I've worked with at-risk teenagers for the last 33 years, and recently someone emailed me this question: "I am going to be teaching a parenting class at a local school. What advice would you give to a room full of parents?"
This was my answer:
The most powerful and important thing a parent can do for a child is to BELIEVE in that child, and to express that. To believe in that child's abilities, believe in their essential goodness, believe in his or her capability to reach their potential, in all different ways. When I look back at my life and think of the adults who had the greatest impact on me, it was the adults who believed in me and in what I was capable of, even when I didn't believe in me. That is such a gift for any parent/teacher/coach/mentor to give to a child. "I believe you are capable of (fill in the blank)" is a powerful and wonderful message for a child to receive.
Equally important is for parents to realize it is their job to set limitations and boundaries for their child. Just because you believe in your child doesn't mean you turn a blind eye to his or her failings, or set the bar low in terms of expectations. I see too many parents who are trying to be their child's best friend. That's not your role. Your role is to be a parent, and that means establishing boundaries and expectations for behavior. Friends don't do that for friends. Parents are supposed to do that.
Don't make excuses for your child. If he does something wrong, teach him to own up to it, apologize, make amends, and move on. If she steals something from a store, don't let her off the hook because she's the middle child in the family or you didn't potty train her correctly. Those things may in fact be true, but she's culpable and she needs to get that message that from you and be held accountable. And don't "lawyer-up" either. That only teaches kids that if they have enough money, they can get away with anything, and therefore the rules of society don't really apply.
Don't try to emotionally rescue your child at every turn. Not everyone finishes first. Not everyone gets a trophy. Not everyone wins the spelling bee. Girls break up with guys, and guys break up with girls. All these things hurt to some degree. Kids need to get used to that feeling and how to handle it, because adulthood is going to be full of it. We don't do kids any favors by shielding them from emotional pain.
Parenting is work. It is an investment of time and energy and attention. It means going to parent-teacher conferences. It's being an advocate for your child in his school so you are sure he is getting the education he needs and services if warranted. It's going to Little League games and dance recitals, not that you have to make every single one, but it's important for you be at some. It's checking that when your child says, "I am going over Joe's house tonight," that you take the time to call and make sure there are actually adults there. All of this is work, and like everything else in life, the more effort you put into it, the greater the results at the other end.
Parents must model the behavior we want children to embody. I have hanging up on my office wall a quote from the Italian novelist Umberto Eco: "I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us." Except for the fact that he should have stated "father and mothers," he is correct in that if we want our children to be kind, compassionate, caring, energetic and responsible, we have to model these traits for them. They need to see us live these things out, over and over, consistently. There are no short cut around that. Think about every single character trait you hope for in your child, and ask if you are modeling that for them.
Routines are important. I was fortunate enough to be trained by the late Columbia University professor and author of Cottage Six, Dr. Howard Polsky, who drilled into me, "For children and adolescents, routines mean safety." That's why I am always promoting having dinner together as a family; going to church/worship services together; family vacations; celebrating the major holidays together. These are all routines, and to the extent that we are devaluing these things we are helping to deteriorate one of the core pillars of family and the development of our youth.
And finally, a parent should tell their child "I love you," and keep saying that up through adolescence, adulthood and to the end of earthly existence. Don't presume they know it. They need to hear it. So you should say it.