Rules I (try to) follow
This is list of rules I try to follow when interacting with kids. These are not peer-reviewed child-raising techniques, just little odds and ends I've read, heard, observed, or thought. Some are undoubtedly pseudo-psychology. Some are probably hippie-talk nonsense. Some of them might be helpful, some useless, and maybe some are actually harmful. Maybe they're all meaningless, I don't know. I'm mostly talking out of my ass here, but I think they could be important, so I'm sharing.
Though I'd like it if everyone followed these, I've already noted that I dislike kid advice, so my primary goal is to simply communicate why I do (or don't do) certain things. I have a terrible time explaining myself verbally, so writing things down helps.
True, most of these are "don't"s rather than "do"s. That's because it's a shorter list. Also keep in mind I'm the parent of a 5-year-old, and so these are mostly addressing my "rules" for interacting with kids in the 3-9 year range, and may not apply as my daughter and her friends get older. All of these are my (undoubtedly hopelessly naive) opinion only.
If children are playing peaceably, do not interrupt.
You see several children playing. There's no fighting, no yelling, and even sharing is occurring. That is not the time to ask if they want to watch a movie, or play a game or have a snack. You don't remind them about another set of toys. You don't ask one about that thing you saw on TV. You don't make a suggestion about what else to play. Unless there's a fire and the building needs to be evacuated, the only proper course of action is to leave them the fuck alone. This also goes for if a lone child is reading, playing, etc, by themselves [ed: yes, a singular "them"].
If children are being creative, do not interrupt.
See above, but tolerate more squabbling.
React to situations the way you want your child to react.
They will mimic your reactions. 'Nuff said.
Limit "screen time".
I definitely fall into the Louis CK camp on this issue. Here's his bit on screen time (listen to it then go buy some of his stuff). I think most TV and video games are a form of overstimulation. The elements I think are not good include:
Very fast paced.
Quick scene changes.
Bright lights and colors flashing in your face.
The video game elements like instant rewards and punishments.
Near 100% reality disconnect.
Everybody likes mindless entertainment, and surely a little is not bad. If she watches 45 minutes of kids' shows or plays 30 minutes of computer games a day, that's OK. But I have upper limits. I can't see how it can be good for a young child to be exposed to that level of constant stimulation. I've mentioned before that we don't do television. We also limit the amount of "screen time" our daughter gets.
It is true that all screen time activity is not created equal. Spending 30 minutes building something cool in Minecraft is clearly better than 15 minutes of a racing game, and 24 minutes of Backyardagins is better than 60 seconds of Power Rangers. And watching an occasional movie could be a social event for family and friends, and watching a DVD from the library of Bill Nye The Science Guy or on Greek mythology is educational. But… playing, interacting, reading, creating, or otherwise finding something tangible to do is so much better.
Of course, an hour or two spent typing a story, drawing in Tuxpaint, or reading something on Wikipedia is pretty damn cool, and is probably not to be counted as "screen time" at all.
Kids don't need that much stuff.
I've watched children of all ages play for hours with the simplest of non-toys. A kid with a big cardboard box, a box of crayons, and a pair of scissors is just as happy (if not happier) than a kid with a new plastic toy car. Just the other day I watched five mixed-aged and mixed-gender kids play with homemade wooden swords for several hours.
So, that electronic car/tank/truck that goes "VROOM VROOM! PWEW PWEW!"? Have you ever met a kid who had problems making the sound effects? They don't need help, so don't get toys that help them. I think there's much to be said for letting a kid self-entertain and make-do.
No, toys aren't evil. Having a variety of things to play with could be what sparks an imagination, but I can't imagine that having rooms full of toys is a good thing. If a toy is just meant to entertain a child, I don't need to buy it: there is already plenty of entertainment available. A toy has to offer something (actually) unique and valuable for me to buy it.
I also think there's far too much energy put into getting kids interested in getting things. TV commercials are bad enough, then there's the implicit pressure from friends to get the same toys they have. Then there are adults who buy things for kids all the time; pointing out things to buy; generally acting like getting stuff is the greatest thing possible, and is, in fact, the goal.
I also don't want her to become accustomed to receiving things all the time: If she thinks getting stuff is just normal, eventually she could simply not appreciate gifts or cause undo greed or selfishness. I want gifts to remain special and meaningful.
Never praise/compliment something the child has no control over, like appearance, intelligence, or innate abilities.
This might be silly, but I hate it when people tell little girls they're "pretty" or "beautiful". Sure, I believe it's a good thing to teach children that all people are beautiful, and to tell children they are beautiful could possibly be a way to do that… but that doesn't seem to be the lesson that comes across. In my view, it just reinforces the idea that appearance is extremely important. In the real world, it is, of course, but it's also something a child shouldn't need to worry about quite yet, and can do nothing about in any case. So a conventionally-pretty child will get the message "Hey, I'm so beautiful! That's so awesome! I am awesome! Is there any way I can be prettier?" A child with non-conventionally-pretty features will get the message "I have to make myself prettier! It's so important."
And if I tell a child "you're so smart!", I would be praising the one part of the equation the child has no control over. He or she may start to believe me, and start to associate "being smart" with "doesn't need to work at it". In my mind it'd be better to praise the specific action that I thought was smart.
Limit verbal comparisons to other kids.
