The principles of wise parenting are timeless, and apply across all situations. What works to support children’s optimal development works, whether you’re raising your kids in a traditional family, in the midst of divorce, part of a gay couple, or doing anything else that doesn’t look like ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ Here are ten rules for raising happily productive kids, no matter what kind of family you’re creating.
Yes, alternative family compositions bring unique challenges. Families going through divorce are in a vulnerable and potentially volatile restructuring process. Single parents usually have fewer resources to help them through times of trouble. Gay parents can experience prejudice and criticism, and so can their kids. Adoption brings its own set of challenges. Raising kids across more than one culture or religion can be dicey. But lots of traditional families experience problems too. Abuse happens in every kind of family, as do alcoholism, mental illness, and economic pressures.
Family composition is less important to children’s long-term development than kindness, boundary-setting, and meaningful learning opportunities. A single mother or two gay fathers can provide everything a child needs to become a happily productive adult. Such parents need to find sources of emotional and social support, but so does every other parent, no matter the situation.
I’ll briefly describe some current research on three non-traditional family groupings. Then I’ll outline the ten basic rules for raising happily productive kids, rules that apply to all parents in all kinds of families.
Divorce and child development
As with other changes in a family’s structure, there are many possible effects of divorce on every aspect of a child’s development. Kids can become depressed, suicidal, or angry. They can become antisocial or excessively social. They can become mistrustful of close relationships, or hypersexual. Their grades might plummet, or the child might throw himself into schoolwork to the exclusion of everything else. Kids can develop eating disorders or any number of other psychological problems.
None of these effects is inevitable. In fact, the preponderance of current research shows that most children are beginning to function reasonably well within two years after their parents’ divorce. How the parents handle the divorce makes a big difference in how well children get through it, very much including the support the children get in navigating the inevitable period of disruption.
Divorce can actually bring benefits to children, especially those whose pre-divorce experience included fear, chaos, unpredictability, or abuse. Children can begin to thrive when one or both parents create home environments that are calmer and more dependable. Children who feel loved and supported through the divorce process and whose parents negotiate custody amicably can become more competent and capable. When one or both parents move on to create fulfilling lives for themselves, divorce can help children learn about coping with changes and setbacks in their own lives.
It’s normal for single parents to experience a sense of overload at least some of the time. They struggle to find enough time, energy, and money to do everything that needs doing. Regardless of the financial situation, it can feel overwhelming when there’s no other adult with whom to share the joys and worries of parenting, as well as the daily tasks of life—shopping, cooking, reading bedtime stories, cleaning, taking kids to appointments, and all the rest of it.
Single parents do best when they develop networks of social support. Friends and relatives who care about the children can ease the burden, as well as providing alternative role models and adult confidants for the children.
Single parents need to pay attention to their own physical, intellectual, and social needs if they’re to do the best possible job with their kids. This is no more or less true for single parents than others, but it can be harder to make it happen when there’s just one adult trying to handle all the tasks of the household.
Same-sex parenting has been controversial for some time, but as the research accumulates, it becomes increasingly clear that gay couples can raise kids just as well as other couples. Researchers at Columbia Law School have launched a project that pulls together all the peer-reviewed studies in this area. They’ve concluded that, in general, kids with gay parents do just as well as others.
Depending on where they live, the children of same-sex parents can experience social pressures that other kids don’t. They can be subject to bullying and prejudice similar to that experienced by mixed-race families in previous years (and in some communities still). There is an additional stressor placed on same-sex parents to ensure their kids feel safe, confident, and well-informed, but at the end of the day, the same factors that apply in situations of divorce, single parenting, and adoption apply in families where there are two parents of the same sex: love, support, and guidance make a much bigger difference than who’s doing the parenting.
Raising Happily Productive Kids: Ten Basic Rules that Apply in Every Kind of Family
- Practice loving attunement. Parents in non-traditional circumstances who realize the power of being present to their kids—patient, loving, engaged—are well on their way to overcoming any obstacles their family structure might entail. As frequently as you can through the day, make time to listen to your children, with love.
- Set and enforce dependable rules. Kids need reliable boundaries in order to feel safe. This is particularly important in alternative family situations where social and cultural norms don’t apply, and parents are tempted to break the rules in order to compensate for extra challenges they feel they’re imposing on their kids.
- Play. Free play nourishes children’s curiosity, self-awareness, and imagination. It also strengthens self-regulation, autonomy, decision-making, conflict resolution, and friendship skills.
- Hug a tree. Spending time in nature—even urban nature—reduces stress, increases optimism, improves health, stimulates the senses, frees the spirit, and enhances creativity. It also improves attention and focus, thereby increasing academic and other kinds of achievement.
- Discover enthusiasms. Help your kids engage in exploration and discovery activities in as many different areas as possible. Support them in developing their curiosities into passions.
- Daydream. The restful neural processing that occurs in daydreaming is essential to self-discovery and self-actualization. Busy kids need downtime in order to replenish their spirits and find their creative wellspring.
- Breathe. Mindful breathing helps kids manage stress, sleep soundly, and focus their attention. Mindful breathing helps them concentrate on tests and exams, and cope with challenging situations.
- Welcome setbacks. Teach your kids the importance of hard work, persistence, and patience. A growth mindset—welcoming setbacks as learning opportunities—leads to well-being and productivity in every area of life.
- Turn it off! Most kids are spending way too much time on electronic devices. By limiting screen time, you’ll free up time for outdoor exploration, unstructured play, daydreaming, and self-discovery.
- Be grateful. People who actively appreciate what’s good in their lives feel better, happier, more energetic, more optimistic, and are more empathetic than those who feel entitled.
These ten parenting practices can help your children thrive, no matter your family structure. Temperament and other personality factors can also contribute to how well an individual child manages alternative parenting situations. Those with growth mindsets and positive attitudes to problem-solving do better at coping than those with fixed mindsets or dependent personalities. And those who seek and receive social support are more resilient than those who feel they can sort out their own problems.
If you follow these ten basic rules, you’re supporting your kids in making happily productive lives for themselves, both now and in the future.
For more on these ideas:
Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster
‘Optimal Development across the Life Span,’ by Dona Matthews in The Creativity Post