I have to admit that I only had a vague idea of what trifecta meant before googling it. I knew that my sister-in-law had once placed a trifecta bet at Saratoga and won a fairly large sum of money. Online I found the useful definition: A bet in which the bettor must select the winners of the first three places (first, second, and third) of a race in the correct order. That being said, I’d like to propose that the trifecta of parenting is respect, relationship, and repair. In that order—and I’ll explain why.

First and foremost: respect. This makes sense—we want and need our children to respect us, right? Right. I think the tricky piece here is staying mindful that respect must be a two-way street. This also makes sense; intellectually anyway. Practically speaking, it isn’t always easy to respect a small child who needs your near constant supervision and care. It’s even harder to hold in high esteem a small person who may not be behaving rationally, managing their emotions, or have all their teeth yet.

Let’s face it, our culture is not one in which the weak, emotionally volatile, and unreasonable command respect. Along these same lines, we mainly parent within a paradigm where kids are the sponges and we are our child’s first teacher. But this is only one side of a much more complex story. As adults we may have more information, knowledge, and common sense than a child. But we forget our duality, and easily dismiss children’s inherent gifts of connectedness, creativity, humor, and emotional honesty. It is commonly reported that children laugh on average 300-400 times a day and that this number drops to 15-20 laughs a day in adulthood. Knowing the many positive benefits of laughter, I have to ask: Who should be learning from whom in this case? This is one small reminder that we grown-ups don’t always know best, or have the all the answers.

Next: relationship. This is what parenting is all about! Ah, but we are so easily side-tracked into control and behavior management. Rebecca Thompson, executive director of The Consciously Parenting Project notes that behavioral approaches (consequences, etc.) all stem from the research of B.F. Skinner—you may recall that he worked with laboratory animals? Animals are not people, and although many have proposed that “training” techniques do work to change conduct in children, often this is not the case, and the result ends up being even more escalated behavior. Ms. Thompson suggests addressing the underlying emotion first, before discussing behavior, or what might be done differently next time. Keep in mind that it’s hard to receive feedback on your actions while you are having strong feelings (and brain research confirms this), no matter what your age!

Children need to feel connected. They need us to listen and validate their feelings. This truly is a need and not a want for a young dependant child. I recently learned about the great resource, Hand in Hand: Nurturing the Parent-Child Connection. This organization suggests that listening is so important it warrants multiple ways of learning to listen to our children. We must remember that our children do need this listening, and our focused attention. This takes effort and is not always easy. I remind myself daily to hang up the phone, turn off the computer, and truly engage with my child. I know it’s cliché, but it is a fact that he will not always be interested in my company.

And finally: repair. I’ll be honest; sometimes I just don’t get it right. We are all human and prone to messing up. Part of repair is being accountable for our actions. Apologize if you’ve made a mistake. This is a skill all people need; modeling it for your child is incredibly valuable. When we approach a problem, error, or offense—ours or theirs—with true curiosity about what can be done to amend, fix, repair, or make restitution, we are on track for learning, making things right, and better behavior in the future. Punishment, criticism, and negative consequences all use fear as a motivator. Ultimately, I’d rather maintain love, not fear, in my connection with my child—repair helps with this.

Upon further investigation, I discovered that the word trifecta originates from the related betting term, perfecta. But let me be clear, I’m not saying that implementing these ideas about respect, relationship, and repair will yield perfect parenting. No, not perfect— but it just might be your best bet.

First published in the Parent & Family July/August 2010 issue.