6 Things You Can Do Today to Change Your Child’s Life

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

As parents, we’re always looking for ways to improve our child’s life, from decisions like what school he should attend to long-term worries like paying for his college education.

But we often forget that it’s the little things that really matter — the things we do today, with the kid, that will shape his life.

These things don’t have to be huge, or expensive, or time-consuming. We can take a few minutes out of each day to do one of these little things, and it’ll make a big difference, over the long term.

Don’t have the time? Try shutting off the computer after 6 p.m. and not doing email or web browsing. Try shutting off the TV and any other media, and just make time for these things.

There are many little things you can do, but here are 6 good ones.

  1. Read. The best way to improve your child’s education is to read to her. Daily, if possible. It doesn’t much matter what you read, as long as you’re doing it. It’s a great way to bond, it doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, and it’s a lot of fun for both you and the child. When you read to your child, she learns language, learns to read and become a self-educator, learns the importance of reading, because you’re spending time doing it with her. Here are my favorite children’s books.
  2. Talk. Just sit on the couch, or go for a walk outside, and have a simple chat. What’s on your child’s mind? What has she been playing today? What has she been wondering about? What worries her? What does she love? A conversation, like language, teaches your child an essential skill — how to use language — and also gives you some quality bonding time.
  3. Snuggle. It takes seconds, and it matters. Your child loves to have human contact (as we all do), and in fact it’s a human need. It can be a simple hug, it can be laying together and cuddling, it can be manly if you’re not comfortable with hugging — just wrestle.
  4. Remove your shield. Parents today are overprotective, with their parental controls on the Internet and selecting every TV show and movie the child watches and not letting them play with fire or go outside for fear of them getting hurt. It treats the kid like a baby, which leaves him totally unprepared for the real world and leaves his brain without the development that comes from trying complex, risky things and having the freedom to play and make decisions. Remove your shield, today, and allow your child to play outdoors, play with knives, play with fire — but teach him how to do it without killing himself.
  5. Get them excited. This isn’t necessarily as hard as it sounds. It’s as simple as playing a fun game, learning about something cool (dinosaurs, space, rockets, chemistry, animals, how video games are made, kung fu, and so on). When your child gets excited, and you do as well, he learns what it’s like to be passionate about something, to learn about something that fascinates you, to do it and put what you’ve learned into action. That’ll translate to any career, and to life in general.
  6. Trust. We parents find it hard to trust our children, it seems, even if we won’t admit it. Stop watching over them all the time, stop putting shackles on them, stop treating them like their opinion doesn’t matter, stop being so authoritative and ask for their help and their thoughts and their input into decisions that affect them. Trust them, instead, and they’ll grow to deserve that trust, and grow because of that trust.

Read more from Leo at Zen Habits or mnmlist.

58 Responses to “6 Things You Can Do Today to Change Your Child’s Life”

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  1. Simple Llama says:

    I’ll just have to reinforce #2. Talking to your kid, at any age, is probably the best thing you can do. It takes time, it shows you care, and kids love it. Doesn’t cost a dime either, so no one can use that as an excuse. So, turn off the TV for a bit and talk to your kid. You might even learn something – my 10 year old has a habit of surprising me with things he knows, and keeping me sharp.

  2. Baker says:

    I would always add applaud them!

    When Courtney and I clap for Milligan over something is done she lights up like a Christmas tree. It’s funny to see here clapping for things that she likes even at a young age. Time to celebrate!

  3. Larry says:

    My wife and I like these two:
    1. Greet your child with unbridled enthusiam in the morning, no matter how tired or stress you are.
    2. Give a hug daily, no matter old they are.

  4. Natalie says:

    I would add to this excellent list – which rightly focuses on the time, physical contact and attention you can give your child – by suggesting we also look carefully at how we behave in front of them.

    If you are having an argument with your partner, really do your best not to have it out in front of your children. If there are problems at work, leave them at the office rather than dragging the stress home with you. Children are so sensitive to non-verbal cues that it doesn’t take much for them to feel anxious or insecure if you are feeling the same. They are watching you all the time, copying you, listening to you.

    Use this as an opportunity to always show your best side whenever they are around – and you may find yourself less stressed and peaceful as a bonus!

