Are we as parents overly stressed and hyper-scheduling our children? Do we focus on achievement at the expense of emotional health? Do we have high parental anxiety about getting it all right?
These were the questions that were raised in preparation for a seminar being held in my neighborhood one evening last month. Beth Sandweiss, a New Jersey-based social worker from Jewish Family Services Metrowest was there to provide insight and advice on how to navigate through the proverbial pressure cooker that is parenting in today’s society. And while I didn’t come away from the lecture knowing how many after-school activities were too many or how paranoid I should feel opting out of a reading class for two-year-olds, I did learn the three most important things to be mindful of when raising children in this day and age.
1. Emotional Self-Regulation: Whether your child is whining incessantly, making a mess or fighting with her sibling (or all three at the same time), it is important to first take a moment, and notice how you are feeling (without judgment). Once you notice and accept the full range of your feelings, rather than push them away or ignore them, only then can you take a deep breath and act accordingly. By naming your feelings and consciously letting them go before reacting immediately to a trigger, chances are pretty good you won’t jump to yelling (an act that we often regret and feel guilty about afterwards). With this method of self-regulation, you’ll be more likely to deal with what’s happening in a calm manner and with the requisite perspective. Once you recognize that a child’s behavior is most likely age-appropriate and that it’s not personal, responding to stressful moments in a way you’ll feel good about later on will become second nature.
2. Nurture a Positive Relationship and Stay Connected with Your Child: Admit it… your kids aren’t the only ones in need of ‘screen time’ limits. Staying connected with your child is often easier said than done in this highly distractible culture. A parent’s predisposition to multi-task may be the biggest obstacle in nurturing a close and positive relationship. Despite how satisfying it feels to simultaneously schedule a doctor’s appointment while cooking a gourmet dinner and tying your son’s shoelace, parents have to try to put the iPhone down, turn off the TV and focus on one activity at a time. And while driving carpool and being present in the same room while your daughter does her homework certainly matter, quality one-on-one time matters more. Carving out a mere 10 minutes a day when each child has your undivided attention can go very far when nurturing that close connection and making your child feel important. It’s recommended to take turns when deciding what activity gets chosen each night (i.e. child wants a tickle party one night, mom chooses storytelling the next, child opts for playing dress-up, etc.).
3. Setting Limits with Empathy: As much as you like the idea of being your child’s “best friend”, parents must learn to set clear limits but do so with empathy. For example, if you set a limit such as “you must put away toys now” and the child cries, the limit should remain firmly in place but parents should empathize with the child’s desire to keep on playing without being punitive in any way. Such empathy will keep you connected with your child. Furthermore, while setting limits, parents must also empower children with lots of choices. Parents may feel the need to control every aspect of their children’s lives (as was the case during infancy), but eventually, moms and dads should transition into the role of ‘advisor who empathizes’. Guiding children to make good decisions for themselves is an essential part of the parent’s job and it is important to think long-term and teach life lessons, even if it makes things more difficult in the moment (i.e. stop doing their homework for them!). Many studies on happiness will show that children who are able to self-soothe and be resilient when faced with hardship are the happiest children. And in the grand scheme of things, being happy is way more valuable than winning the swim meet or even getting into an Ivy League school.
There may be only three important steps to mindful parenting to remember, but following these rules makes natural childbirth look like a piece of cake. We live in a pretty toxic world – we work more hours, have less time off, we’re always rushing from one thing to the next, and we often don’t have the support from family that generations before us had. And our children don’t have it much better. They’re expected to be good at everything from Varsity sports to academics to being bored (yes, you read that right).
Suffice it to say, we put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves (and our children) to maintain some elusive gold standard of child rearing and the second we step foot out of our houses (let alone sign on to Facebook), we’re inundated with examples of how we’re not doing it right. But if we boil those three steps into a practical three-word mantra: “breathe, connect and guide”, the gold standard of parenting might just be attainable and our children might just grow up to be some pretty amazing people.
Beth Sandweiss’ ideas were influenced by Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.