What are my six top tips for parents – and why did I even write them?

I am on record as saying that I am no parenting guru, and that there are too many people trying to tell parents how to do their job. So why did I recently agree to give FQ magazine – “the essential dad mag” according to its website – my six top parenting tips? (And no, it wasn’t because they paid me!)

The thread that links all my work is that children want and need to expand their horizons: to have everyday experiences of freedom, adventure, exploration and responsibility as they grow up. It is the core of my vision of what a good childhood looks and feels like.


Most of my work to achieve this vision focuses not on parents, but on all the other people and institutions that influence children’s lives: schools, educators, residents, voluntary organisations, play and leisure services, charities, regulators, designers, planners, campaigners, local and national governments and the media.

The simple truth is that for this vision is to become reality, it must resonate with parents. Without their active support, everyone else will lose interest in the topic. The bottom line is this: if parents do not care about their children’s everyday freedoms, why should anyone else? (a point I made in a 2011 post written with UK play advocates in mind).

So parents’ views do matter to me. But I also think parents today have a hard time. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the right way to bring kids up. What is more, when things go wrong there is a long queue ready and waiting to judge parents, in both the mainstream and social media.

It is clear that many parents have a huge appetite for advice and guidance. However, it is nowhere near so clear – to me at least – that this appetite should be fed as freely as it is. I agree with sociologist Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, that one of the biggest problems facing parents is a collapse in confidence. The ‘experts’ should be more willing to tell parents that they are best placed to make the judgement calls – not the parenting gurus. (If you’ve read ahead, you’ll see that my final tip makes this very point.)

That said, parents are hardly irrelevant in children’s lives. Crucially, they are the gate-keepers of their offsprings’ experiences as they grow up. When it comes to day-to-day decisions, they are in the front line. Not for nothing are they near the centre of Bronfenbrenner’s ecosystem of child development.

Bronfenbrenner model diagram

So this is tricky territory. The Prime Minister himself found this out a couple of weeks ago when he sang the praises of ‘Tiger Mother’ Amy Chua, while misrepresenting her philosophy.

Messages to parents have to tread a fine line. They need to offer useful information, arguments and insights. But they also have to come over as supportive, not judgemental or patronising. Speaking for myself, I want parents to feel that I am on their side, not wagging my finger.

Treading this line was at the forefront of my mind when I wrote my six tips for FQ Magazine – listed below. What are your thoughts? Did they strike the right balance? Did I miss anything out? Or should I not even have bothered?

1 Remember your childhood
Remind yourself of your favourite place to play as a child. The chances are it was somewhere away from adult eyes: somewhere you could call your own, where you felt in control. Talk to your parents’ generation about their childhood memories. You may be surprised at what you find.

2 Check the facts
When someone tells you “that’s too dangerous”, don’t just take their word for it. Did you know that no UK child has died of plant poisoning for over 20 years?

3 Free play: the magic ingredient
Give your children lots of time to play freely with other children, where you invite them to follow their imaginations, set the rules and come up with their own games. It is amazing how much they learn from each other (plus it’s often more fun for everyone).

4 Hold back
Practice holding back and letting children work out problems for themselves, while keeping a weather eye out in case they really struggle. It will help them build confidence, and help you learn what they can handle.

5 Take the long view
As a parent, it is often tempting to choose the easy option by taking control and doing everything for your child. But in this long run, this is counter-productive. Plus: do you really want your child to be the only kid in class who cannot tie their shoelaces?

6 Build your confidence, listen to your child
Children are different. Parents are different. What matters most is that parents are confident in what they do, and in tune with their child’s personality and character. Most children turn out fine, so don’t get too hung up on what the parenting gurus say.

Note: The tips above are in the form that I sent to FQ Magazine. The final published content – which you can read here – was lightly edited.

9 responses to “What are my six top tips for parents – and why did I even write them?

  1. Hi Tim, thanks for the wise and supportive words. As a parent who’s entering his second childhood/third age I look back and think your comment about parental confidence is spot on. To have that confidence I think you need good role models from the ways your own parents treated you; I lost my father when I was 12 years old and I’ve found parenting a challenge (and one I’m not convinced I’ve done very well). I imagine with so many more children growing up in broken homes for one reason or another, this lack of role models and hence confidence might be an increasingly important issue? What can be done to help boost parental skills and confidence?

    • Thanks for the comment Nigel and for your willingness to share some personal perspectives. I think it would help if we all were less quick to rush to judgement – and more sympathetic to the position of parents. By the way, I am not sure there are more broken homes than there used to be (though we may be more aware of families who are struggling). But it is hard to argue that families face some tough challenges these days, not least because the world beyond their front doors is so much less forgiving and supportive.

      • Thanks Tim, yes I’m sure we could all be a bit more sympathetic and measured in our views and dealings with today’s parents; as in many other issues these days, as with many other issues, I think we are too quick to follow the, often media-led, simplistic conclusions about other people’s circumstances and motivations etc. Your questioning of the figures on broken homes prompted me to check out the figures. Looking at single parent households (not the best measure of ‘broken homes’ I grant you) the ONS says …there were nearly 2.0 million lone parents with dependent children1 in the UK in 2011, and that this number has grown steadily from 1.7 million in 2001. Lone parents with dependent children represented 26 per cent of all families with dependent children in 2011, an increase of two percentage points since 2001.

  2. Reblogged this on grumpysutcliffe and commented:
    I am rebloging this as i hope that some of my children and their friends might read it and find it useful!!

  3. Pingback: Still reared in captivity | Rethinking Childhood

  4. Pingback: From values to counting: the apoliticisation of play (and much else) | Bernard Spiegal

  5. Pingback: The Mary Poppins playground kit | Rethinking Childhood

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