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Should You Switch Your Parenting Style?

Mom and daughter talking

Have you ever heard of “lighthouse parenting”? If not, it’s about to change your world. In his new book, Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love with Expectations and Protection with TrustKenneth Ginsburg, MD, introduces the uninitiated to this surprising concept. The vision: Be a stable force on the shoreline that your kids can always look to (no matter what they’ve done this time). Make sure they don’t crash against any rocks, but allow them to ride the waves. (That’s for you, helicopter parents.) Master this technique and you’ll decrease anxiety, boost school performance and generally have a happier kid, says Ginsburg, a specialist in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia whose new book was published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In this Q&A, the author explains exactly how to be the lighthouse your kid needs.

Parenting books focus on every topic under the sun, but you homed in on two key actions: giving unconditional love and protecting your child. Why did you pick these?
Because they define the struggle of modern-day parenting. When we love our kids unconditionally, we give them the security to face the world. But how do you love your kids unconditionally when you also have to hold them to high expectations? Those two points seem in opposition. Second, kids have to fall down so they can learn how to get up. But you want to protect your kid. I wanted to put in one place the science, logic and strategies behind how to strike a balance for your child.

There’s a great part of your book where you list a series of things parents should stop saying to their kids, like “How did you do on your test?” Why is that not the right question to ask your kid?
When we praise the outcome or the result, people become very anxious about what they’ve done. When we notice the process and effort they put in, then they understand they’re in control. So instead ask, “What did you learn today?” Another example: Don’t say, “You’re so smart in math.” Then kids will be afraid to explore history and they’re going to be anxious about getting that B+. Instead say, “You worked really hard to study and complete all your math problems. That’s why you’re doing well.”

How about a parent getting frustrated and telling her kid, “Your grades are slipping. Sometimes I wonder if you even care.” What damage does that do?
When our kids don’t perform to our standards, we think they’re lazy. So often it’s the opposite. It’s that the kids care deeply and feel deeply. They worry about disappointing us. And as a result they choose to get off the playing field. It’s hard for a kid to say, “I care so much. I’m feeling insecure all the time.” Saying “I don’t care” or feigning indifference is easy. Allow yourself to step back and wonder if this kid is feeling too much pressure.

You have a section in the book where you offer a series of questions parents should ask themselves. There’s one I wanted you to talk about a little more: “Was love given to you unconditionally while growing up? How might that have affected you?”
If we felt that we had to perform for love instead of just being given it as kids, chances are we’re never going to feel good enough as adults. We’re always going to be anxious, trying to gain favor from other people. If you ask yourself that question and the answer is “I never knew how [my parents] felt about me” or “They seemed so angry when I didn’t _____,” there’s a good chance that as an adult you’re still paying for that emotionally. Rather than repeat that cycle, understand the importance of full unconditional love of your child. It doesn’t mean you approve of every behavior, but it means you’re not going anywhere. The kid can always rely on your presence, wisdom and affection.

You talked about the countless emails you’ve received with the subject line “Code Words Saved My Child’s Life.” What are code words, and why should parents use them?
We have to remember that our job is to protect our kids, but our bigger job is to raise kids to be healthy 35-, 40- and 50-year-olds. Let them go out into the world, but have a safety net so they can call you at any time and get out of any situation. Code words allow kids to call or text and put in a phrase the parent knows means “I’m in trouble; get me out of this,” like “I forgot to walk the dog.” And that triggers you to demand they come home or insist you pick them up or give them an excuse to leave.

Why did you put so much energy into weaving teen voices throughout the book—including your daughters’?
Kids are the experts in their own lives. But the truth is our own kids push our buttons. What this book allows you to do by including 500 kids from all over the country is to hear their voices in a way that doesn’t push your buttons. And you can imagine what your children might think based on what these kids say.

Would you try lighthouse parenting with your child? Post a comment below and tell us.

Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, is a specialist in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He is also director of health services at Covenant House Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous scientific papers and five books, including the award-winning best seller Building Resilience in Children and Teens. Most of all, he’s a dad.