A New Year's List for Tired Parents

The more I talk with parents who are in the thick of it, raising children—the more convinced I am that many parents are working too darn hard! Yes, I know that you hard-working parents are conscientious, caring people who just want to do the right thing.  You rightfully deserve a lot of credit for that.

But sometimes, a parent’s wonderful love and generosity propels them to do too much, leading to fatigue, dissatisfaction, and (let’s be honest) sometimes even disgust.  A parent’s cheerfulness is a terrible thing to waste.

Here is my list for 2011 to make your parenting job easier, more fun, and more satisfying.

  1. Too much stuff.  Adults are overwhelmed with trying to keep all of their stuff organized—whether it’s paperwork or plastic food containers.  Too much stuff takes too much of your energy, and your child’s energy, to manage.  Invite your young child to fill one laundry basket with what she wants to play with (and take care of and pick up) this week, and put the rest into storage.  The stuff that doesn’t get rotated out of storage to play with can leave the house.
  2. Too much to do.  And not enough time to do it in.  Children and parents living in our community have many wonderful opportunities for lessons in music, sports, and other enriching activities.  Yet feeling compelled to keep up with a full schedule of “fun stuff to do” is exhausting for both children and adults.  What’s fun about that?  Keep the schedule light enough to keep everyone in a good mood and flexible enough for relaxing, resting, and spontaneity.
  3. Too much help.  “Never do something for children that they can do for themselves.” Parents often give their children “help” that really isn’t helpful.  Yes, children are slow—they are learning.  Yes, children aren’t too good at it yet—they are learning.  Yes, children sometimes complain when they struggle, they are learning.  Stand back, smile, take a deep breath, smile, and pat yourself on your back for giving your child the opportunity to learn, learn, and learn.  Children who know how to DO things are happy children.
  4. Too many rules.  Are too hard to keep straight, keep track of, and uphold.  The fewer the limits, the easier they are to remember and uphold.  Start with a family policy of RESPECT for yourself and your child, and take it from there.  If you are constantly announcing new rules (“No throwing peas at your sister!”) it’s what my friend Patti calls “drive by parenting.”  Doesn’t that sound like too much work?  A clear family policy such as “Everyone in the family is respectful to everyone else” easily leads to a logical consequence that “dinner is over” when the policy and the family are disrespected.
  5. Too many expectations.  From toddlers to grandparents, everyone wants to feel that they are basically an okay person, good-enough as they are and capable of learning and improvement.  Nothing is more discouraging than feeling the bar is too high and expectations are impossible.  A four year old’s job is to be a pretty good four year old.  Start with your child exactly where he is and help him add one new skill at a time.  He won’t be a 14 or a 24 year old for a long, long time—so don’t ask him to be what he isn’t.
  6. Too much advice.  Children are naturally experiential, concrete learners.  They learn best by doing, not by hearing and not by watching.  Even if you tell your child everything you have learned from a lifetime of experience about how to make a wonderful peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she won’t “know” how to do it until she does it, over and over again.  See #3 again.
  7. Too much correction.  One of the hardest things in the world for a parent is to just let a child’s mistake or misbehavior slide without saying a thing.  But, think about it from your child’s point of view—how many times has he already been corrected today?  “Be careful.  That’s not right, let me do it.  No, that’s not the way you do that.  Come back here, pick this up.  You need to be more careful…”  If you feel like, “why do I have to repeat myself a million times?” you’re getting tuned out because you repeated yourself a million times. Few things get worse because the child isn’t corrected every single time they do something wrong. See #4 and #5 again.
  8. Too little hope.  One of my favorite quotes is “Parents are at their worst when they operate from fear” (James Bitter).  Dr. Spock became famous for telling parents in the 60’s “trust yourself.”  For the 21st century, I would add, “trust your children.”  I have met many unhappy children who are not having much success in their lives, but I have never met a child who wanted to be a failure.  Every child wants to do well and wants others to accept him as an okay person.  See #5 again.  When your child is feeling bad and maybe acting bad, remember your hope and share it with her, “You are a good kid who is still learning.  I believe you’ve got what it takes to do it.”
  9. Too little support.  Child psychologist Michael Bradley says, “You wouldn’t fly a jumbo jet without training and a co-pilot, why would you try to raise your kids on your own?”  If you take only one class, take a class at the Parent Encouragement Program (www.parentencouragement.org).  If you want to meet me, I teach two all day Saturday classes on February 12 and 26th this year.
  10. Too much work and not enough fun.  Remember why you wanted to have children and a family?  Those are still good reasons.  Now you are here in the thick of it, and everyone keeps telling you “they won’t be little forever!”  It’s true.  Enjoy your child.  Pretend like he is your nephew for an afternoon and you aren’t totally responsible for his upbringing.  Just have fun together.  I trust you, you’ll get back to work soon enough.