Parenting is, hands down, the toughest job in the world. Both Scott and I know that being an engaged parent is no small task and that there is no one right way to do it. But after three kids (and making many mistakes and learning along the way), we have discovered a few things that work for our family, most of the time. These are by no means the last word on parenting; the fact is, parenting is such an individualized thing that what works for one family will not necessarily work for another. Even so, I wanted to share a few ideas with you in hopes that what helped us might help your family too.
1. SEEK OUT ADVICE FROM OTHER PARENTS. To begin, a lot of the parenting concepts that work for us I was initially exposed to in parenting programs. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was scared out of my mind. My solution was to find out what other parents, educators, and caretakers did by joining parenting programs. With each one of my children, I have attended Mommy and Me classes. I went to a group run by Jill Spivack, and she addressed topics relevant to first- time moms. We talked about sleep, marriage, the transition to parenthood, work and identity changes, and play for the little baby. These classes and the relationships I developed with other moms honestly served as my touchstone to sanity. Jill also has Second- Time Mom groups, which address subjects like sibling rivalry and balancing a family, as well as Advanced Mom groups, which are for parents only and cover behavior and development topics as our children get older. Search around and you are sure to find a group or classes that are right for you. For divorced parents, there are excellent co- parenting classes available, which help parents get on the same page. Your county or state may also offer free parenting programs, and I know that many branches of the YMCA offer a wealth of parent- and- child classes for their members, such as Mommy and Me Sing and Sign or Little Hands Arts and Crafts. Don’t just take my word for it. Research done by the Institute of Health Sciences at Oxford University found that group parenting programs give us confidence as parents and also have a significant positive impact on the mental health of mommas. Supportive parenting programs have been shown to reduce depression and anxiety in new mothers and to improve self- esteem and spousal relationships. It’s great to have the research to back it up, but I also know this to be true because I feel it with every bone in my body. The support of these groups and other moms has been a huge comfort and continues to help alleviate my fears, anxieties, and concerns as I grow and mature into motherhood.
2. YOU ARE THE CAPTAIN OF THE SHIP. This is pretty much a direct quote from Robin Berman’s seminal book Permission to Parent. You are the boss, and don’t you forget it. As parents, you are the heads of the household, and you are the ones running things. Not your kids. Yes, they are so cute that we don’t always want to step in and be strict and discipline. Yes, they can sometimes act out or be manipulative it seems easier to give in because you are tired or just don’t have it in you. But you cannot let them walk all over you. Being firm with your children does not mean you are not being loving. Being firm is actually being loving, because you are saying no in their best interest. Children need a parent, not another friend. My kids know they have to sit their tushies down at the table when it’s time to eat, and they know that if they don’t, they will get in trouble. They know that when Scott or I say no, it means no. It doesn’t mean they always behave, supermommas! But it does mean that when they misbehave or don’t listen, they may expect consequences, because we are consistent. And that is what is important. I promise, our kids still think we’re fun!
3. LET KIDS BE BORED. Tara Rubin, Brooks’s preschool teacher, and I talk about this. Study after study tells us that our kids are over-scheduled and families are overrun with to- do lists. I have definitely been guilty of over-scheduling myself and my kids. This is a challenge for many families. You want to give your kids all the opportunities in the world, from music lessons to arts, sports, and education— but what’s the right balance? Well, we must realize that when we make all our kids’ decisions for them, and when kids are overburdened with programmed activities, it affects their creativity and cognition. As Tara says, “Children need things to do— but not all the time.” Also, we shouldn’t always decide for our children which activities they’ll engage in. She further explains, “Children need to think about what they want to do on their own. They’ve got to use their own brains. When they come up with their own ideas and activities, it encourages independent thought, gives them a sense of independence, self-reliance, and in turn, confidence.” Isn’t that what every parent wants for their children?
