Parenting is a difficult and daunting undertaking that comes without an instruction manual. I can still vividly recall the overwhelming sense of unease I experienced when we left the hospital with our first child. It was as though I was completely out of my depth, unsure of how to proceed.
The fact that we were entrusted with the safety and care of this delicate, vulnerable life was almost too much to process.
Once we got home and I began to conceptualize the next eighteen years or so, I really began to panic. You can’t follow a formula to raise your kids well. There is no assurance that following a certain path will lead to the desired outcome.
This uncertainty comes from free will. Every individual possesses it, including our children. Because of this, it is impossible to know for sure how a person will grow or what decisions they will make. Parenting is a tough job, no doubt about it.
There is a lot of advice out there, and it would be good for us as parents and our kids if we listened to some of it and adopted good behaviors and principles, even though there are no guarantees.
Parenting is hard. If you have kids, you know this is true. Sometimes I feel like I’m completely alone. Like the parents I see at church, in the community, and elsewhere who appear to have everything put together perfectly, they show up on time, everyone has matching socks, they’re polite to one another—even respectful—and they seem supportive of one another, and their clothes have iron creases.
One of my children was so unfamiliar with ironing that he mistook an ironing board for a surfboard.
The movie playing in the back of my mind while I watch the scene of utter perfection before my eyes is of the utter chaos that went on earlier that morning in our family, when we were trying to get everyone out of the house. The shouts, the complaints, who took what or touched who—the door slams.
And I think, “What am I doing wrong?”
So, first, be sure you don’t have a false narrative playing in your mind. What words are you telling yourself when you reflect on your family and its dynamics?
Try to stop the perfect script. If you have a script like this playing in the back of your mind, realize it’s false. What you see portrayed on the outside is not reality. All parents are dealing with similar issues as you; they’re struggling with the same challenges, the same frustrations, and the same arguments. Behind the scenes, all families struggle, no matter how put-together they appear. Do not let a false script create a false reality in your head.
Sometimes, I keep that false message on instant replay, and end up adopting some very poor parenting habits because I react to the false message. My disappointment in my family’s reality and my guilt and disappointment in myself turn me into a really unpleasant dad, husband, and someone I don’t like. Outcomes like these feed my guilt and depression, and it’s just a vicious circle. My reality only moves further and further away from where I want it to be.
Look inward rather than outward. This is critical in any relationship or interaction. The only person you can truly control is yourself.
You alone have the power to decide how you feel, how you think, how you act, and how you react. It is easy to blame the drama, stubbornness, out-of-control hormones, and immaturity of our kids for the trouble and stress we feel at home. But as our kids get older, time-out doesn’t work anymore, and many of the ways we used to discipline them end up working less. Early bedtimes, restrictions—they all get harder to enforce or less effective than they once were.
We can’t force our kids to have good character.
Make a list of things you don’t like.
If there’s trouble in your home—discord, chaos, tension, or other heavy feelings—ask yourself, “What can I do?”, “What choices do I make?”, “What is my routine behavior?”, and “What small changes can I make?”
This is a lesson that applies to all our relationships. We can only control ourselves, not other people.
The teen world is tough. Keep this simple truth in mind. It’s a battlefield out there in the world, and as a counterbalance, the home environment should be a place of security and peace. Home should be a respite. Our homes should be a place to find and experience deep, strong, caring relationships.
But you can’t force your child to fit a particular mold; rather, ask yourself, “How can I create the environment that my children need—an environment we all need?” When you focus on your own actions, your own responses, and your own behaviors to create the environment you truly want, your kids will be more likely to respond positively.
Here’s a tough one, at least for me: Get feedback from your kids. Ask them for a report card, and then own the feedback.
Maybe ask them at the dinner table, “What’s one thing I did really well this week?” and go around the table, and everyone gets to say something. Then ask, “What’s one thing I could improve on?” and everyone gets to say something.
There’s a lot going on, and there’s a lot of opportunity in this activity. You’re all sitting around a table during a meal. This is huge. Families that eat together are stronger and healthier than families that scatter at meal times.
Having family dinner together is a predictor of overall family health and the health of family relationships in general, even marital health. Families that eat together tend to stay together. It’s true.
During family dinner, you’ve got the opportunity to model conversation at the table. You are modeling how to interact with each other. Your children can learn how to hear a critique, not take it personally, and respond appropriately.
When they answer your questions, they are giving you their perspectives. You don’t have to be offended, defensive, or make excuses. You are giving your children a great gift of being heard and listening to something they have to say, while you are getting great material to consider later as you self-examine your own behavior.
Point out and praise the things you like about your kids that you want to see more of and the things you want them to do more of. Keep a list. Look at it. Pay attention to the good things. Make it clear that you value the time they spend with the family.
Thank them for loading the dishwasher with their dirty dishes, and let them know you noticed how they supported their younger sibling or maintained their composure following a trying day at school. Adolescence marks a turning point in a child’s development, and at this time, talking to teenagers is like pulling teeth. Getting kids to engage in a little back-and-forth small talk can be difficult, which is something that many parents lament. This might come as a surprise to many parents, but if respect is a value we want to pass along to our children, we could model it by showing the courtesy of making eye contact and requesting an appointment to speak with them.
Have you ever tried asking your kids’ permission to have a conversation with them? No one likes to be interrupted. Even if your child is doing something you think is pointless and doesn’t require much brainpower, it still takes about twenty minutes to refocus one’s attention after being distracted.
Try to say yes more than you say no. Keep track. The ratio of your no responses to your yes responses may surprise you.
This is in no way an argument in favor of lax parenting. Simply be acutely aware of the negative versus positive interactions you are having with your children. They ask a lot of questions and make a lot of requests. It can be easy to ignore them and say no quickly because the time isn’t right or you already have a lot going on. Having more than one child makes falling into this trap that much more likely.
I encourage you to pause for a moment and listen to their questions. Give them the respect of knowing that you’ve heard them and are taking their request seriously. Make an effort to engage your kids in far more positive interactions than negative ones. Be aware of how you come across when you interact with your kids. Check your body language, volume, tone of voice, and whether you sprinkle biting sarcasm throughout your remarks.
Try this mind-blowing activity to put yourself to the test. Record your conversation with your children and play it back later. Press the record button on your phone to hear how you spoke to them and evaluate your interactions. How did you come across? What might you have changed? This is true accountability.
Set high standards for yourself as parents. How do we want the people we care about to act when we fail? In the same way, show your children compassion, safety, love, and support. Effective parenting involves building trust and demonstrating your value for your family’s relationships through your time and attention. Even though there are no guarantees, I will stack the deck in favor of my family’s future and best interests.
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