5 Things All Truly Great Parents Do Every Single Day

Photo: Agung Pandit Wiguna | Pexels 
Parents helping kid ride a bike

Last year, my teenage daughter spontaneously said, "Mom, I shouldn't be telling you this because I'm usually hating you, but, someday I want to be just like you. You're interesting. You're funny and fun. You respect me and my boundaries." Cue the mom smile. Somewhere in her description and this momentary peace between us, I was convinced there was a road map to being the best parent ever. How do we, as parents, find our way to that road? As a family therapist, psychoanalyst, mom, and grandmom, it's my experience that five signposts give us clues that we're on the right track in parenthood.

Here are 5 things all truly great parents do every single day:

1. They have fun and play

Children's work is play. For a baby, crawling is a severe business. (Not to mention, crawling activates the corpus callosum — the myelin-bound mid-section of the brain that divides the right and left hemispheres — which in turn, begins the communication between the two hemispheres.) It's a combination of play, movement, and work. Within every parent lies a reservoir of play that is a hallmark of truly great parenting.



The winter of 2003 was frigid and we lived in a particularly cold Brownstone. To keep us warmer, I would draw a hot bath in the middle of the day, put on my bathing suit, and join my 2-year-old in the tub. We would splash, play with the water toys, draw with water crayons, laugh, and feel thankful for hot baths in the middle of winter! Having fun, and lovingly joking around together ... this brightens our moods, strengthens our strengths, and exercises the parts of our brain that make us creative. It gives us a sense of well-being! Our happiest childhood memories are those filled with fun, joy, and laughter. 

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2. They acknowledge the hard parts  

Good parenting requires regular self-sacrifice — temporarily or sometimes indefinitely. As parents, aware of it or not, we all occasionally "dislike" our kids. Maybe their mouthy attitudes get on our nerves one day. Or perhaps we feel a little resentful because the demands of being a parent are constant, ever-present ... until we've seen our kids safely into adulthood ... Phew! This idea of acknowledging (and even relishing) that at the moment we dislike our kid and/or hate being a parent, is connected to the third signpost on our road to being the best parent ever.

3. They remember that children are works-in-progress

Modern psychoanalyst Thomas Lynaugh says, "A child is supposed to be a successful finished product. There is little sense that a child, or for that matter a parent or a grandparent, is a work in progress ... There is no sense of a child discovering her unique potential and seeking to fulfill it. The competition ethic has taken over, making the child feel alone." According to this ethic, to be healthy means to be a successful kid. Be better than the others.

When I asked my daughter what she meant when she said I respect her and her boundaries, she replied, "Well, so many kids at school are burnt out, Mom. You've always listened to what I have to say about what I can and cannot do." A patient of mine told me a wonderful story about this same thing. She is the oldest of four children who were born within 36 months of each other. When she was growing up, every night at 8 pm her mother would flop into the Lazy Boy chair in their living room and announce, "You kids are not to ask another thing of me until tomorrow morning; I am not a mother now!" This nightly ritual reassured my patient that the next morning her mom would be her vivacious mom again! Knowing limits, setting limits, honoring limits ... seeing this in our parents soothes us, reduces anxieties, and rejuvenates us as children (and, later on, as adults). It is another hallmark of great parenting.

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4. They take amazing care of themselves

We can only do for others what we can do for ourselves. Too often we parents feel guilty taking time for ourselves. Sometimes the guilt is reinforced by the judgments of others: "Look at him, what kind of father does that? What kind of mom is she? How selfish!" If we judge and criticize ourselves, then we're judgmental and critical of others ... including our children. The more regularly we build self-care into our schedules (i.e. meditating, exercising, beauty care, eating out, social gatherings, etc), the more we feel restored to do the giving and "exceeding" that is required of us continuously as parents. Plus, in the examples of our self-care, we're life-long models for our children of what healthy adulthood looks like.



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5. They learn from their mistakes 

Early in my training as a psychoanalyst, a colleague rushed in distraught to our group. Our training analyst, the late Dr. Sidney Love, turned with kindness and asked her what was going on. She burst into tears: "I've just had a conversation with my teenage daughter. She was asking about birth control. I got so rattled. The idea of my 15-year-old daughter, my only child, being intimate... I was overwhelmed. I got defensive. She stormed off in tears. I'm a clinical psychologist. How could I do this with my kid?" We all sat in silence.

"Sophie," Dr. Love said, "you are a clinical psychologist and a parent. As parents (and even with our patients) we are caught in unexpected whirlwinds of feeling. Do you think that you're the first parent to make a mistake with your child?" He smiled and looked at the group. "We make mistakes often. Mistakes are one of our best learning tools. When we make mistakes with our children and our patients, and we learn how to correct these mistakes, we make our children and patients weller-than-well!"  

He explained that like a broken bone that's been set, it often grows together stronger than before it was broken. "This," said Dr. Love, "is what it is to be weller-than-well: We experience the hurt and then we have the pleasure of our parents modeling the experience of making mistakes, learning from the mistake, and setting things right. This is enormously helpful and healing! It makes us deeper and wiser." Have confidence in your parenting because you care about being a good parent! Trust that, together, you and your child will always help each other know what's working, what's not ... and how to get to a better place. So, congratulations on being the best parent ever.

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Melanie McGrath is a marriage and family therapist, a personal development coach, and the founder of Whispering Baby.