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Mom of 18-year-old celebrates a doctorate shares her non-negotiable parenting rules

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Jimalita Tillman knew her daughter Dorothy Jean was gifted at a very young age.

Home-schooled from age 7, Dorothy Jean took high school-level courses a year later and earned her first college diploma, an associate’s degree, at age 10. She added a bachelor’s degree at age 12 and an environmental science master’s degree two years later, both online.

Last year, at just 17 years old, Dorothy Jean earned a doctoral degree in integrated behavioral health from Arizona State University. Now 18, she’s weighing her future plans while running the Dorothy Jeanius STEAM Leadership Institute, an organization she launched in 2020 to offer educational programming for Black youths in Chicago.

Watching Dorothy Jean accomplish so much at a young age has been “humbling,” her mother tells CNBC Make It. Tillman also helped put her daughter on the path to success, especially as a single parent — employing multiple non-negotiable parenting rules that she says helped nurture her daughter’s natural gifts.

Different parenting styles can have varying effects on different children. Tillman says these four rules were constants while she raised Dorothy Jean:

Agree on clear expectations

Build a “contract with your child of expectations,” where you and your child agree on what’s expected of them, from schoolwork to extracurricular activities, Tillman recommends. That could look like finishing their homework before watching any television, or only participating in an extra after-school club if they maintain good grades.

“You need to be very clear and concise. You can’t have one foot in, one foot out when dealing with children, especially gifted ones,” says Tillman.

Mom of 18-year-old with a doctorate shares her 4 non-negotiable parenting rules: ‘How can they be the best versions of themselves?’© Provided by CNBC

Talented children especially need clear-cut expectations, and accountability when they fall short of those expectations, research shows. Give them a voice in crafting those guidelines, experts say: It helps to breed confidence and self-motivation, which are both key to long-term success.

“The more you trust your children to do things on their own, the more empowered they’ll be,” bestselling author and parenting expert Esther Wojcicki wrote for Make It in 2022.

Teach accountability — and model it, too

When it comes to accountability, parents can be the best teachers, says Tillman.

“Hold yourself accountable,” she says. “Show your levels of vulnerability with your children [to] show them how to hold themselves accountable and be able to complete things that they need to complete.”

Talking to your children honestly about the times when you fell short of your own expectations, and how you got yourself back on track, can teach them a lot about how responsible adults take accountability. That can be as simple as apologizing to your child when you pick them up late or lose your temper over something trivial, according to psychologist Cindy Graham.

“Children are likely to repeat what they see others doing, so it is important for caregivers to be aware of the lessons kids are learning from them,” Graham told HuffPost in 2021.

Have faith

“You have to be rooted in some sort of faith and stand on that,” says Tillman, who notes that she and her daughter are “very active in church.” It doesn’t have to be religious: You could simply have faith in the idea that everything will work itself out in the end.

Whatever the source of optimism, a positive outlook — which kids can pick up from their parents — can breed self-confidence, educational psychologist and parenting expert Michele Borba told CNBC Make It last year.

“That’s probably one of the highest correlations of success,” said Borba. “It’s a child who says, ‘I’ll just keep chunking it and keep on doing it’ … As opposed to: ‘Why should I bother and try?'”

Parents and children alike need that self-confidence when facing life’s inevitable obstacles, Tillman adds: “At times, it will just be you in your faith. There [will be] times when you’re going to run up against the naysayers. Bills are due. Tuition is due.”

Avoid unfair comparisons

Don’t use other people’s accomplishments to motivate your children to succeed — and remember that every child develops at their own pace, child psychologists say. Constant comparisons can actually backfire by making kids feel inferior, parenting researcher Jennifer Breheny Wallace told Make It last year.

Tillman stridently avoided comparing Dorothy Jean’s accomplishments to anyone else, she says, and she’s adamant that other parents shouldn’t compare their children to Dorothy Jean.

“[Don’t] say, ‘You should be like this. Look at what this kid is doing,'” she says. “Comparison is just horrible. It’s really bad for the child’s self esteem and confidence … How can they be the best version of themselves?”