  5. Laurie says:

    Yes, trusting your child is extremely important. Your child needs to make decisions, good or bad, in order to learn about life. Let her! Guide her, answer her questions, but don’t “teach/preach” to her. What a child thinks matters; don’t be a dictator to your child. Show your child respect.

    Also, don’t force your child to do activities that only YOU want to do. Participate in activities that your child likes. And if your child just likes to hang out at home doing whatever interests her, be okay with that!

  6. Jauhari says:

    The Most Important is ACTION, plan without ACTION is NOTHING…
    Recipe without The Real One is useless ;)

    Let’s do it t our child ;)

  7. I love your tips, Leo, though they are very different than the way I was raised. But they make a lot of sense.

    How do you handle correcting your kids? Do you intervene when your kids are bickering or fighting? Sometimes the negative banter between them could drive me insane….

  8. Leo Babauta says:

    @Melissa: I have to admit I’m still trying to improve here, but what I try to do is teach rather than scold or lecture or punish. When we think of ourselves as gentle teachers, it changes the dynamic. They’re learning, and if they make mistakes it’s because they don’t know better yet. So we show them, through example, though patient conversations, through repeated trial and error. Guide, don’t force.

  9. These are great! I like the trust and respect. My husband and I were talking the other night about all the challenges we’re likely going to face in the future with our two little ones. All the “answers” on how to cope/handle them centered around trust and respect. As difficult as it may be at times it’s important to have that in mind early on as we set the foundation.

    Cuddling has to be my favorite on this list though. I can here the “Oh Mom!” from my boys now :)

  10. Leo, I condense all of these into treating my children like people who are learning how to grow. Which means respecting them as though they are grown up – but being there to help, guide and protect when necessary – but above all to love them no matter what they do.

  11. Lorraine says:

    #4 Struck a chord. Left to their own devices–rather than being constantly entertained and overscheduled with activities–kids delight in playing with all four elements, especially fire.

    My kids’ Waldorf teacher noted that children’s access to open fire has been almost entirely eliminated since electricity’s introduction in the last century. But kids–and adults–remain magnetically drawn to this wonderfully transformative element.

    I disagree about limiting Internet and media. I believe young children benefit tremendously when protected from constant electronic stimulation—and the barrage of sensationalized media.

  12. Jon says:

    Great list, Leo. Inspirational and aspirational as ever.

    I’d add: take time to work to their priorities not yours.

    I try and limit the number of times I say “In a minute…” or “After I’ve…” It’s a hard task, with the priorities of multiple children to juggle along with those of the grown-ups…

  13. Absolutely all true. I love everything you wrote here. In our home, internet is off after 7:00 pm and we don’t have a tv. We read and play a lot, even if the play includes lots of mess afterwards. ;-)

    I would add “making a YES day” for each child – that as long as it’s within reason, I’ll say yes to all her requests on that one particular day of the week, even if it means no blogging time for me!

  14. This was not the was I was raised. However, now that we have a 3 month old son, my wife and I have had long discussions about how we are going to raise him. We see how our families do things and we do not see it as healthy to a child’s growth.

    Even though our son cannot actively participate in our conversations, we talk to him all the time. Being a parent has taught me so much already in these few months.

  15. Sau says:

    Thank you Leo for the great list. I noticed the order in which the 6 things are listed is just right, 1-3 hold true for kids of all ages, 4-5 when they have started exploring their world and 6 when they are a bit older and start getting a bit autonomous.

  16. Bas van der Zanden says:

    Thanks for all the comments, they give ideas how to make them happen in daily live.
    I try to make them happen most of the time. But sometimes my priorities are not with my child. I really try, but sometimes I’m to tired, is something “important” on TV and so on.
    Like at this moment; I’m on the computer getting inspiration on this website, while my son is sitting on the couch waiting for my attention….(sad but true)

  17. Thanks Leo – a great list. The importance of trust within a family just can’t be underestimated if you ask me!

  18. Kelly says:

    Love this list. I’m printing it out to put on my fridge. I need visual reminders to slow down every day.

    I would add my own, follow their lead. Some of my favorite experiences have been letting them lead or decide things on their own, and following them. It teaches me a lot about who they are as people.

