Set Your Parenting Priorities - Five ideal goals for raising a balanced, well-rounded child

Being a parent is generally a joyful, rich experience. But it is also challenging, especially when it comes to choosing and setting your parenting priorities. Just when you think you've finally got it all together, a new trend catches fire that suggests something else should rise to the top of your list. Enrichment programs, sports clinics, competitive pre-schools - the list and possibilities can seem endless and bewildering. 

So what's a parent to do? First, take a breath. Experts who study these issues usually find that most extra activities offer, at best, minor benefits for raising successful human beings and, at worst, can be overwhelming and taxing for our children. 

The biggest parental mistake we make is that we tend to define success by grade point averages rather than eventual life happiness. Our second mistake seems to be (as author Mel Levine puts it) that we focus too much on college-prep and too little on life-prep. To help you breathe a little easier, you'll find a ranked list of parenting priorities below. Keep them in mind when you're debating whether to sign your child up for language immersion school, or to lie down with him in the backyard and stare at the sky.

1. Your Relationship 

You are the most powerful influence in your child's life. Without a connection to your child, none of the other priorities will be possible. Well-adjusted kids have strong, respect-based relationships with their parents. These parents tend not to be drill sergeants or buddies. Instead, they consistently hold to fair limits for their child. These parents approach borders with calm, not rage, and teach values with love, not a fear of whether or not their child will make the right decisions.

2. Your Child's Heart 

Integrity, compassion, courage - these aspects of your child's character push the values in his mind into actions. Values without heart are useless. Encourage experiences where your child will interact with and see things firsthand. Better yet, model them. Focus on who you want your child to be at age 40, not 19. Your job is not to raise an Ivy Leaguer, but to shape the parent of your grandchildren.

3. Your Child's Identity 

Instead of controlling your child, help her learn to control herself. This requires that she develop values that are her own. The successful (and safe) teen doesn't say, "No thanks. I can't drink - my dad would kill me." She says, "No thanks. I don't drink." Building positive values comes from allowing kids to explore who they are and what they believe. Whenever possible, encourage your child to make age-appropriate decisions about appearance, interests, and ethics.

4. Your Child's Academic Success 

Do what you can to use positive incentives for great grades, but know that tormenting your child for academic excellence can be detrimental. Insist on academic successes that are appropriate for your child. Remember that when the time comes there are safety nets for older kids who haven't learned how to learn. For example, community colleges can be great launching pads to the best schools in the world. Immediate excellence won't make or break your child. 

5. Your Child's Activities 

Sports, music, and enrichment programs are wonderful things, but only in the dose that's correct for your child. Each kid is unique. As a rule of thumb, push for at least one activity. But be sure to remember that unstructured pastimes (like your young child's dollhouse or a teen's rock band) are great places to learn many complex and critical life skills like discipline, negotiation, and tolerance.

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