Simple Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents

Introduction: Simple and Not So Simple


We are the holders of a priceless gift, a gift we received from countless generations we never knew, a gift that only we now possess and only we can give to our children. That unique gift, of course, is the gift of ourselves.

   —Fred Rogers

Imagine a world in which parents receive every child as a miraculous gift, a new human being at once fragile and full of potential to live a wonderful life—if we provide the care that will help them make it happen. While almost any adult can help bring a child into being, only a parent in the truest sense recognizes their child as such a gift. And only an exceptional parent sees, as Fred Rogers reminds us, that they, in turn, may become their child’s most precious gift.

An exceptional parent knows that raising a child isn’t so much about buying toys, expensive vacations and the like, but about giving their time and attention. Exceptional parents help their children feel loved and valued.  They teach integrity and grit by example and through the honesty with which they provide guidance and share their personal stories. They instill in their child the faith that she or he was born for a life of joy, loving relationships and rewarding adventures. An exceptional parent is a gift every day.

Now, lest you think that exceptional parenting is as unattainable as finding the Holy Grail, my years as family therapist, coach, father, son and human being have taught me something encouraging: exceptional parenting doesn’t spring from genius, Mother Theresa-like saintliness, or any other superhuman quality. Instead, it emerges from simple, conscious habits. It comes into being when you remember the power you wield in your child’s life and act accordingly, showing that you value your child’s strengths and interests, supporting rather than undermining your child’s positive feelings about himself or herself, and allowing your child their mistakes and the opportunities to learn from them.

Ironically, our most important parenting habits stretch beyond those that directly provide love and guidance to our children. I am speaking here of the behaviors that demonstrate our own positive values, effective ways of interacting with the world around us, and successful navigation of the unforeseen challenges life throws our way. All of our habits have far-reaching significance for our children because they look to us as a guiding example. In fact, we will always stand among our child’s most influential role models.

While habits of exceptional parenting may be simple to grasp, they’re not always easy to practice. When I recently advised a mother and father to let their 14-year-old son manage his own homework rather than supervise him as they’d previously been doing, they understood that allowing him to take responsibility for his work made sense. Yet they resisted doing so.

“What if he loses all self-confidence, decides that he’s stupid, and stops trying to learn?”

“What if he tosses his homework aside, fails ninth grade, and starts talking about quitting school when he turns sixteen?”

“What if he becomes depressed and suicidal?”

Such fears often confront us at the threshold of change. Other obstacles can also get in the way: entrenched habits running on autopilot, time pressure that makes it seem easier to stick with the familiar, and uncertainty about how to go about doing what is new.  When it comes to trying out a different behavior, simple to understand rarely means simple to do.

This book identifies exceptional parenting habits that you can learn and offers guidance on how to make them your own. Your children will benefit greatly. They stand to gain self-esteem, belief in their own competence, respect for themselves and others, a compelling vision for their future, and the determination to work hard toward their goals. They will develop the capacity to love people more than things, greater optimism and happiness, and the certainty that they are part of something larger than themselves. Many years from now, they will remember you with gratitude.

I have written this book in user-friendly language. The chapters are comprised of brief sections, each describing a key, beneficial parental habit. I believe that in today’s time-challenged, information-saturated culture, brevity is a kindness that helps us to gain and retain understanding. Each section concludes with a list of key points as an additional memory aid. I address your habits rather than your child’s for two important reasons. First, the only behaviors we have some degree of control over are our own. Second, our habits are the most important model for those of our child.

You may find yourself using this book in a variety of ways. Simple Habits of Exceptional (But Not Perfect) Parents may start out as a parenting primer that helps set the course of your lifelong parenting journey. Later, when family circumstances raise important challenges, you may open to this or that chapter for a refresher. For some readers, the book may become an always-ready coach to consult regularly—for reminders or when you simply feel like affirming the great job you’re doing as a parent.

Now, an important disclaimer: While I strive to be an exceptional parent, I am, alas, only human. As my son, Erik, now 24 and working at his first post-college “real” job, can attest, I do my best to be an exceptional parent and I am also far from perfect. The years have taught me to value humility as inspiration for lifelong learning. This book shares what I have learned as well as what I aspire to achieve.

