Six Things Every Parent Should Know

The American family is broken. Not entirely shattered, but certainly broken. When more than half of marriages end in divorce, we have a problem with broken families. When one in three children lives in a home with only one biological parent, we have a problem with broken families. There are countless households where single parents and even responsible older siblings are stepping up and stepping in to fill the void created by the absence of another parent. Unconventional families are doing what they can to make do, but it's an uphill struggle. The strains on time, resources, and money that result from raising a family are increasingly difficult for two-parent households, let alone for single parents. . . . Good examples are best set and opportunities for children to learn are greatest when they have a mother and a father to teach them. We know we have to do better.

We should find hope in the fact that the American people realize the importance of the family, even if we struggle to protect it. When asked what mattered most to them personally, Americans agree that having "a loving family" is the single most important priority among a list of many high priorities (combined top three answers):

A loving family 54%
Good health 50%
Financial security 43%
Happiness 33%
Eventually going to heaven 25%
A chance to give something back 24%
Getting as much as I can out of life 17%
A great career 9%
Staying young at heart 9%
Doing something truly memorable 9%
A long life 8%
Opportunities to travel 8%
More time to do what you want 5%
Fewer day-to-day hassles 4%
More choices in life 1%

For a number of years, my research firm did the polling for the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Led by Joe Califano—the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Jimmy Carter and a passionate advocate for healthy living—we were encouraged to examine the aspects of parental behavior that might trigger harmful pathological behavior by their teenage children. What we learned should be tacked up on every refrigerator door and on the back of every BlackBerry in America. Wake up, America. Here are the six parental behaviors that are most likely to help—or destroy—your own children:

Healthy Children to Healthy Adults:

The Six Steps Parents Really Need to Know

1. Having dinner with your children. Nothing says "I truly care about you" more than spending dinnertime with your children at least five nights a week. More than any other day-to-day behavior, parents who dine with their children produce healthier adults because it sends the clear signal that their children are a high priority. Parents who miss dinner—no matter what the excuse—are sending the wrong message, and that message is unfortunately being heard loud and clear.

Let me interrupt here and say that Dr. Luntz found that teens who eat dinner at home three to five times per week have a lower risk of using cigarettes, alcohol, and illegal drugs, including marijuana. Only 34 percent of those teens say the television is on during family dinners, and only 12 percent say the family doesn't talk much. Of those who dine infrequently with their parents, 45 percent say the television is usually on as they eat, 29 percent say that the family does not talk very much, and 16 percent say that their dinners are often cut short.30 The application for parents is crystal clear. Now, back to Dr. Luntz's list.

2. Taking your children to church or synagogue weekly. It is no coincidence that the most successful anti-drug and anti-alcohol programs have a spiritual component. If your children are taught at a young age that there is something out there bigger and more important than themselves, they are more likely to respect and appreciate the wonders of life and less likely to destroy it with drugs and alcohol.

3. Checking your child's homework nightly. There are two components at work here. First, a parent's daily participation in the homework assignments communicates that their children matter, and it also serves as an early warning sign if something is off track. Furthermore, children need to see that their intellectual development is just as important as their physical development. The more engaged a child is in intellectual pursuits, the less likely he or she is to engage in harmful physical behavior.

4. Demanding the truth from your children—and getting it. Parents who insist on knowing exactly where their children are on Friday and Saturday nights are sending a clear message that not every place, every friend, or every behavior is acceptable. Children who tell them the truth are acknowledging those boundaries, but if they would lie about where they are, they are most assuredly lying about what they do. Deceit in the name of "teenagers will be teenagers" should never be tolerated.

5. Taking your children on vacation for at least a week at a time. Long weekends don't qualify because it just isn't long enough to break the daily routine or reconnect the relationship. You need a week without their texting, your e-mailing, and everyone's cell phones. There are no shortcuts here. Switching your portable devices to vibrate is not enough. Turn them completely off so that you can turn your children back on.

6. Encourage them to participate in a team sport. Sorry, but individual sports and other group activities like band and drama don't count. Team members are often even less tolerant of substance abuse than parents—for good reason. When teenagers are forced to depend on each other's physical health and performance, they are less likely to engage in harmful physical behavior. Peer pressure to do the right thing can be a powerful motivating force.

What practical information Dr. Luntz has provided with these findings. I appreciate his allowing me to share his conclusions with you.

I will close with this thought. In the Broadway musical The Music Man, a traveling salesman sings a song offering advice to the mothers and fathers of River City. It is called "Ya Got Trouble."32 He proposes getting the kids involved in a marching band as a way to keep them moral after school. Well, even though the salesman was something of a con man, he was onto something. Parents do need to think hard about protecting their children from harmful influences after school and at all other times. The solution is to be found in building good relationships, in providing close supervision, in keeping your eyes and ears open, in enjoying wholesome recreation with your children, in encouraging team sports, in getting involved in a caring church, in enrolling your kids in a good school, in careful monitoring of their friends, in talking a lot at evening meals, and in praying constantly. These are the contributors to "good news about girls"—and boys.

30. Frank Luntz, What Americans Really Want . . . Really: The Truth about Our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears (New York: Hyperion, 2009).

31. Ibid.

32. Morton DaCosta, The Music Man (Warner Bros., 1962).

Book: Bringing Up Girls

By Dr. James Dobson

(excerpted from Dr. Luntz's book)30 :

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