  19. I used to think that watching Sponge Bob w/my daughter was together time.

    Now, we shut the TV off and play cards. We have a blast….(I’m canceling the TV all together next week).

    These posts are important reminders. We know these things and somehow forget them. I don’t really understand why it’s such a struggle. I have to fight the compulsion to work too much – even when I don’t have to.

    That’s why these posts are so valuable. Thanks.

  20. I love this post and agree with everything it says. I could definitely be less protective. :) Thanks for the reminders. Our kids will grow up and be gone before we know it!

  21. It really is the little everyday moments that make up our lives. And being present with our children is such a gift- for us and them! I think equally as key to talking to our children is listening to our children. I find that truly listening brings me to the moment. It is so easy for me to veer towards wanting to fix my children’s problems, analyze, or teach instead of just fully listening with an open heart. And I am aware of the power of being heard- I know just how cherished and loved I feel when I am heard.

  22. I like tip 4. My son is only 5 months, but I’m trying to learn to not be protective of him. He’s just learned to sit. I’m tempted to support him so he doesn’t fall over and hit his head. But I know it’s best to just let him topple over.

  23. dutdot says:

    awesome post!

    Don’t forget to say “I love you” to our children everyday. It feels good to fill them with love while they’re still young. They won’t forget the values and the love that they’re receiving through their growing years.

  24. Great list here, especially trusting our kids and removing our shields, or the shields we try to put around them. They will definitely make mistakes, and we have to let them. I know none of us want to see our kids hurt, but it’s better to show them how to handle things than to constantly insulate them from them.

    I would also add another way to spend time with your kids and change them for the better:

    Let them help you with chores. I know this takes slowing down, and being extra patient, but we often forget that children really want to feel useful. Letting them help you builds confidence and life skills. And later, when they’re teens, you won’t have to struggle as much to get them to do their share around the house! :)

  25. Kenny says:

    Nice list Leo.Thanks. To expand a little on # 6. Trust- I would say actively look for opportunities for them to make decisions, and allow and support them in those decisions- it gives them a great opportunity to feel important and heard, and you a chance to experience how they think.

  26. Love this – just tweeted and emailed it! thanks!

  27. Absolutely! Kids truly do love the simple things in life. We change their views by giving them healthy examples, and this holds true for learning, trusting and loving for sure.

    I feel that the best thing we can do to change the lives of our children is to invest in our marriages and provide them with a solid example of a fulfilling, loving and selfless relationship.

  28. It’s so amazing how these simple habits started early can make such a difference. I’m trying to make sure I keep doing these things as my girls get older. (They’re only 2 and 4 so it’s easy right now.)

  29. Lisa says:

    I found myself smiling, amused by how your “6 things” made me feel validated as a mother (validated sounds better than smug, doesn’t it?). My husband and/or I have a 1/2 hour every with each child, separately, for reading, snuggling and talking. It helps that we both work from home, so we don’t walk in the door at night, frazzled by a commute. We eat together 5 or 6 nights a week, usually taking one night for a kitchen “date night” and lose another night to Girl Guides.

    The areas in which I have the most difficulty are:
    1) in reference to your #4 re: overprotection. We are on the same page regarding “the development that comes from trying complex, risky things and having the freedom to play and make decisions.” So, expressing their opinions and having to back them up, physical pursuits like tree climbing, indoor rock climbing, cycling, escapes to the tree house, and using the kitchen knives, the gas stove & the phone are in, but in my house; internet use has to be supervised, no candles may be lit in bedroom and no going off on their own to find a public loo. Walking 1 1/2 miles to school along a busy road is out. An email address, that will be set up this week on my daughter’s new (today) laptop, will be checked for activity once a week.

    I don’t see this as overprotective, but then everyone’s definition of that will vary depending upon the age of the children, the enviroment where they live, the experiences of the parents, the exposure to media reports of drug use, kidnapping, child abuse. I prefer to use “common sense” to guide me.

