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Short-term versus long-term parenting

When I wrote recently about germs versus chemicals, I raised the concept of short-term parenting versus long-term parenting and mentioned that I wanted to write more about it later. Let me start by explaining the concept. To me, short-term parenting means that the parenting choices you make are designed to have an immediate outcome that you consider to be desirable. Immediate could be this minute, later today, this week, this month. It is often focused on changing behaviour or avoiding problems. It is generally quick and easy. However, long-term parenting is more focused on helping to shape your child's future and avoiding long lasting negative impacts on their physical or mental health. This is often more difficult and requires more patience and thought.

Some examples?

  • We all know the Chinese proverb "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." It is often easier to just do something ourselves and we fear the short-term consequences of letting our kids do things themselves (messes, too much time, frustration). However, If you invest the time upfront to teach your children how to do something or to explain something to them, then they gain skills and judgement. And most likely you save time too in the end by not having to do it for them over and over again (e.g. cleaning up a mess that they made, making a sandwich).

  • Short-term parenting involves offering a reward to your child for good grades, whereas long-term parenting involves instilling a love of learning, self-discipline, and an understanding of the real world benefits of good grades.

  • Short-term parenting means doing everything you can to prevent your child from getting a temporary illness (avoiding germs to avoid a cold or flu), whereas long-term parenting focuses on avoiding harmful chemicals that can cause deadly diseases like cancer (see germs versus chemicals).

  • Short-term parenting involves letting your baby cry-it-out (CIO) so that you can get a good night's sleep now, whereas long-term parenting recognizes that it is important to be there for your child now otherwise you teach him that you won't be there to listen and to comfort him when he needs you (And who will he turn to then if he has a gambling problem? If he is having suicidal thoughts? If he got an STD?).

  • Short-term parenting involves putting a DVD player in the back of the car to ensure a peaceful ride. Long-term parenting involves interacting with your child on the drive, encouraging her to look at her surroundings and get a feel for directions.

Long-term parenting is hard. However, if we want our kids to get the most out of life, to be healthy, to be happy and to become independent, we need to try to tip the balance of our parenting towards long-term.

Mental health consequences of short-term parenting

Rewards, praise and punishments are three short-term parenting tools that Alfie Kohn talks about a lot in his book Unconditional Parenting. He explains how these tools, even just saying "good job", make children feel that we only love them when they act the way that we want them to act and makes them feel that they need to earn our approval. Instead we need to teach our children that we love them unconditionally. He writes about how to provide the unconditional support that our children need to grow into healthy, caring, responsible people.

I worry about the linkages between short term parenting and depression in adulthood. I wonder how many of current Prozac prescriptions can be traced back to being left to cry-it-out, being constantly praised for every little thing, or being made to feel shame for not living up to expectations.

Short-term parenting also creates an unhealthy dependency on parents. If you do not teach your children skills and give them the tools to make decisions and judgments on their own, then they will be lost without you. They will either never leave home, they will have no self-control when they do leave home (i.e. drink too much, get into drugs, flunk out of school), or they will seek out someone else to "take care" of them (often an abusive partner).

I think that a strong healthy attachment early in life is important, followed by age-appropriate teaching and guidance to help your children to grow and challenge themselves.

Physical health consequences of short-term parenting

Childhood obesity is on the rise. Overfeeding in infancy (generally via bottle, since you cannot overfeed a breastfed infant) is known to be one contributor. Fast food and other unhealthy options in our homes, schools, and restaurants are contributors too. Fewer families are cooking from scratch and growing their own vegetables.

People are too scared to let their kids go outside on their own and too busy to go outside with them. So we put them in front of the TV instead. The lack of physical activity also contributes to obesity and to heart disease.

Exposure to environmental toxins often found in the most convenient child products can lead to cancer later in life. These toxins can also be contributors to ADHD (as can television viewing and poor diet).

But long-term parenting is hard

It isn't always easy to parent the way that we want to. This is partly a societal issue. We live in a society where we are always rushed and pressed for time and it is hard to take the time to explain a concept 50 times, to let a toddler do something difficult themselves, to prepare meals from scratch, to research and look for products that are less harmful to our health. We are suffocated by short-term options in the form of fast food, child rearing advice (Super Nanny, BabyWise, etc.), 24 hour a day television. It is also hard because our toddlers and preschoolers are so determined and stubborn. You can reason with an adult, but it is more difficult to reason with a toddler without adding the weight of a reward or punishment to the argument.

Is there a place for short-term parenting?

I know that I am not perfect. I will put the kids in front of the television when my patience runs out and I need a break. I do help my son with things that he could do himself sometimes in the name of expediency. I do offer rewards or bribes sometimes, especially to get my son to try something that he would otherwise be unwilling to try but that I know he will like if only he would try it.

But I think that understanding the difference between short-term and long-term and striving to have the majority of my parenting focused on the long-term is a step in the right direction. I do worry though that more and more of the parenting books that are coming out are so focused on short-term parenting because I think this will continue to have harmful individual and societal effects.

