All healthy parents are alike in certain ways and different in others. The ways they are alike represent the essential characteristics that make up good parenting. If parents have most of these qualities they will be good enough parents—good enough to raise healthy children.
Parents may either have them or not. They can’t buy them in a store or get them by reading about them in an instructional book or blog. They come from the healthy upbringing they got from their parents. Or they come from true self-objectivity or from therapy.
1. Empathetic: Empathy is without doubt the most essential quality healthy parents have. They are able to put themselves into their children’s shoes (or hearts) and therefore they can tune into the child’s deepest feelings and understand the child’s body language. It also helps them not to take it personally when the child cries in a nonstop, demanding way. They don’t lose patience or lose their temper if the child carries on. They understand and have patience.
2. Intimate: Healthy parents are attached to their children. Numerous studies have shown how important it is for a child to have real intimacy and attachment to his mother and father. Harlow’s experiments with monkeys showed that when baby monkeys were maternally deprived, they grew up to be psychopathic. If a child’s first attachment is adequate, he or she will be able to attach to others later on. Parents who cannot attach (such as those suffering from depression), will not be able to supply this essential ingredient for healthy development.
3. Attentive: Children need attention. If they are the apples of their parents’ eyes, they will grow up with a healthy sense of themselves. They will feel worthy of attention from others, including friends and teachers. If parents are too busy or in other ways prevented from giving enough attention to their children, their children will grow up needy of attention and feel unworthy when they get it.
4. Respectful: Parents who truly respect themselves will be able to respect their children. A child needs to be treated with respect to develop self-respect. Respectful parents do not boss or lecture their children, but guide them towards figuring things out for themselves. Once they learn to respect themselves, children will grow up to be adults who command respect from employees and friends.
5. Loving: Parents who were loved as children will be able to love their children. Children who are wanted and loved develop a sense that they are lovable and will grow up to inspire love from others, including significant others, friends, and coworkers. When parents love their children they also make them feel accepted and instill an associated sense of belonging. Parents who love their children care about their feelings and provide a safe haven for them in a world that at times feels unsafe.
6. Disciplined: Healthy parents are disciplined with regard to their own lives and hence they model discipline to their children and firmly (but not harshly) guide them toward self-discipline. Children need to be shown how to manage their lives in a way that is beneficial, as well as how to manage their emotions and deal with the emotions of others. There may be times when children need to be punished, but healthy parents punish in a calm and loving way, not in an angry or harsh way.
7. Together: In order for parents to have a healthy relationship with their children, they must have a healthy relationship with each other. If the parents are not together in terms of how they treat their children, this will cause problems. If one parent believes in punishing children while the other believes in coddling them, the children will grow up confused, manipulative, and with no idea of what togetherness means.
8. Honest: There is nothing worse than when a parent tells a child to do one thing, but models something entirely different. For example, a father tells a child not to yell at his younger brother, but then yells at his wife. Honesty really is the best policy, as Benjamin Franklin said, and it is important for parents to be honest with themselves and with each other and their children. If a parent makes a promise to a child, the parent must keep that promise. Otherwise, the child will grow up distrustful and dishonest.
9. Playful: Healthy parents know how to be playful and they convey to their children a sense of the joy of life. “All work and no play makes Johnny a very dull boy,” goes the famous saying. Being able to play is to be able to relax. Parents who play with their children or who enjoy watching their children play, end up teaching them the importance of enjoying life and not taking everything so seriously.
10. Moral. One of the most important jobs of parents is to socialize their children. They teach their children to be gracious, and to look objectively at themselves (“Know yourself,” as Plato put it) while treating others with dignity. They do not have a “belief system,” but judge each situation individually, according to its merits. They teach their children not to follow the crowd, but to follow their own individual conscience.
There are undoubtedly other characteristics of being a good parent that I have left out, but I think these ten will suffice. Healthy parenting is one of the most important, if not the most important, occupations in any society.