Parenting starts with us. We have to be ready, and stay ready, to parent. Let's start with our goals. We want our children to be physically, mentally and socially strong and healthy because we want them to be happy. We want our kids to be better, more successful and "have more" than we do when they're grown. We'd also really like them to avoid the things that have hurt us and created our biggest problems.
Unfortunately, you don't get a manual when you become a parent. It's seldom something we learn about in school and few of us have had particularly good examples growing up. We wind up recycling what we were exposed to when we were younger and trying to make up the rest as we go. It's very easy to forget or never realize that we have to take care of ourselves and work on regulating ourselves so that we can be "good enough" parents.
We don't have to try to be perfect or even the best parents. We just need to work on being good enough. Our kids will find us to be better parents, and the perfect parents for them, if we are who we were created to be and consistently show them our love, set good limits for them, respect them as we want to be respected, and own and apologize for our mistakes. We also need to show them that we are moving on from our pasts and becoming stronger, healthier people, too.
When we do these things, we give our kids the gifts of faith in us (and, to a certain extent, the world in general), hope for the future and the capacity to give and receive love. We will have given them the best foundation we can.
Being a parent is more like being a gardener than it is like being a mechanic. We need to remember kids are more like plants than cars. Plants grow well when the conditions are right: enough sun, water and reasonably good soil. Kids grow well with love, and a healthy environment that keeps them safe. Kids cannot be fixed like a car. Just like plants, all we can do is fix the environment, including ourselves, take care of the immediate damage and then make sure that a healing process can take place.
Since we are the most important part of our kids' environment, what do we need to do? Rule #1: Be mindful of what is going on in your own body and mind. Remember your kids will always act like kids, so they're going to do something inappropriate from time to time. You'll need to be ready to respond. If you are distracted or stressed out, you're far more likely to react in anger. If you've been keeping an eye on yourself, you'll have more room to take what's happening in stride and redirect it. You'll also have been doing small things throughout the day to take care of yourself. Let's take a look at how you take care of problem behavior first.
Stop, Drop and Breathe
Rule #2: Stop yelling (and punishing). When you find yourself getting angry or you start raising your voice, stoptalking. Close your mouth. If you have to make noise, hum for a moment or two. Take a momentary timeout and dropit. Now do something to calm yourself. Breathe. Take a few deep breaths. Shake out your hands. Go splash some water on your face in the bathroom. Do something that works for you. You don't have to act in haste. You can take a moment or two. You're even allowed to say, "We're going to talk about this in a few minutes."
Now that you're back under control, restart the conversation. You should consider making an apology for the rough start and restate your commitment to being respectful. Calmly state what you saw without loaded language, "just the facts." Let your child tell their side. They can "disagree appropriately." You don't need to accept excuses, but you should hear them out. If there was a misunderstanding, let it go. If something was wrong, calmly say what you expect next time.
If whatever happened is an ongoing problem, a timeout or some other consequence should be given. You need to be mindful that punishments are expensive in your relationship. You can very quickly overdraw your "good will" account with your child. If you find yourself "needing to punish" frequently, something significant is lacking in your relationship. Are your child's needs really being taken care of? What kind of positive attention can they rely on?
Taking Care of Yourself
Rule #3: Keep your physical and emotional batteries charged enough during the day. It won't be easy at first, and it will take practice and experimenting, but you'll find ways to at least partially recharge your batteries during the day. If you keep finding yourself tired, resentful and angry, you haven't paid enough attention to yourself at strategic times.
Ask yourself, "What do I need to do to stay balanced right now?" when you're getting irritable. Notice times when you can take a minute or two to do something you enjoy or that takes the stress down. Deep breathing, a few moments meditating, saying a few positive things to yourself or just smiling can be fit in almost anywhere. If your children still nap, plan on doing something that builds you back up while they're asleep. Avoid using all of that time to try to catch up on other things. Catching up with yourself is at least as important.
If certain times of day are usually stressful, plan ahead. Experiment with ways to change up routines and make them more like a game or family ritual for your kids. You can be creative, if you stop running on autopilot. If something happens to brighten your day, make sure you take the time to notice and enjoy it before moving on.
Keys to Remember
1. Manage Yourself
The more you care for yourself with compassion (not overindulgence), the more love and compassion you'll have for your kids.
2. Don't Give Up on Your Kids, Stay Connected
You don't yell at a flower that isn't thriving, you water it or move to a spot where it can grow better. Respond to what your children really need, not what you think they need or can get by with.
3. Too Much Punishment Makes Things Worse
Too much punishment weakens your relationship and reduces respect. Find healthier ways to respond. Frequent punishment is a sure sign that your kids' needs are not really being met. You particularly need to make sure they are getting the loving positive attention they require. Love, empathy, guidance and limits are all essential together. You will be far less successful when you're only working with 1 or 2 parts of the package.
4. Kids Need to Feel Safe to Talk About "Big Feelings"
Your kids need to be able to rely on you listening, even when they're angry or say things that at first hearing sound inappropriate. You don't need to put up with yelling, name calling or cursing, but you can call for a timeout and make it clear you are willing to hear them out if they will be reasonably calm and respectful. "Disagreeing appropriately" is what you're aiming for. You can help them talk themselves down. It can help to just quietly sit with them while they calm down.
Your kids are immature human beings. They have fewer coping skills than you. "I hate you!" and other provocative statements are really about their hurt and pain in the moment. Find a way to validate their feelings without getting too caught up in the inappropriate behavior. It's taken you long enough to handle your big feelings, you can help them talk theirs out by being as respectful as you can even when they aren't. Over time, you will gain their respect when you give them yours.
5. Keep Your Priorities Straight
It's far more important to pay attention to how your children treat you and each other than it is whether or not the clothes are all picked up and their closet is organized. If you need to make a lot of changes, start with the most important ones and let the less important ones ride for a while. Don't try to do everything at once or you will stress everyone, including yourself, out and fail to really get started.
Staying in the Zone
In order to parent well, it helps to know how your body and your kids' bodies work. If you don't work with them, you'll wind up out of the game or play poorly. You'll be unable to parent effectively.
Figure 1 above shows what happens as we start to become too stressed. As we move further into to fight or flight zone, we lose more and more of our capacity to think well and stay connected. We start to see others more and more as people to attack or escape from. If we get too far up, we start to shut down. Taking care of ourselves during the day reduces our stress levels. Being mindful of our thoughts, changing the things we say to ourselves and how we talk about the things going on around us can greatly change our stress level.
Questions to Journal
- How would you describe your parents’ style of parenting?
- How would you describe your own style?
- How well do you and your kids’ other parent agree on parenting?
- What frustrates you the most in parenting?
- What do you enjoy most in parenting?
- If you had a “do-over” what would you change?
Nick Chambers, The Life-Style Dad, Mastering the Art of Parenting videos KP:1 - KP:5, (scroll down to near the bottom of the page)
Dr. Laura Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kinds: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting (2012)
Verses for the Week
Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
No learning process seems pleasant at the time. It's painful. Later on, however, it produces the fruit of right character and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Leviticus 19:17, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Prayer for the Week
Help me to be mindful of myself this week. Help me to remember to take care of myself, so I can take better care of my children. Please remind me to pay attention to what I am thinking before I act, so I can respond rather than react. Help me prepare my children well for their future. Amen.