How to Be a Better Parent: 3 Tips You Should Follow

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Self-Compassion" by Kristin Neff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to be a better parent? Why is self-compassion important in parenting?

Showing self-compassion is crucial for parents. According to Kristin Neff in her book Self-Compassion, practicing self-love sets an example for your children who will model your behavior.

Keep reading to learn how to be a better parent through self-compassion.

Practice Self-Compassion to Be a Better Parent

Neff says that when parents demonstrate self-compassion, not only do they improve their interactions with their children, they also teach their children to be self-compassionate by modeling the behavior. She argues that parents should teach their children self-compassion to help them navigate unavoidable parts of life, including pain, imperfection, and failure. Neff offers three tips for how to be a better parent.

Tip 1: Be Kind to Yourself 

Neff says that being gentle with yourself when you make mistakes in front of your child teaches them that parents are also humans who make mistakes, and that mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow from. When you have a parenting failure—for example, screaming at your child for doing something infuriating—you can demonstrate kindness toward yourself by:

  1. Taking a moment to acknowledge and be gentle with yourself about why you experienced the failure (your child threw her Cheerios with milk on the floor, leaving you with a mess to clean up).
  1. Apologizing to your child for your outburst (“Honey, I’m sorry I yelled at you. I was upset that you threw your cereal on the floor, but I could have told you that it’s not okay to make a mess that someone else has to clean up without yelling at you. I love you”). 

(Shortform note: Parenting experts say you can model kindness for your children not just by being gentle with yourself in the face of your errors, but by extending kindness towards others. For example, you could pay for the person in line behind you at the coffee shop, smile and hold the door as you exit and enter stores, pick up litter, or bring food to neighbors who are having a hard time.)

Tip 2: Don’t Criticize Yourself in Front of Your Child 

Neff says that criticizing yourself in front of your child (“I’m so stupid!” or “I can’t believe I gained five pounds—I’m disgusting!”) communicates to them that tearing yourself down in the face of your perceived failings is normal, acceptable behavior. In contrast, being gentle with yourself about your limitations in front of your child will encourage them to be similarly kind towards themselves when they feel insufficient and experience setbacks. 

For example, if you realize that your sister’s birthday party is tonight and you forgot to bake the cake, rather than say: “I forgot to make Aunt Linda’s cake, I can’t believe how dumb I am!” try: “Shoot! I forgot to make a cake for your aunt’s birthday party tonight. I guess we’ll have to get a cake from the store—maybe you and I can pick out a themed cake that she’ll like!” This communicates to your child that to err is human—and not fatal. 

(Shortform note: Experts say that not only shouldn’t you criticize yourself in front of your children, you also avoid talking negatively and disrespectfully about your partner and others. Calling your partners or others names and speaking abusively to them communicates to your child that this behavior is acceptable. You can help children understand how this behavior is unhelpful by a) refraining from doing it and b) talking with them about how talking negatively to someone makes them feel.) 

Tip 3: Don’t Criticize or Shame Your Child When Correcting Them 

Neff says that when parents routinely criticize their children for making mistakes, those children are more likely to be critical of themselves and experience anxiety and depression as adults. You can support your child’s sense of self-worth and help them understand the importance of self-compassion by offering corrections that make them feel understood rather than attacked, which also makes them more likely to respond positively to your correction. To do this, you should: 

  • Make the target of your correction the child’s unwanted behavior, not their character, so they understand that you don’t like what they did, but that they’re not bad or unloveable.
  • Emphasize that mistakes don’t define us and are things to learn from. This normalizes the idea that errors and failure happen and aren’t world-ending.
  • Validate the feelings underlying their unwanted behavior so they feel seen and understood.
  • Offer your correction in a calm, neutral tone to prevent further escalating the situation.

(Shortform note: Experts build on Neff’s argument that children whose parents criticize them are more likely to be self-critical, saying that criticizing your child for their mistakes is a strategy that backfires because it turns children’s attention from their own behavior to your negative feelings about them, which has long-term consequences for the relationship. When children become preoccupied with their parents’ unhappiness toward them, they can’t focus on addressing or improving things they’ve done wrong. And when children experience repeated rejection by their parents for their mistakes, they learn they can’t turn to their parents when things go wrong, which undermines their relationship.) 

How to Be a Better Parent: 3 Tips You Should Follow

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  • The key practices, benefits, and obstacles to embracing self-compassion
  • How self-compassion can improve your relationships with others
  • The two biggest obstacles to self-compassion and how to overcome them

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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