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From Cradle to College: SOC Professor Pens Book on Parenting

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SOC Professor Chris Palmer and daughter Kimberly, who is also a published author.

For a job that billions of people do every day, raising a child still feels uniquely terrifying to each parent. In the beginning, there is the constant crying, diaper changing, and sleepless nights. You take toddlers to a restaurant, and you’re praying they don’t melt down before the food arrives. Parenting can get even more complicated as kids get older. Emotional problems and puberty? Peer and societal pressures? Homework and college prep? The teen years have it all.

If transforming your infant into a well-adjusted adult seems akin to Sisyphus pushing that boulder up a hill for eternity, Chris Palmer is here to help. Palmer, a professor at American University’s School of Communication, is set to publish a new book, Raise Your Kids to Succeed: What Every Parent Should Know.

A father of three grown daughters, Palmer always wanted a book like this during his early parenting years. “This is what I couldn’t find and wanted. And it’s a book of all the mistakes I made, and all the things I learned,” Palmer explains.

Falling Short

Palmer is an affable man with infectious positivity and energy. Unfortunately, he’s got some bad news to report: In many ways, this generation’s parents are falling short. After observing insecure students in the classroom, he’s concerned that their parents aren’t giving them the tools they need to be confident and resilient.

“We have lots of wonderful students who are doing great. But among those students are ones who are suffering, and they suffer from anxiety,” he says.

Young people resent being called “snowflakes,” and that label is—at best—an unfortunate stereotype about an entire generation. But Palmer does worry that many students internalize personal weaknesses, and they’re too quick to doubt themselves. Students who have struggled in chemistry, for instance, might believe they’ll always struggle in chemistry.

“They haven’t fully grasped that hard work and effort can make them more intelligent and more capable,” he says. “I’ve asked myself, ‘Why is that?’ And the answer is because parents are not always doing the best job they could do.”

He’s hoping this book can help parents raise happy, adaptable kids, which will ultimately make them better prepared for college and beyond.

Generational Changes

Of course, there was never a Golden Age of Parenting, and Palmer notes that previous generations’ parenting practices could be quite destructive. “When I was growing up, kids used to get hit and beaten routinely. It was very authoritarian. The dad said, ‘What I say goes. If you don’t agree, you’re going to get whacked.’ That is not healthy,” he says.

Yet he thinks the pendulum swung too far in the other direction, with parents now being too permissive. “My book is designed to help parents find their middle ground. Where they can be loving, and they can exert firm boundaries and discipline in a loving way,” he says.

He suggests parents be authoritative, as opposed to authoritarian. “It’s where parents are full of love, affection, and warmth, but at the same time, they’re not afraid to say you can’t watch that X or R rated movie, because it’s not good for you,” he explains. “When the kid starts squealing, ‘Oh, my friends are watching,’ you say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s the rule.’”

The Signals You Send

Palmer emphasizes the importance of consistency. At a fairly young age, children pick up their parents’ tendencies, and power struggles ensue. In a supermarket, for instance, a kid might ask for a candy bar amid a busy shopping day. “They’ll say, ‘Can I have that?’ And their mom says, ‘No, no.’ And then the kid says, ‘I want that! I want that!’ And then mom finally says, ‘Oh, OK.’ That drives me crazy. That is so bad,” Palmer opines.

And if parents possess integrity, kids will have better role models to emulate. Palmer has an entire chapter in the book on leading by example. “Say you’re talking to a neighbor, and the neighbor asks, ‘Can you help me?’ If you make up a little fib right in front of your kid, this is not good. Setting an example is absolutely pivotal,” he explains.

Children will notice how parents interact with them, and Palmer stresses the need to engage. If a child is relaying a story from school that day, it’s vital for the parent to set aside the iPhone and listen.

Screen Time and Technology

The iPhone itself brings up a whole new set of challenges, and Palmer includes a chapter on limiting screen time. YouTube and the internet have made it easy for children to access disturbing images online, from pornography to terrorism and other violent acts. Research shows that many kids are seeing these kinds of images as early as six or seven, Palmer says.

“This is a new problem. Parents have never faced this before,” he says. “We as a nation have not given enough thought to the public health hazard of so many screens. In many ways, it’s destroying childhood, and it’s bringing in this incredible stress.”

Great Parents Are Made

Palmer offers a lot of practical advice in Raise Your Kids to Succeed, and he divulges some of his own family practices. Palmer and his wife, Gail, held weekly family meetings with a written agenda, and they created a family mission statement. In the book, he describes some of his own shortcomings and how he overcame them. While building his wildlife filmmaking career, work travel pulled him away from parenting. To compensate and express his feelings, he wrote nightly letters to his daughters.

“One of my first insights was that fathering was a skill I could learn,” he writes in the preface. “It wasn’t a fixed, inborn talent, but rather something that could be taught, acquired, implemented and constantly improved upon. Great parents are made, not born.”

Yet how do you know when you’ve finally succeeded as a parent? Palmer says one metric is seeing your offspring be a good parent to your grandchildren. His children are establishing their own caring families: Two of his daughters are now married with kids, and his youngest daughter is getting married in December. Gail and Chris successfully raised a doctor, a lawyer, and a published author.

There are many other indicators of parental accomplishment, such as watching your kids build solid friendships, earn good grades, and get accepted into college. For AU parents dropping their children off on campus this semester, Palmer offers some advice: You can be supportive without being overbearing.

“Keep in regular touch, and show them that you still love them. Even a 20-year-old college student needs to know that their mom and dad still care,” he says. “You’re giving them space, but making sure they’re OK.”