I wrote this book after several of my therapy clients suggested that I share the advice I gave them with a wider audience.  I offer the pages that follow hoping that they will help you practice these simple habits, which in turn, will help your child live a joyful, healthy, and successful life. As one parent to another, give your child this gift—you, an exceptional parent. Twenty years from now, you’ll still be glad you did.



            Enter your name here: ________________________



            Enter today’s date here: _______________________



The Pet Loss Companion: Healing Advice From Family Therapists Who Lead Pet Loss Groups


Introduction: The Circle of Love and Grief


       For a combined total of more than three decades, Nancy and I have led support groups for people whose dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, horses, and fish—yes, even fish—have died. We’ve been trusted with tales of love and grief, each one helping us better understand what it means to be a human being, deepening our appreciation for life and the relationships we cherish. Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young therapist, a wise woman told me that we inevitably pay for our love with grief— “inevitably” because all relationships end. She also promised that love proves to be worth its cost every time. We’ve seen the truth in her words countless times in stories told by people after losing their companion animals. We wrote this book to share what we’ve learned.

       Companion animals draw our attention in a unique way. Not long ago while on vacation, my spouse, our two best friends, and I ambled toward our docked cruise ship along a busy street in Ireland’s seaport town of Cobh. We marveled at the pastels of yellow, pink, and green row houses lining our steep descent, the grey stone cathedral, and the water directly ahead that mirrored the sky’s rainy blue and filled the serpentine contours from harbor to horizon. The sights and sounds of this foreign place captivated us.

       Suddenly, a small bouncing fluff of white grabbed our attention in a way that pushed everything else aside. Ten paces ahead a young Irishman’s West Highland white terrier had jumped up from his sit and stay. One after another, people smiled and dodged the ten-week-old puppy. Many of us couldn’t resist stopping. Smiling broadly, the young man told us he was teaching his pup street manners. After the rest of us stroked the puppy’s head, my friend, David, scooped her up, and cooed “Aren’t you adorable!” He held her against his face. Smitten.

Making Love, Playing Power: Men, Women, and the Rewards of Intimate Justice



       What if the measure of a man was his willingness to love? What a different world this would be, and what a difference we’d find within family and couple relationships.


       Men can love. To some people, this may come as a surprise. They still believe that men can't handle the emotional heavy lifting that love sometimes requires, and only women can shoulder the real work of couple relationships. This kind of thinking finds its roots in patriarchy, the worldwide system that puts men in charge and assigns women service work, including the day-to-day work of maintaining relationships. The good news is that a growing number of people, men and women alike, no longer accept this arrangement. Instead, they seek couple partnerships based upon love, mutual respect, and fairness. Building such partnerships presents major challenges, however, because the world has a way of pulling us back into the old patriarchal mold.

       This book will help you resist that pull and create lasting positive changes in your couple relationship.

       Patriarchy hurts everybody. Amazingly, most relationship-help books tiptoe around this fact. Not this book. I describe exactly what this beast called patriarchy looks like, how it wreaks havoc upon couple relationships, and how we keep it alive despite the fact that it does none of us any good. I offer “principles of love” that provide firm ground for partnership, discuss the important role that different kinds of power play within relationships, and describe what fairness looks like. I show you how to make healthy changes within your daily life. Using the information, exercises, and “action steps” within this book, you and your partner can build a lasting relationship based upon mutual respect and fairness rather than the old rules of patriarchy.

       Whether or not it’s overtly stated, most relationship-help books focus on women. In keeping with patriarchal thinking, these books presume that women are and always will be far more willing than men to take responsibility for relationship matters. But I see this pattern shifting as my male therapy clients claim an increasing degree of responsibility within their important relationships. The book focuses on men in order to promote this hopeful trend. I spotlight men’s beliefs, expectations, and choices that often contribute to relationship problems but go unacknowledged (much less challenged), and in doing so, I bring much needed balance to the way we understand the relationship equation. My recommendations for both men and women show how to transform these patterns.