11/04/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Secret to Successful Parenting

Leading hundreds of in-depth parent seminars and family counseling sessions -- plus 63 years of teaching teenagers -- convinces me that successful parenting requires fulfilling two tasks: (1) helping children realize their true best and (2) preparing them to become self-sufficient by roughly age 19.

We parents today have difficulty fulfilling these tasks, because we are caught up in our society's academic achievement-driven educational system, where our children's "best" is measured academically. This leaves the parent mentoring role in a secondary position, that of urging our children to meet the school's standards.

The impotency of this role leads many of us to want a closer relationship with our children -- even (sometimes desperately) seeking their love. This desire actually interferes with our children's deeper needs and can block the deeper parent-child love. It can sidetrack parents into being overly concerned about our children's feelings -- happiness, self-esteem, fears, etc. -- that are basically their responsibility to work through.

When we parents do meet the deeper needs of children -- helping them discover their true best and becoming self-sufficient -- a deeper love and bond naturally follows.

We can help our children realize their best by stressing and praising best effort. "Don't lie; don't quit" is also a valuable guideline. Self-sufficiency is developed by encouraging initiatives, while holding children accountable for their decisions, remembering that mistakes and failure can be great teachers.

At the same time, we need to purge society's achievement emphasis within ourselves in order to truly honor our children's best. I dealt with this parenting conflict when our oldest child was 9.
I noticed Malcolm's friend Phe wearing my old watch. Phe said Mal had given it to him, but when I asked Mal, he denied it. Since Malcolm was the "golden boy" in town and Phe in constant trouble, it seemed obvious who was lying; even Phe's father, the town's minister, apologized to me.

But I magnanimously said we should ask the school principal to determine the truth. It ultimately turned out Mal, not Phe, had lied!

I'd never been so shocked in my life--not that Mal had lied, but that his lie had made his friend look like a thief. The first thought that popped in my head was, did God give us a lemon?

That arrogant thought suddenly showed me how off-track a father I was. If we were going to take credit for raising our great kids, how could we not also take responsibility for their shortcomings? I knew then I must be the source of Mal's dishonesty.

When I searched for that dishonesty in my parenting, I found it.

I would say to Mal, "I don't care how well you do, as long as it's your best." It was true in my mind, but not in my heart, and kids read your heart, not your mind. Mal knew I did care about his achievements, and they made a difference to me. That was why he didn't want to admit to giving away the watch.

It took time to focus only on Mal's best, but once it was true in my heart, his lying went away.
As to self-sufficiency, at birth we begin with 100% responsibility; if we parent right, by roughly age 19, we would have transferred 51% of that responsibility to our children.

In 7th grade, Mal was stuck in a lower section of the local school. We were unsuccessful in getting the school to challenge him, so we reluctantly sent Mal to a very tough, old style, junior boarding school.

Malcolm will tell you that was the unhappiest year of his life. But given the way we were preparing our children to become self-sufficient, I felt we should trust 13-year-old Mal to make the responsible decision to return the next year. So, with my heart in my throat, I said, "Mal, this is very expensive for us, so we are only willing to send you back if you make the commitment to return."

He never hesitated to return. Years later, I asked him why. He said, "I was in with people going somewhere and realized I had been going nowhere."

Mal had a very rocky two years at that school, but had the pleasure of being asked to be its commencement speaker this past June.

And I have had the pleasure of helping many parents focus on helping their children realize their best and become self-sufficient. I have seen families experience deep parent-child love; I've seen parents watch their children pursue meaningful and fulfilling lives.

That's the way parenting is meant to be.