Most parents love their children deeply and want to do the best job possible of teaching and nurturing them. But children don't come with owner's manuals, and beyond caring for their physical needs, many parents don't receive much training about how to raise great kids.

For those parents who struggle with knowing how to improve their parenting skills, here are some simple tips for more effective parenting in 2012.

1. Eat dinner together as a family

Teens in families that eat dinner together at least five times a week are more likely to say they have a high-quality relationship with their parents and siblings, according to a 2011 report from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). In a statement accompanying the report, Joseph A. Califano Jr. — CASA's chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare — said, "Seventeen years of surveying teens has taught us that the more often children have dinner with their families the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs."

Other studies show children from families that eat meals together have lower rates of obesity, better overall health and have better eating habits.

2. Teach patience

In 1972, a psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted a study on deferred gratification known as the Stanford University marshmallow experiment. In the study, young children were given an option to eat a treat immediately or to wait 15 minutes and then receive an additional treat. Study results showed that only one-third of the children were able to wait.

In 1988, a follow-up study showed that when preschool children were able to resist eating the marshmallow, more than 10 years later their parents described them as adolescents who were significantly more competent. A second follow-up study in 1990 showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores. Other follow-up studies showed that kids who waited were more likely to attend college and get good grades, have a lower body mass index, be less likely to commit crimes and earn higher annual incomes.

In an April 2010 address, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, "Patience is not passive resignation, nor is it failing to act because of our fears. Patience means active waiting and enduring. It means staying with something and doing all that we can — working, hoping and exercising faith; bearing hardship with fortitude, even when the desires of our hearts are delayed. Patience is not simply enduring; it is enduring well."

3. Give children lots of your time

The CASA research revealed that teens who spent seven or fewer hours a week with their parents were twice as likely to use alcohol or drugs as those who spent 21 or more hours a week with their parents.

Only 5 percent of the teens surveyed said they wanted to spend less time with their parents. Eighteen percent responded that they wished they could spend more time with their parents.

Ellen Braun, who writes a parenting blog at, wrote, "Our children, for the most part, are unaware of the myriad of things that we do FOR them. However, they are fully aware of the things which we do WITH them."

Braun recommends activities where parents connect directly with their children. "When parents sit on the bench and view their children's gravity-defying antics on the monkey-bars, that is one level of quality time with children," she wrote. "However, a game of tag with children chasing their parents is light-years ahead of just watching children play in terms of the connection that is created by engaging in an activity simultaneously."

4. Get a pet

Responsible pet ownership is challenging. Animals need daily care and attention, but they can also help children learn important life lessons. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology (AACAP), "Developing positive feelings about pets can contribute to a child's self-esteem and self-confidence. Positive relationships with pets can aid in the development of trusting relationships with others. A good relationship with a pet can also help in developing non-verbal communication, compassion and empathy."

Among the other benefits of pet ownership cited by the AACAP:

Pets can be safe recipients of secrets and private thoughts — children often talk to their pets.

Pets provide lessons about life: reproduction, birth, illnesses, accidents, death and bereavement.

Pets help develop responsible behavior in the children who care for them.

Pets provide a connection to nature.

Pets can teach respect for other living things.

There is also evidence that owning pets offers health benefits for children. According to a recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, infants in homes with dogs were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies — 19 percent compared to 33 percent. They also were less likely to have eczema. In addition, they had higher levels of some immune system chemicals — a sign of stronger immune system activation.

5. Read with your children

The most recent Program for International Student Assessment exams revealed that 15-year-old students whose parents often read books with them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher scores in PISA 2009 than students whose parents read with them infrequently or not at all. This finding was true no matter the family's socioeconomic background.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development gives these exams every three years to measure 15-year-olds in the world's leading industrialized nations on their reading comprehension and ability to use what they've learned in math and science to solve real problems.

Although these five steps are simple, that doesn't mean they are easy to apply. To be successful, parents need to be consistent and set a good example for their children. Doing so could help them more effectively connect with their children in 2012.

Flint Stephens is the author of "Mormon Parenting Secrets: Time-Tested Methods for Raising Exceptional Children." He has a master's degree in communications from Brigham Young University. His Web site is