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Excellence in Parenting

I spend most of my time telling parents, as gently as I can depending on the issue, that there are flaws in their parenting. I suggest better strategies and receive an amazing number of “Thank-you’s” and “It worked!”

Recently I had the privilege and pleasure of watching excellent parenting. While on vacation I met a distant relative and her young family for Sunday brunch. The family consists of parents who work full time, teacher Mom and technology whiz Dad, plus a 4 ½ year-old boy and a 1 ½ year old girl. The children are in fulltime preschool and day care. However the parents spend most of their non-work time with the children.

A crowded restaurant, meeting two virtual strangers, waiting for food while hungry, and four adults who wanted to talk could add up to a recipe for meltdown. But we asked to be seated in the corner of a crowded room and the parents came prepared with little toys. Each parent sat next to a child to cut the pancakes and be close enough to distract if necessary.

What impressed me? Both parents had perfected the art of being attentive to each child. Not every minute but when the child asked (Can I play with your phone?) or seemed needy or restless the parent stopped paying attention to the menu or the table conversation the grownups were having and gave his or her full attention to the child. And then seamlessly want back to the conversation.

Knowing when to provide focused attention and being able to easily go back and forth to the grownup world is the hallmark of good parenting. It is different from constant hovering. It is very different from what others have described as “continuous partial attention” which is today’ default way of connecting to others.

I wrote this in a previous website ParenTip: “Continuous partial attention describes what I am doing now: typing, a phone on my shoulder waiting for a live person (I already declined the option of hanging up and dialing 911 as it is not an emergency and pressed 3 for a patient representative) to come on the line so I can make a doctor’s appointment, and keeping an eye on my new puppy who loves to crawl behind my desk and chew on all those tangled cords which if chewed could be unhealthy for both Mindy and my computer. This is multi-tasking. I am paying partial attention to three tasks one of which has to do with protecting a live creature that I am responsible for…”

Multitasking is common among today’s parents. Children must compete with all sorts of gadgets with screens that have the power to distract Mommy or Daddy. But a study done many years ago compared “successful” first graders with those who had more trouble adjusting to school by interviewing the parents asking them to describe their parenting. The parents of the children who were adjusting well to school described many brief, intense moments of interacting with the child.

Most of parenting is done when we are doing something else as Barbara Kingsolver has pointed out. But each child needs some focused attention from each parent every day. The patents of the first graders that adjusted to school managed to go back and forth between focused attention and doing something else easily as did my relatives. I advise focused attention when the child needs it, when you look up from your work and realize you need it, or just for the heck of it.

These excellent parents demonstrated another important parenting strategy that we can call “safety-without-frightening. After brunch we walked to a nearby lake to watch the boats and see the seaplanes land. On the several block walk each parent monitored one child close enough to swoop if necessary. They called out in a normal tone of voice, “Don’t cross the street, wait and we’ll go together.” They did not preach about the dangers of cars, or grab the boy so he couldn’t approach the crosswalk alone. But the parent was always close enough to prevent any problem.

The final demonstration of excellent parenting was the unity between the parents. The paid attention to each other, they never contradicted what the other said to a child. They were a team.

So Focused Attention, No-scare Safety, and Team Parenting all score points with me. If I were giving out Excellence in Parenting awards my cousins would get one. If any of you have other examples of Excellence in Parenting email me at