Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Three Ingredients Needed to Raise a Successful Child

Guest post by Gary M. Unruh

What does it take to raise a successful kid and adult with good character?

A think-tank study* reveals the secret: tough love is made of three ingredients -- a confident parent(s), warmth, and consistent discipline.

After forty years as a child mental health counselor, I enthusiastically agree with this study’s conclusions, and you probably do, too. But how do you mix these three ingredients in just the right way? That’s the trick. After working with 2500 clients, I’ve seen a recipe emerge that really works.

Let’s start by understanding warmth, consistent discipline, and confident parents, then get to the mixing-the-ingredients part.

Warmth toward your child is the result of well-developed parental love, which I call “unleashed” parental love. Unleashed parental love focuses consistently on the good within a child during good times as well as difficult times. Warmth means acceptance -- a child’s fundamental need. It’s a parenting skill that needs to be learned. With practice, warmth happens consistently, and your child’s belief of “I’m good,” “My mom and dad accept me” will be firmly established.

Discipline is teaching and training from the perspective that your child is fundamentally good and that unacceptable behavior needs to be continually changed. The best training occurs with consistent firm limit setting (tough love), delivered with respect (warmth). The key discipline point to impart to your child is this: You are more than your behavior. Your child must believe, “My behavior is only a part of who I am. I am fundamentally good, acceptable even when I make a mistake.” With this belief in place, self-confidence flourishes.

Parental confidence comes from successful results. Your confidence builds when your discipline results in your child’s (1) behavior consistently improving, (2) self-confidence flourishing, (3) independence increasing, and (4) bond with you remaining solid.

So, how are these ingredients combined for the best result? First some general guidelines, and then several tried and tested mixing tips.

General Guidelines:

• Your most important job is to establish “I’m good” within the center of your child. This is a child’s life essential need -- it is the foundation for flourishing self-confidence for your child to feel “I’m accepted.” But how is this done? Always validate and focus first on your child’s feelings and thoughts, and then on their behavior. Why? Feelings and thoughts are the direct line to your child’s core of “who I am.” Validating feelings validates your child. The result? A feeling of “I’m acceptable, I’m good, no matter what.”

• Warmth and discipline need to happen at the same time. It’s typical for warmth to be absent from discipline. (“I’m sick and tired of your always being late.”) Warmth during discipline is a learned skill; parents aren’t born with it. Once learned, discipline sounds like this instead: “You’re having trouble with your eleven o’clock curfew. Let’s find a way that will help you stick with it.” There’s no flexing on the curfew time, but it works because it opens a discussion. You listen, you validate feelings, and you come up with a plan that works for both of you. That’s warmth and discipline combined.

• Discipline (teaching, training) needs to be clear and firm (tough) -- NO means NO. The behavior is unacceptable and needs to stop. Action needs to reinforce the words, consistently. The eleven o’clock curfew mentioned above is handled like this. First, Eva was allowed to share her frustration with Dad validating her feelings. Then Dad made the point, “You need to be home at eleven o’clock every time.” Then a deal was struck: “If you follow the curfew for a month, the time will be extended for thirty minutes, just as you requested. No excuses during the next month. If you break the rule, your car is gone for two weeks.” Eva starts to argue. Dad responds as he walks away, “Discussion’s over.”

Finally, here are some tried-and-tested mixing tips:

- Start with your child’s feelings and thoughts, not yours.
- Deal with behavior only after feelings and thoughts have been validated.
- Set initial expectations for 98 percent success. Success is a huge motivator for change.
- Avoid judging.
- Delete negative comments.
- Be calm. Walk away if frustration gets too much. Too much anger leads to “I’m bad.”
- Listen 75 percent of the time and talk 25 percent. Keep talking to a minimum; make yourself understood with only one or two points.
- Ask questions during the 25 percent talking time.
- Admit your mistakes.

What’s the take-home lesson?

Teaching and training your child with consistent, firm limit-setting in a warm, caring way gives you and your child outstanding results. You will become a confident parent. And your child will establish self-confidence (“I’m good”), feel accepted, be successful, and establish great character traits.

Gary M. Unruh, MSW, LCSW, is a child and family mental health counselor with nearly forty years of experience. He is the author of Unleashing the Power of Parental Love: 4 Steps to Raising Joyful and Self-Confident Kids (

(*Demos think tank study released 11/10/09 --


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