We all compare kids, and fret about how so-and-so's kids can run faster or read better than our own. There's no sense in trying to stop thinking that: it's going to happen. But I don't need to tell my kid. No matter how fast she runs, statistically, many will run faster, and without even trying. I feel such mindless competition is not good. Encourage her to run as fast as she can? Yep. Encourage running practice? Sure, if "running faster" is important to her. Pointing out that that her friend is a better runner serves no purpose. No, it's not about "building up self-esteem" (I feel that's a pretty meaningless phrase); it's about accepting that children have different strengths and different rates of development, so getting her used to the idea of comparisons to other children will end badly.
It's OK to praise/compliment on accomplishment, but so much better to praise effort.
I'm trying to stop saying "Good job." It's a bad habit of mine. When my daughter draws a picture or writes a story or does a new gymnastics maneuver and is very proud, I try to remember to not just blurt out "Good job!" It try to say something like "I like that!" Or "Hey! Looks like you worked hard on that!" Or talk about what's in the picture (or ask what IS the picture).
I know there are people out there who will read this and think it's hippie nonsense. After all, in the real world, your boss doesn't praise you for working hard if you don't actually accomplish what you were supposed to, and you don't win Olympic medals for "trying hard", you win them for being the fastest. But kids aren't in the real world: they are still learning everything. When still young, I think it's better to praise all the hard work that went into an accomplishment rather than the bare fact of the accomplishment, because the hard work is what we want to encourage. Besides: the hard work is what enables the accomplishments.
Try to do natural rewards and natural consequences, rather than artificial.
I'm not talking organic versus red#40 here. I'm talking about letting children enjoy, or suffer, the fruits of their actions without adding arbitrary rewards or punishments. It's saying "You broke your toy; now you can't use it and you won't get a replacement." rather than "You broke your toy! Go to your room!"
Don't assume girls need/want "girl stuff" and boys need/want "boy stuff"
In our house there are no girl toys. That's not to say we have no dolls, Littlest Pet Shops, My Little Ponies, dress up stuff, or pink detritus: we do. But they are not called girl toys. They are called toys, and the homeschooled neighbor boys play with them too. We also have cars and trucks, building blocks, dinosaurs, etc. I have a longer article planned on the topic, so I won't discuss everything, but the short version is: I let her decide what she likes (rather than assuming/defaulting to the pink isles), and I help her understand she has choices in what kind of things she likes, even if the other little girls don't always like that stuff. This is where homeschooling really comes in handy: "different" is not immediately pointed out and shamed in our community.
Teach strict respect for other people and their possessions.
I'm all for letting kids explore boundaries and figuring out limits and even getting hurt and breaking stuff to see what happens, but I don't want to be that parent. The parent who lets their kids run in other people's flower beds, or climb trees at the zoo, or be in places where they clearly aren't supposed to be, or eat sticky/messy food in common play areas, or be too rough with another child's toys (or another child). That's not to say I expect kids will not break other people's stuff or not hurt people or will behave "properly" all the time, it's just to say I will watch to make sure my child isn't doing something dumb which could easily break other people stuff.
So, if you see me following my daughter around in a public place or non-kid-proofed home and often checking on her, it's not that I'm trying to helicopter and protect her from all harm, I'm trying to make sure she's not involved in the maltreatment or outright destruction of things that are not hers.
Give them real foods.
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer my food ideas to be scientific rather than mystical. I'm not all hippie-dippy about my foods being natural and organic, but I do like to give my kid real foods. As much as that is possible anyway. What does that mean? It means cooking meals with fresh or frozen vegetables and fresh or frozen meat. It means I don't buy many pre-made items from the store. It means I prefer my snack foods to be homemade. It means fewer trips to restaurants, and when we do go, it means avoiding the kids' menu.
I realize that partly I'm lucky to have the luxury of doing this because I'm home and we have money in the bank, but I'm also not convinced the box of Hamburger Helper would actually save me time. It does take slightly more planning to do it, but I wouldn't be saving any time, and the taste is much better with from-scratch (I think). I also believe in limiting simple-carbohydrate snacks like chips and sugary treats. No, not eliminating, just limiting. So I don't outlaw sweets and treats, merely that as with gifts, I want them to remain a special treat. I do avoid kool-aid, soda, and "fruit" juices, though, except at birthday parties etc. when everyone has it: I'm not a monster.
From the time she was eating solids, I've tried to give her a wide variety of foods, and tried to avoid the "flavor bomb" foods that artificially crank up the flavors and make all the wonderfully tasty fruits and vegetables seem flavorless by comparison.
Avoid "because I said so" and "obey"
This is surely a controversial one. One the one hand, I am the adult and in many cases I know best. She is my daughter and I must tell her what to do and when to do it quite often. It'd be silly to have to start from first principles each time. It's much more expedient to be stern and say "because I said so."
On the other hand, my daughter is a fully-formed individual, and deserves to know "why". I don't want her to be obedient. I want her to question why she should do something. I want her to think "is there a good reason?". Maybe that will later translate into questioning "why?" when her peers tell her to do something dumb (Or maybe that's a pipe dream, don't know).
I've often told her the whole spiel: That she should understand that there's always a reason and I won't do things that are not good for her, so she should listen to me and do what I say, but… she's also always free to ask me "why".
In the end, yes, she'll need to clean up her dishes after dinner, but it's OK if she asks me "Why should I?" first. She's five, and I can afford to explain the reasons more than once.
Let them try it themselves
Even if they make a mess, take a long time, break stuff, or even cause minor injury… let them try doing it or figuring it out themselves.
As I mentioned at the beginning, though of course I'd like others to do these things, this list is primarily here to communicate my reasoning behind why I'm doing something. It's also possible I'm completely off an these are totally wrong. C'est la vie.