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Parenting: What's done now will make difference later

Sometimes Kristie Glad Sowards looks at her four young children and is filled with a flood of emotion.

She thinks, "Wow, these are my kids." She ponders how she wants what is best for them and how, as their mother, she has the responsibility to help them have a good life.

She worries that she might not have enough time to meet all of their needs and wonders how to best discipline them. Most important, she thinks of how much she loves them.

Several researchers in BYU's Family Studies Center agree that the things Sister Sowards and her husband, Allen, of the Winder 11th Ward, Salt Lake Winder West Stake, do for their children now, while they are young, will make all the difference later on.

They, and other parents everywhere, will have to be proactive, said Susanne Frost Olsen, an associate professor of marriage, family and human development at BYU.

"We can't wait until there are problems," she said. "We have to decide what we are going to do early on and stick with it.

"President Gordon B. Hinckley has made it clear to us that the place where teaching should take place is in the home," she said. That's because, "parenting affects children's behavioral outcomes."

Chris L. Porter, an assistant professor of marriage, family and human development at BYU, agreed, noting that parents' interaction with young children is incredibly important because children establish attitudes, values and beliefs during their first years.

"Certainly a way children are parented and disciplined can contribute to how they are willing to accept the parents' teachings of values and attitudes," he said. "If parents are too harsh and too intense it might lead children to cut off messages from parents. Without enough guidance and counsel, children might not hear the messages from parents. There has to be a happy medium."

Indeed, said Alan J. Hawkins, director of BYU's Family Studies Center and an associate professor of marriage family and human development, raising young children is challenging in contemporary life.

One of the biggest challenges parents face today, he said, is giving children time. Research not only shows that children want "focused time" — when parents are engaged in an activity with the child and not distracted — but that they also want "hang around time" — when informal, enjoyable, fun interaction is occurring.

Sister Olsen, Brother Porter and Brother Hawkins, in separate Church News interviews, gave advice to help parents prepare their young children for the teenage years and beyond. Following are some of these pointers:

Plan ahead: Couples should talk about parenting styles before they have children, said Brother Porter. "There should be some agreement in their approach to rearing children."

Talk to children: "Even when dealing with infants, parents should talk to them and explain to them what is right and what is wrong," said Brother Porter. "This opens the line of communication for a later time."

Be consistent: Parents should be consistent with discipline. "A lot of times when parents are tired they let things go," Sister Olsen said. They should also talk with each other so that they are consistent between the two of them, she added.

Do not use harsh discipline: Children need to know why an action is wrong, said Brother Porter. They need to know of a positive action to replace a negative action.

One way to get rid of some behaviors in small children, he added, is to not reinforce the behaviors by giving them attention. For example, instead of repeatedly telling a child "no" for reaching for an outlet, redirect the child's attention to an appropriate activity.

Sister Olsen added that indirect discipline is effective with toddlers. Many times younger children will explore the household without understanding why certain behaviors are unacceptable. For example, if a young child continues to remove books from a book case it may be better to move the books than repeatedly discipline the child, she said.

Show love towards spouse: If there is stress in the marriage, it spills over into how parents interact with their children, said Sister Olsen.

Spend time with children: "There are certain family relationship processes that just take time," said Brother Hawkins. "We are creatures that require a lot of time in order to build strong relationships."

Like his wife, Alan Sowards, a bishop, often ponders the magic of parenthood. He watches his children discover new things and shares in their happiness.

"One day you turn around and realize you have a whole family," he said. "That is sort of an awesome recognition. That is when, sometimes as parents, you wonder if you are doing what you ought to do, or enough of one thing or another. You ask yourself if you have done what you need to do. You re-evaluate and set new goals."

For the Sowards, that goal-setting time comes once a year as the children are preparing to start school. Bishop and Sister Sowards ask the children what they want to do during the next year and try to do it. Last year one child wanted to see a parade, another wanted to ride a horse. Bishop and Sister Sowards wanted to hold nightly family prayer and grow a vegetable garden. The entire family wanted to celebrate the New Year together.

While all their goals are all not yet accomplished, Bishop Sowards said he tries to remind himself that even though it is hard, now is the time to form lasting relationships and memories with his children.

While attending Salt Lake's First Night celebration on New Year's Eve with his family, Bishop Sowards pondered the new year. He hopes it will be filled with family memories his children will carry with them into the future.

Photo credits: A — Greg Hill, B — Melissa Clark, C — John Hart, D — Jason Swenson

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