4. EMPOWER THEM TO CHOOSE. Give young children limited choices and only choices that work for you. This still empowers children to make their own choices, but they are choices you are okay with. Little ones do not do as well with open- ended questions. And frankly, as a parent, you never know what you are going to get when you leave something open- ended for your kid. So instead of asking, “What would you like for breakfast?” ask, “Would you like cereal, pancakes, or eggs and toast?” That way your child has control over her choice, but clearly strawberry ice cream and cheddar bunnies are not options. Everyone is happy! This strategy works well for discipline too. Scott and I might say, “You can (1) calm down, sit in your room, and think about what you’ve done; or (2) apologize to your sister right now and give her a hug; or (3) keep doing what you are doing, but then you won’t be able to watch Curious George tonight. What would you like to do?”
5. MODEL GOOD BEHAVIOR. Children learn from observing their parents and caretakers. If you want your children to do something, they need to see you do it too. It’s not rocket science. “Do as I say, not as I do” does not work for modern parenting. For example, the more digital screen time you have (with your phone, iPad, TV, etc.), the more they will want that too. Children are incredibly impressionable at every stage; this goes for infancy and toddlerhood, and continues in adolescence. No parent is perfect, and that’s not what you should strive for. But Scott and I definitely look more closely at what we are doing when we are around our children, and we try our best to be positive examples.
6. HOLD OFF ON “HELICOPTERING.” This is especially tough for Type A moms. Yes, you have to be there for your kids. Yes, you want to care for and watch over them. But don’t go Goldie Hawn (from Snatched) overboard on them, especially when you have the financial or emotional resources to spoil and overprotect. Your kids need your love and support, but let them try things for themselves. Let them fail. Children actually need to experience forms of disappointment and discomfort in order to learn to cope for themselves. It is part of life. How can they if we do everything for them? If you clean your kids’ room for them every day, they will never learn to do it themselves. Let’s give our children enough space that they may learn essential life skills on their own. Our children will be who they are going to be, and we shouldn’t try to change that. But they do need guidance to be the best version of themselves.
7. AVOID LABELING. Labeling our children, whether negatively or even sometimes positively, is generally not very helpful. It might seem like we are just being descriptive or factual about our children, however, we need to be very careful how we choose to define our children early on, because the truth is, we don’t truly know who our children are yet or what they’ll become! Why should we tell them who they are and what they are going to be? By stating assumptions, we are getting in the way of possibility and could be creating a self- fulfilling prophecy or unconsciously shaping their self- image in a negative way. We should avoid saying, “She’s this or that.” This is especially true when speaking directly to our children. It’s best to let go of our judgments, stay open, and keep away from labels so that our children can grow and bloom without being tethered to negative predictions.
8. WHISPER IN THEIR EAR. As French writer Anatole France said, “Nine- tenths of education is encouragement.” This I believe! While excessive praise for every little thing can be damaging to a child, being an engaged, active, and encouraging parent lets your children know that you are there— and that you care. You can be an engaged, active, and encouraging parent whether your children score a goal or don’t, whether they get an A or a D, and whether they do as they are told or misbehave. That way it’s not always just good job/bad job. It’s recognition of their hard work. And it’s about engaging with the child and asking, What went wrong and how can we do better next time? Don’t ever let your children forget that they have a cheerleader in their corner. By whispering in their ear, letting them know that you see their hard work and progress, or that you are there to help them through a lower point, they will be better for it. My parents always whispered in my ear. They instilled confidence in me from the time I was small that I could achieve any dream. They encouraged me when I succeeded and also when I failed. Both success and failure provided us as parents and as children opportunities to learn and grow. That kind of belief and support goes an incredibly long way when it comes to your kids’ confidence and ultimately to their future success in life.
A happy, healthy home is something that all of us strive for. It’s as much about how we care for our home as how we care for one another inside of it. To me, it is as much about how our home functions as how it feels. It’s as much about cleanliness, safety, comfort, and organization as it is about connectedness, fun, relaxation, and respect. A happy, healthy home and the relationships we build inside aren’t about perfection. (Believe me, there are days when I say, “I give up!”) But rather, it’s about striving for a little more harmony in our lives. It is always a work in progress. When you are lucky enough build a family with someone you love— whether it’s just two of you or ten— it’s something that deserves to be cared for and cherished. Cultivating a healthy physical and emotional environment that nurtures and feeds our bodies and souls will truly help your family feel purpose and soar together.
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