A happy couple with baby(Photo: Courtesy of Parenting)

My life has been devoted to children and families -- my own, and those I've encountered in my career as a pediatrician. My first baby was born only a few months before I started medical school, and my fifth child arrived seven years later, on the final day of my pediatric residency. These two paths -- medicine and motherhood -- have been inextricably intertwined; they've often enhanced -- and sometimes competed with -- one another.
But over the years, as I've helped my own children journey into young adulthood and worked with countless families in my career, I've gained some hard-earned perspective and insights into raising kids. No parent will have all the answers all of the time, but these simple parenting guidelines can help make your time together as a family that much richer.

PROVIDE UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND ENCOURAGEMENT

As her parent, you're the first one to convince a child of her worth and help her venture into the world with confidence. You can make her feel cherished by giving her your time and attention daily, whether by reading a book, playing, or talking together. For instance, try to spend a little one-on-one time with your child when you get home, before you do anything else. After picking her toddler up at daycare, one mom I know uses the walk home as a way to reconnect. If she runs into friends, she'll wave at them but won't stop to chat; she's learned that it frustrates her daughter too much.

Show your child that you value her by acknowledging her feelings, and by listening when she talks. It's easy to let your mind wander as a toddler or preschooler babbles on, but kids are very good at picking up on when you're distracted. Having a focused conversation with your child -- rather than just responding with the occasional "Uh-huh" -- builds up her vocabulary at the same time that it boosts her self-esteem.

The way you encourage your child is also important. By emphasizing her efforts ("You sure seemed to enjoy working on this picture for Grandma") over her results ("I like the way you stayed inside the lines this time"), you'll show support and foster self-approval, and make her less reliant on the acceptance of others.

And finally, the best way to encourage your child? Simply tell her that you love her as often as you can.

MAKE YOUR CHILD YOUR HIGHEST PRIORITY

We all face enormous demands on our time, and our family life is always threatened by competing priorities, whether or not we work outside the home. But we have to learn to distinguish the important things, like spending time with our youngsters, from the urgent things, like ever-present project deadlines and chores. The truth is that in order to be an effective parent, you have to continually re-rank your priorities.

When I had my first four babies during college, medical school, and my internship, I breastfed each one. But I didn't make it to the one-year mark, the ideal goal. It wasn't until I made a conscious decision while I was pregnant with my fifth baby to put breastfeeding higher than other priorities that I succeeded. To do that, I had to say no to several opportunities -- including taking over a busy practice -- at the end of my residency training.

Putting your kids first doesn't mean you have to be a martyr, or a superwoman. No one is saying that you can't take time for yourself. But it does mean that sometimes you have to make choices. A hospital administrator I knew gave up her job to accept a less prestigious position so she could spend more time with her daughter. The turning point came as soon as her daughter's preschool teacher told her, "Whenever Kaitlyn draws a family picture, you're not in it."

STRENGTHEN YOUR TEAM

Generally speaking, moms act as the principal caretakers of immediate physical and emotional needs. Dads, on the other hand, tend to promote risk-taking and independence, and build self-reliance and assertiveness because they are more apt to let kids work out their problems by themselves.

Each of these responses -- the security of knowing you have a nurturing home base and the space to figure out what you need -- communicates an important message to your child and gives him the ability to handle whatever life throws at him. Thanks to my husband, my daughter Tricie learned to swim during one of our family vacations when she was 4. While he was busy encouraging her to go down the pool's water slide, I was busy admonishing her to be careful.

The best way to start operating like a team is to agree with your partner on the big things -- like what rules you'll have and how to discipline -- and then let each of you handle the day-to-day routines as you see fit. Moms, especially, must let go of the feeling that they know what's best for their children. Otherwise, dads will always be consigned to the helper role.

What about single parents? Do everything you can to cultivate meaningful relationships with other loving adults, whether relatives or trusted role models, like teachers and scout leaders. And, as hard as it may be sometimes, it's important for divorced parents to work together with an ex-spouse so their child doesn't feel like he has to choose between them. If your ex is out of the picture or unable to give emotional support, be honest about the circumstances, and help your child work through his grief.