I'll be working little by little to do more long-term parenting myself...are you up for joining me on the journey?
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Reader Comments (21)

When my son was going to daycare on the campus where I was taking college courses, his teacher taught him to drink from a cup without a sippy lid. He was only a year old, so at first I thought she was crazy - but it worked. I still have to fill his cup only half full to keep from cleaning up a bigger mess if he has an accident, but I'd much rather have an occasional, and perfectly normal, spill, than a child who is still drinking from sippy cups when he's five. Empowering our children to do for themselves is the best gift we can give them.

I do challenge the restriction on saying "good job" though - as long as the discipline that is handed out is done so in a patient manner with an explanation of what behavior is expected, the child will know that they are always loved.

June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermrsmarshall

[...] to do some things, but I’m convinced that it is worthwhile in the end (another example of long-term parenting). So far we’ve been doing this on an ad hoc basis, but am thinking of formalizing it more [...]

Hi, I came across your blog a short time ago through the Word Press search engine. I have enjoyed reading what you have to say and can agree with your style of parenting.

While I don't like to put labels on myself or others I would consider myself an attachment parent. I fell into it so naturally and without much thought. I have never been one to follow the herd and for the most part I am happy to learn and figure things out on my own. It can feel difficult at times when my guard is down and I hear parenting advice from the status quo, such as babies should sleep alone in their own beds or that you should let her cry it out! It has been rather refreshing to end up here reading the opinions of a like minded parent.

So my daughter is ten months old and I am constantly thinking about the future and how we will raise her to be a strong, confidant, happy and well adjusted human being. I believe strongly in long-term parenting and feel the outcome is truly worth the patience and commitment it takes. I think this concept transcends parenting and can be applied to every day life.

I'm wondering if you have any good book recommendations on this subject. As well, maybe some good books on discipline and raising children with a mindful approach. Thanks!

August 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

Thanks so much, this looks like a great book list!

August 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

[...] approach or philosophy that I want to talk about at greater length in a future post, that being short-term parenting versus long-term parenting. I see the fear of germs as being part of short-term parenting - e.g. I don’t want my child [...]

September 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGerms versus chemicals «

[...] The article also talks about the ill-effects of spanking and raises the point that scientists that have done this research have not been as vocal about it as proponents of spanking have been. Also parents often see the temporary compliance that results from spanking as a sign of “success”, not realizing that this short-term gain has lots of long-term negative consequences (again, the reason we need to focus on long-term parenting versus short-term parenting). [...]

I know this is an old post, but I'm reading through Kohn's "Unconditional Parenting" book right now. So far I'm really enjoying it and agreeing with what he's saying, but I just can't wrap my head around the whole praise thing.

When I was a kid (this example always sticks out in my mind), I once brought home a report card that was all A+'s except for one A. Instead of a "good job!" for all the A+'s, I got a "what happened here?" for the A. I would have loved to hear a "good job". I worked hard in school and instead of having that be acknowledged, I got questioned on the one "low" mark I received.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I find it's always nice to have your hard work acknowledged. It shouldn't be the reason you do the hard work in the first place, but it's nice nonetheless. When I make my husband a good meal, for example, I do it because I love him - but darned if I don't appreciate it when he tells me what a delicious meal it was. When I put extra effort into a work project, I don't do it for the praise - but it sure is nice when my boss notices and acknowledges the hard work I've done. So I really don't understand the idea of not offering that same considerate praise to our children when they do something particularly well or put in some hard work.

I just can't seem to wrap my brain around what Kohn is trying to say here. I get it on one level...but then I think about it some more and just don't.

November 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia

[...] a schedule for a baby or a child is a way of achieving short-term goals with regards to a child’s behaviour. Unfortunately, I don’t think that people have [...]

[...] The article also talks about the ill-effects of spanking and raises the point that scientists that have done this research have not been as vocal about it as proponents of spanking have been. Also parents often see the temporary compliance that results from spanking as a sign of “success”, not realizing that this short-term gain has lots of long-term negative consequences (again, the reason we need to focus on long-term parenting versus short-term parenting). [...]

I find your post interesting, because so often your "long-term parenting" is touted as otherwise in mainstream parenting thinking. Primarily, that because we've not "sleep-trained" our daughter, and because we bring her into bed with us when she won't settle in her crib at night (therefore satisfying her immediate need for comfort, I like to think, and enabling a good night sleep for all), we're going to end up in a lot of trouble in the future because she'll apparently never learn to sleep in her own bed and we'll have indulged her too much. And sometimes I worry about this, of course, but it's nice to know that we're choosing to do right now could more likely have positive effects on her future. So thank you.

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKC

[...] approach or philosophy that I want to talk about at greater length in a future post, that being short-term parenting versus long-term parenting. I see the fear of germs as being part of short-term parenting - e.g. I don’t want my child to [...]

