Editor’s Note: Go Ask Your Dad is parenting advice with a philosophical bent as one dad explores what we want out of life, for ourselves and our children, through useful paradigms and best practices. Share your insight at the CNN Parenting Facebook page.
Give kids what they need the most: your attention
Frustration is understandable, but yelling is the least productive way to manage it
If you’re looking to improve your parenting, you’re not alone. In my opinion, it’s an essential area of course correction, up there with weight loss, better eating and better spending, arguably more essential.
What’s beautiful about parenting resolutions is that your kids benefit too, and likely your spouse and any potential future grandkids. You get a lot of bang for your resolution buck.
As with any resolution, honestly examine areas where you feel you could be doing better or want to improve. Below are eight parenting resolution thought-starters in categories we all probably need to give more attention in the coming year.
There’s a lot of talk, many articles and a long shelf of books on mindful parenting. But it all boils down to this: When you’re with your kids, give them full, curious and happy attention.
Listen to them, respond, don’t let yourself be distracted by your phone, or future-thinking or your own agenda. Be fully there for them, giving what they need the most: your attention, combined with an openness that encourages them to share whatever is on their mind or what’s happening with them at that moment.
The dividends of this effort are deep and long-long lasting – from fewer tantrums to stronger bonds. If you only pick one resolution, make it this one.
Be more laissez-faire about some things
You may be burdening yourself with milestones and cultural expectations that really don’t matter if you pause to think about them. Here are some developmental achievements you don’t really need to waste time, energy and anxiety pushing. Rest assured these will almost always work themselves out in due time.
- Potty training
- Bathing regularly
- Learning to read
- Riding a bike
Here are some things that maybe you shouldn’t be so laissez-faire about, even at early ages.
- Good nutrition
- Enough sleep
- Exposure to nature
- Good manners
Don’t drive under the influence of your phone
Here comes your PSA: More than 40,000 people died on US roads in 2016, according to National Safety Council estimates. Many roadway fatalities involve drunken driving, speeding and not wearing seat belts (so don’t do any of those things, clearly), but increasingly, accidents are being caused by people texting or talking while driving.
Fifty-one percent of teens reported seeing their parents checking and/or using their mobile devices while driving, according to a Common Sense Media poll last year. And when you repeatedly model a behavior in front of your kids, that’s called teaching.
Once they have a license, do you want your kids texting or talking while they drive? Do you want other drivers texting or talking while driving anywhere near your children? Me neither. When you stop doing it yourself, you are immediately modeling the behavior you want from them when it’s their time to be behind the wheel. And help spread this gospel to friends and family. The lives we save may be our own.
Yell less, breathe more
I’d like to meet the parent that hasn’t been driven to the point of yelling at some point (or many points) in their parenting life. That level of frustration is understandable, but yelling is the least productive way to manage it.
And it can do damage. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan found that tweens and teens whose parents yelled for discipline had increased behavioral issues including being violent. Another study linked yelling to lowering a child’s self-esteem and increasing the likelihood of depression.
Plus, it just ramps up the family stress level all around. In her book, “Ready, Set, Breathe,” Carla Naumburg shares some simple exercises to interrupt the anger that is rising in you and respond when you are more calm. An easy one is to place your hands on a surface, like the counter, and feel your feet rooted into the ground. Then breathe, count to 10 and respond after you have lowered your stress response.
You can also walk away (give yourself a time out), lay down on your bed or a couch and breathe slowly. You can even tell your kids that you need to take a break before you respond to them, because you want to calm yourself. That’s great modeling for the times when they feel the same level of frustration.
There’s one rare exception: if your child is in immediate danger and needs to comply. Last year I yelled at my daughters when a bear entered our campground. “Come to me, right now!” I shouted as soon as I saw it walking toward them. The older one complied immediately, but her little sister was frozen in fear – from my yelling. She hadn’t seen the bear.
Some of the most difficult moments of parenting are the transitions. The times we are trying to get kids to put their shoes and socks on to get out the door. Some of this you can’t avoid. Everyone needs to get to school and work on time. But there are also times when we create rushed transitions by overscheduling ourselves. The pace of modern life has sped up considerably since our childhoods, and kids have less time to be bored and discover what they can do in moments of quiet.
My wife is often pushing us to do less as a family, because then we experience each other more. If our whole Saturday is planned, we lose the opportunity to have long, lazy mornings of board games and fort building or the chance to all of a sudden decide to take a family hike and be in nature.
For those times when you can’t alter the schedule (early school mornings, for instance) building in more time to get ready will help reduce the level of impatience we feel and then transfer to/teach our kids.
Avoid “like” all the, like, time
If your kids often say “like” when they are, like, talking, and they sound, like, wishy-washy and unsure of, like, what they mean, they probably learned it from you. I know my kids certainly did. And maybe we can all, like, do a better job of reducing our use of this verbal crutch. Clearly one sounds more knowledgeable and sincere when they, like, don’t use the L-word so much. Maybe this isn’t an issue for your family, but it’s definitely an area I am going to work on in 2018.
Decrease screen time
Measure your screen consumption, and that of each of your kids’, over the course of a typical week. Count everything (school, work, smartphones, laptops, TV) and add it all up. Whatever it is, it’s probably too much.
There are relationship and development downsides to excessive screen use that far outweigh the modest educational benefits.
I’m no Luddite – this column is on a screen – but resolve to cut their (and maybe your) time spent staring at the digital world by 25%, or if that sounds drastic, by just 10%. Or pay attention to moments when all of you are reaching for a screen and offer an alternative instead. Who wants to play Jenga or Uno? Let’s go outside for a game of basketball or catch! Lego time! Improv games! Let’s read! Dance! Cook! Write! Art!
I can’t personally relate to this problem because I have a greater tendency toward selfishness (which I’m working on) than selflessness. But more often than not, parents are giving so much of themselves that they are often miserable and exhausted as a result.
Kids benefit from happy parents, so if your balance is off-center, make a resolution for more “me” time away from the kids in the happiness-making pursuits of friendships, creativity, exercise, sleep or just being alone – whatever you need more of in order to be a more effective and happier parent.
How to track and succeed
One of the major tenets of resolution and habit success is tracking. And while “better parenting” is difficult to measure, more specific action is easy to. Just give yourself a grade on your resolution at the end of every day on a piece of paper. Research suggests that the average time it takes for an action to become automatic and habitualized is just over two months, if you stick with it daily.
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Another useful device is accountability. Tell your spouse or your family, and even your kids, what you’re working to improve. They will remind and support you because they want you to succeed and the family to thrive.
The mere effort of paying attention to these areas of parenting will benefit you, even when you fall short of your new goals. And, remember, mistakes are just moments to model for our kids. So, when, despite your best efforts, you do yell – just apologize and show your kids that we are all human. And remind yourself that parenthood is a journey, not a destination.
David G. Allan is the editorial director of CNN Health, Wellness and Parenting. He also writes “The Wisdom Project” about applying philosophy to our daily lives. You can subscribe to it here.