Parenting For Dummies

Researchers have been studying parenting for decades, and they know a lot about what it takes to raise a happy, independent child. Unfortunately, few of those findings reach the people who need help most: the mother of a toddler throwing a tantrum on the supermarket checkout line or the father of a teenager repeatedly breaking curfew. That gap between academia and the real world inspired Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg to write "The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting." Those principles, he says, apply to all children--no matter what their age, sex or family makeup--although the way parents use them varies (No. 4: adapt your parenting to fit your child). Although Steinberg says parents should explain rules and decisions (No. 9), the conversation with a 5-year-old would clearly be much simpler than with a 16-year-old.

The most important principle may be the finding--consistent in the research for at least 60 years--that parents have a profound effect on their children's emotional, social and intellectual development (No. 1: what you do matters). This is still true today, Steinberg says, despite an avalanche of new cultural influences. In fact, says Steinberg, who has also written books on teenagers and school reform, "all these other influences make parents even more important" as guides through conflicting messages that kids get from the media and friends. "We have very good research showing that there is a connection between what parents do and how their kids turn out," Steinberg says. "This was true before the divorce rate skyrocketed. It was true before there were 1,500 cable channels. And it has been true since then as well."

Parents are critical in helping kids nurture strengths and overcome weaknesses. "There are parents walking around out there who think everything is genetic," says Steinberg. But the research clearly says that while parents can't turn a shy kid into a party animal, they can help a youngster make friends (No. 6: help foster your child's independence).

As an expert on child development, Steinberg says he's troubled by the bad parental behavior he sees all around him. One pet peeve: parents who are too permissive when their children are young (No. 5: establish rules and set limits). "That leads [the parents] to become excessively firm and controlling when their children are older," Steinberg says (No. 8: avoid harsh discipline). If parents are a little stricter early on, Steinberg says, they can ease up later when their children have developed self-control. Another gripe: parents who act as though their kids will miraculously raise themselves (No. 3: be involved in your child's life). Parents who can't be bothered to show up on open-school night shouldn't be surprised by a bad report card. They're telling kids that school doesn't matter. No parent is perfect, but Steinberg's book can help moms and dads bring up their own grades.