxes built more lasting relationships. And very few parents totally struck out. Seven out of 10 parents reported employing at least one of the bond-building techniques. That finding didn’t surprise Roehlkepartain. Parents instinctively love and nurture their children. They do research on their own relationships and strategize for success. In a sense, there is a small-scale study going on wherever a child lives.

Still, more data means more specific results. Researchers were able to pinpoint the behaviors that made the most profound difference. Sharing power had the most direct connection to positive outcomes during childhood and later on. The second-most meaningful behavior was expanding horizons

To ease the difficulty of letting kids flirt with independence, parents can implement these critical relationship-strengthening behaviors in contexts that kids will enjoy. For example, letting them dictate a path through the park.

Roehlkepartain suggests little steps. ‘“We often say it’s about sharing power, not giving up power,” he says. “For example, you want to give your kid a voice in what you do on the weekend. Let this process build over time so they gain more confidence in making decisions and you gain more confidence in them, which is just as important.”’

Depending on a child’s interests, a family could head to an amusement park, a national park, a museum, the beach, or even a farmer’s market. Once children feel they have a voice, parents can focus on expanding their horizons by teaching them to get excited about new experiences.

And, naturally, that step leads gracefully into the next.

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“When you go to an amusement park, or Africa, or on whichever adventure you choose, turn off your phone and pay attention to your kids so they have your undivided attention,” prescribes Roehlkepartain. “Try to follow your child’s lead when they express curiosity in discovering something. These experiences can be wonderful ways to deepen your relationship.”

Roehlkepartain also notes that setting aside quality time also strengthens relationships by simply giving children and parents a break. “Sometimes you get so caught up in the day-to-day grind that going someplace new can be a way to rediscover what you enjoy about just being together.” It’s an important point given that stress and time constraints make being open to and with a child so much harder.

The good news at the core of Roehlkepartain’s conclusions is that success in parenting is not a product of acting on obligation. Tackling homework together might build bonds, but a sense of duty or work is not a requirement. Bonding can and — in a sociological sense should — be fun.

As the developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner said back in 1970, “Every kid needs at least one adult who is crazy about him or her.” The operative word is “crazy.” When it comes to parenting, the illogical and the logical walk hand-in-hand.