01/29/2014 02:15 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

The President's State of the Union Message to Parents: Invest When the Children Are Young

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One of the many initiatives proposed by President Obama in his State of the Union address was to focus on early childhood education. Children with a quality pre-school education are more likely to succeed in later schooling with potential life-long benefits.

The importance of focusing on young children in school is unfortunately not always mirrored by what parents do at home.

When my oldest daughter was about 2 years old, my wife and I were beginning to realize why developmental psychologists referred to this age as the "terrible twos." In addition to challenging our authority and insisting on doing things her own way, she was adamant about following her own eating and sleeping schedule. For a while, she was waking up at 4 a.m. and would head to the playroom, making sure not to wake us, for several hours of undisturbed play time. She also had a habit of lying whenever some mischief occurred in the house and would insist that "I didn't do it" even though she was an only child at the time. Frustrated, I commented to a friend how challenging parenting was. His response to my complaint was "This is nothing, just wait until she becomes a teenager, that's when you become a real parent."

I spent quite some time thinking about his response and began realizing that this is exactly the problem with parenting today. For some reason, many believe that the real challenge of parenting emerges during the adolescent stage -- when things get really difficult. Before that point not much thought needs to be placed into parenting practices.

No one would suggest that we focus on quality education only once children reach high school. President Obama's call for excellent early childhood education, at least from an educational standpoint, is not really challenged. Yet when it comes to parenting, many take the view that true parenting efforts can wait for the adolescence years.

I am always amazed by the number of times I receive a call from a distraught parent seeking my counseling in dealing with their difficult teenager. When I inquire about what efforts they have made in the past to seek effective parenting guidance, they say that they never really thought about it since they did not encounter big problems with their child in the past.

Although some great work is being done nowadays with adolescent therapy, the process required for meaningful change when a teenager is already in trouble is a difficult one that is often not successful. Once you reach the point where your teenager has an explosive temper, is belligerent, is depressed, has an eating disorder, is abusing drugs or has any combination of these problems, getting them back on track is very hard.

I propose that if parents would be concerned with the parenting of their child from the beginning as much as they are concerned with the parenting of adolescents, the state of our "teen problem" would look very different. The efforts put into parenting your teen should start 15 years earlier, when your child is born.

Knowledge about child development and consistently applying the right combination of parenting practices with your children from the get-go will make it much less likely that you will need the help of psychologists when they hit adolescence.

Similar to the President's call for focusing on educating our children when they are young, parents should focus on parenting their children when they are young. The attitude of parents should not be, "Just wait until your kids are teenagers"; rather it should be, "Don't wait until your kids are teenagers; start raising your children now."