I think this is a great post. I'm not sure that I agree with the "Good job" concept. In Haim Ginott's book "Between Parent and Child" he talks about praising the action, not the child, and I agree with that. I think that telling your child that you're proud of them for a specific action lets them know that you notice the great things that they are doing and learning, which in my opinion, is good long term parenting. Other than this, I really agree with everything else you've written here, and it's nice to know that I'm not the only one who doesn't want my kid to CIO, eat fast food, or have a DVD player in the back of the car. Life's too short to be a short-term parent, I think.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterShoshana

I love this post. My daughter often plays the 'I can't do it' game when she is feeling needy. So, she asks me to put her shoes on when what she really wants is a hug, so I figure this out, give her the hug, encourage her to put on her shoes, and then try to discuss the difference between dependence and interdependence in four-year-old terms.... aaaaaand it's an hour later. I'd have to say that I employ a mix of short-term and long-term parenting, every day. It's really the best I can do.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKendra

I love this post. It describes exactly what I feel is "good parenting". I don't always succeed, but when I parent this way, I feel good about myself. It takes patience and effort, but it is so much more rewarding all round.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMel (MilkChic)

@Cynthia re: praise. I think the point is to acknowledge and recognize effort and concentration rather than products. So, in your example, you were not honored and recognized for the work you did or the things you learnt, and I don't think that's what is being advocated here. I think the caution is against generalized, non-specific praise. If someone had looked at your A's and made value judgements like "wow. A's. You are so smart" it leads the child to see her value as limited. When she encounters something challenging she just thinks "oh, well I'm not smart at that" instead of recognizing the work or practice she needs to do to master a skill. Appropriate praise would be "you worked really hard for those grades. How do you feel?" Acknowledging is different from praise. There's a great chapter about praise in the book NurtureShock. Another example is young children's art. We often say "Beautiful. I love this...." An appropriate response, If asked for comment by the child, would be, "I see you used so much red. See where the red touches the blue? Hmm. You worked on this a long time on this painting." Another thing to be mindful of is not interrupting concentration to make comments like "good job." That takes the focus away from the child & what they are interested in and puts the focus on you. At least, this is what I have taken away from discussions about praise.

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClaire

I think all parents if they are honest with themselves use both long term & short term parenting techniques. You'd have to or your'd go insane! I love my kids, I love them both dearly, but somedays I'm just at the end of my rope and to get out the house on time I put on my 3 year old's shoes. He can do it himself & 90% of the time he does, but if we are running late instead of fighting with him, on they go.
Yes I want to raise 2 independent children who can do for themselves, and I will. I don't let them cry it out, tried a couple of times & it just didn't feel right, so we don't do it. They sleep in their own beds to start out the night, but we stay with them while they go to sleep & if they need us in the middle of the night we go to them or they come in with us. I want them to know we are there for them if they need us, so Long Term I guess.
I too do not agree with the no praise thing. I praise my kids all the time. I tell them why I'm proud of them, but I also tell them why I'm frustrated or upset with them as well. I think you have to tell them both so they understand and can be encouraged to grow.
This is a great post. I like reading what you have to say though sometimes I don't agree with everything in it. I'm not sure what type of parent I'd be called "attached" or "unattached" or anything. I just go with the flow & do what feels right to me.
Keep posting & I'll keep reading.

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa B

[...] milkchic There is a wonderful post at PhD in Parenting about short term vs long term parenting. I try very hard to parent for the long term (although it [...]

April 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGood Mummy, Bad Mummy

Love your blog. Love this post.

But please do not believe a word Alfie Kohn says. He is a provocateur for profit. Here a good example of a solid critique by Daniel Willingham, renowned cognitive psychologist from UVA:


September 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Guzzaldo

Actually, Alfie Kohn's words are backed up with lots of research. He makes so much sense, and has made me a better parent. Here's his response to the attack you posted: http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/02/alfie-kohns-reply-to-daniel-willingham/

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Key

Oh, I love this post with regards to CIO. It's so easy for someone to ignore a baby/ toddler because the child can't get out of their sleep space, but as you say it does not address long term parenting and you simply can't ignore the 5 year old who has insomnia (unless you are going to lock them in their room)

Super example!

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Love the post and the parenting concepts behind it. I have to say though, that I have thought about it before and there is another way of looking at "short-term parenting," if you just change how you think about what you want in the short term. If your goal is a kid that behaves the way you want them to, certainly that sort of short-term parenting is likely to be harmful in the long-term. But if your short-term goal is instead the quality of the relationship between you and your child, and the rest of the family, I can't think of anything but good that could come of that. CIO, for instance, is harmful in the long-term, but it's also harmful in the short-term if you consider the effects on the parent's relationship with the baby. The baby is stressed by CIO and therefore less able to focus on bonding, and the parent has just succeeded in squashing all empathy for their crying baby - never good for any relationship. I always liken it to walking away from your spouse or best friend when they're sobbing and asking for your comfort -- it's guaranteed not to be good for the marriage or friendship. Or take rewards-and-punishment type "training" as another example, which is clearly a manipulative way to control another person's behavior, and likely to make a child feel disrespected and a parent to feel distanced from their child's feelings (again, just as it would if you were to attempt such a regime with a loved adult).

My first question when I have doubts about a parenting decision or practice isn't necessarily, "What's best for her in the long term?" but "What's best for our relationship?" Just another way of looking at things!

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLara

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