    By the way, I found it really interesting that TV was seen as the villain to be avoided by some of the other commenters. I put on one of the chatty morning news programs every day in the kitchen while we are having breakfast. If something is broadcast that they are curious about, we take the time to discuss it. In the UK, the BBC has a children’s channel, CBBC, which has its own news program presented in a way that children can understand. I can’t tell you how many times my kids have proudly announced at dinner that they learned something new today! From school, darling? No, Mummy, from NewsRound! On top of that, my 10-year old watches the cooking shows, music competitions like X Factor and Pop Idol, and a medical program called Embarrassing Bodies. That last one helps her understand nutrition, bodily functions, the emotional aspect of physical differences, etc.. Not to mention that it cheers me everytime I hear my 6-year old laughing out loud or answering quiz questions to the TV, as if the presenter can hear him. Technology like TV, Nintendo DS, IPods and Wii (which we don’t have, but I would like) can inspire and entertain at home, but it doesn’t go camping with us, hiking, the beach or to a family dinner.

    (ICLW #100)

  30. I need to work on removing my shield and opening up my daughter’s world to a lot of things. When you’re a parent, oftentimes, you can’t help but make things easier for your child.

  31. Cheri says:

    I would add to the list – See the greatness in them!

    It is easy to focus on what can be improved (study habits, interaction with friends, first time listening…)

    But if you authentically focus on what is amazing about your child they will see that you are looking at them with those eyes.

    And if you want to take it even a step further – let them overhear you praising them (when you are talking to a neighbor or your spouse!)

  32. Pat says:

    Thanks Leo. This is a very timely post for me. I’m about to have my first child, and am pretty scared about being a first time parent and making sure I do the right things. I know how much a parent can influence a child’s life, so I want to make sure I do things right. Even now as the baby is still in my wife’s belly, we are reading to him and talking.

    Thanks to you and everyone else for their additional tips. Cheers!

  33. Love this post Leo. This year, I took my kids out of school and am now homeschooling them. I’ve come to realize that the very best gift I can give them is not the gift of reading, writing and math, but the gift of learning how to be in the world. They’ll pick up the reading, writing and math they need along the way. Unfortunately, for most of us, it’s been the other way around – we are taught academics 8 hours a day and we pick up learning to be in the world. While I sound totally confident right now, there’s definitely a lot of fear in this whole path. A lot of letting go and trusting happening in action.

  34. Dave says:

    Loved this post! My wife and I have a 10-month old daughter, so some of these rukes don’t apply just yet, but it is definitely good advice for the future.

    Something we are trying to do with our youngling is not to say “No” and instead saying “uh uh” or calling her name in a tone that she recognizes to be different than our regular tone. While she was pregnant, we witnessed a bratty cild that constantly screamed “NO!” at her Mom while grocery shopping. That event really struck a chord with us and we decided to try saying everything but “No”. Of course, this is an experiment, so I will let you know how it goes in a few years.

  35. I agree that reading to your children is essential. I think implicit in that is also having them read to you. My daughter just turned five and she is already reading some Dr. Seuss books to me because my wife and I read to her routinely. My daughter’s pre-Kindergarten teacher told us that there are students who not only cannot read, they do not even know how to hold a book. It is sad that there are parents that do not take even a short amount of time everyday to instill reading in their children.

  36. Emily Geizer says:

    Great comments here! They all round the list out nicely.

    I do think that the most important thing you can do to change your child’s life is missing, though. It’s understanding your child’s perspective.

    This alone will steer all other parenting choices. In fact, study after study has shown that understanding your child’s perspective has a bigger positive impact on your children than most other things you do.

    Granted, it is not always easy or intuitive, but I think it is the most important work of parent.

    Emily Geizer

  37. What a great list. I’d add “Be an Example”. Kids are ALWAYS watching us and we don’t get to filter what they will or will not mimic. We are their example of what it means to be a human so we should all strive to be the people that we would like for them to become. For most of us, that means being more patient, forgiving, sharing, caring, and loving.

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  43. Rio says:

    Great post. I am also a parent, and everyday I always try to do my best as a mom to my lovely daughter. I read her before bedtime but not frequently. After reading your post, I think I should do it more often. I mean I hope I can do it every night, but you know sometimes other stuff get in the way. I also talk with her like asking her how she feels when we’re on our way home from church or grocery. I asked her about the things she like about her school, her classmates, etc. I want to make sure I make her feel I’m always here for her anytime. :-)

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