The Simple Science of Raising Responsible, Caring (and All-Around Awesome) Kids

Want to raise compassionate and responsible children? Here's what scientific research says about parenting.

Should you focus on attachment parenting, or raising free-range kids? Be a helicopter mom or Tiger mom? Will you wear your baby in a Bjorn or hit the roads in a BOB? How much of a difference will it make to your child’s intellect whether you let him watch a Baby Einstein video every now and then, or teach him a foreign language by age two?

We’re parents too, and we’ve spent plenty of time browsing message boards and news reports, wondering whether we’re doing everything we should be doing. With a daughter in kindergarten, a son who just turned 1 a few months ago, and a business that keeps us busy, it can be overwhelming to focus on what’s going to be best for our kids’ long-term development when it’s a constant juggling act just to manage our day-to-day responsibilities.

Parenting is a lifelong lesson, and only you know how to raise your child. But if you want to know what scientific research is out there on strategies that you can use to help your children become responsible, compassionate, and successful, here are a few research-backed tips that we’ve found as starting points during some of those sleepless, Google search-filled nights.

To teach responsibility, give them chores (as soon as they can walk).

Even from an early age, giving children set responsibilities is a great way to help them understand that they are a part of the household, and that everyone needs to work together to keep things running smoothly. From age 3 or 4, kids can help out with simple tasks, such as setting the table for dinner, helping to sort clothes from the laundry hamper, pulling weeds from the garden, or some of these other suggestions from ParentSquad.

A study conducted by Marty Rossman, professor emeritus at University of Minnesota, found that children who were taught to participate in chores at age 3 or 4 were more likely to be self-sufficient, maintain positive relationships with family, and achieve success in school and careers than those who didn’t.

To help your kids gain a good work ethic, praise them for their effort—not for their talent.

It seems like a good self-confidence boost to tell your son, “you’re so smart!” after he solves a difficult math problem, right? Instead, consider praising the time and concentration he put into coming up with the right solution. Studies have found that when children are praised for getting the right answer, or “being smart,” they don’t want to lose that status and are more likely to choose easier problems in the future. On the other hand, kids who are given positive feedback while they’re actively engaged in problem-solving are more likely to continue to seek out challenges, as this real-world study from Stanford researchers in 2013 found. A like-minded group of studies led by Columbia researchers in 1998 led to similar results.

“When children are taught the value of concentrating, strategizing and working hard when dealing with academic challenges, this encourages them to sustain their motivation, performance and self-esteem,” said lead researcher Carol Dweck. So give them an “A” for the effort they’re putting in—and don’t focus on the result.

To foster compassion and kindness in your children, express disappointment rather than anger when they don’t do what’s expected.

Most parents consider it a high priority to raise kids who are kind to others, but often, our children don’t share our own values as they grow older. How can we build a sense of compassion in them from a young age? According to one study, parents shouldn’t shame or yell at a child when she misbehaves, but express disappointment instead. If your daughter bullies another child, for instance, rather than simply punishing her, it’s important to talk about what she did, why it was wrong, and what she’ll do to resolve the problem.

Tell her something along these lines, advises Adam Grant in the New York Times: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.”

The quality of time spent with your kids is more important than the number of hours you’re together.

Feeling wracked with guilt for working full-time? You’re not alone—but a new study that was just published in The Journal of Marriage and Family provides some solid evidence that there’s no need to worry if you’re not around for every waking moment. According to the large-scale study, the sheer amount of time parents spent with their kids between ages 3 and 11 had minimal relation to how many behavioral problems the kids had as teens.

More important? Making sure that the time spent with your children is positive and engaged: Rather than simply watching TV together, focus on reading stories (or even writing one together), cooking together, or playing outside. Even if the time you have together each day is brief, it’s the substance that counts.

The bottom line? There are so many conflicting views on parenting, and many parents worry that they’re not doing things as well as they should. The truth is, if you care enough to worry whether or not you’re doing it right, your kids will probably be just fine.