By Meg Akabas
What if, this year, you didn't make a New Year's resolution to be more patient as a parent, didn't promise to be more attentive or didn't vow to be more [insert here whatever you're feeling most remorsal about not being]? Many moms and dads make a sweeping resolution to be better parents at the start of each New Year. However, if you forgo this tradition, then you will likely be doing yourself a favor by saving yourself from guilt later. Why? These are resolutions you probably can't keep -- not just because you decide to, anyway.
In my years as a parent coach, I've learned that being a more successful parent is complicated and requires more than simply deciding to make a change. As with most self-improvements, whether it's losing weight, curbing procrastination or putting an end to gossiping, there are two key elements you need to make real change: an understanding of why the undesirable or ineffective behavior exists in the first place, and an ability to keep at a new approach over time until it successfully becomes a habit.
Take the excessive yelling-at-the-kids problem, which many parents repeatedly resolve to end. If you're screaming, it's probably because your kids act like they don't hear your or ignore what they've heard. You probably wouldn't be yelling if you knew of a better way to gain their compliance. Modifying a child's behavior first requires an understanding of the underlying reason for the behavior. Despite what it seems, the behavior isn't just about your kids pushing your buttons.
Next, parents need an effective strategy to address the cause. Regardless of the root issue, parents should feel no shame about seeking information (which, by the way, we're not born with) from experienced parents that you view as role models, by attending workshops, reading parenting books and seeking out reliable information from research and professionals. A nation-wide study commissioned by Zero to Three, national organization that works to improve the lives of infants and toddlers, found that the majority of parents have misconceptions about children's capacity for emotions and self-regulation and how early experiences impact their development. In short, being a parent doesn't make you an expert in parenting. An accurate understanding of behavior helps parents figure out appropriate responses that have a positive long-term impact on healthy social, emotional and cognitive growth.
Even armed with the latest research on child development, how can you stick to trying new skills when parenting is so overwhelming, you're exhausted and there are so many things you want to do better? Trying to consistently apply many techniques at the same time until they become habit is not only challenging, it's nearly impossible. You can easily become discouraged and tempted to throw in the towel. However, I have come to realize over the years that dealing with just one challenge at a time allows for focus and consistency, and better motivates parents for the next challenge. As one mother told me, "Seeing the payoff of each small success in my parenting gives me the confidence to learn about and apply another skill." Even though none of us is ever going to be perfect, every new competency we conquer does have a long-lasting impact on our children, from understanding how to teach children self-control, to helping them gain confidence, to learning how to gain their cooperation (so we don't resort to yelling).
If I could offer only one piece of parenting advice for the New Year, it would be to encourage parents to take the pressure off themselves to be good at everything at once. After all, learning takes place by layering skills. Whether it's a foreign language or a new sport, we don't get good at things overnight. We start with whatever natural instincts or talents we possess and work from there, improving over time.
You might argue that we shouldn't have to learn or practice parenting skills at all. Just look around, and you'll see this isn't true. "I didn't know it would be this hard -- I thought everything would come naturally, and I would just instinctively fall into my role as a mother and know what to do," a client lamented. While I believe in the importance of paying attention to one's instincts, often what our instincts tell us to do simply doesn't work.
It's unreasonable to expect parents to just "figure it out." If we can ask for advice and instruction in almost every other endeavor, why should there be a stigma around seeking guidance for parenting, which is one of the most important roles one can have in life? After all, parenting is complex and requires a myriad of skills, strategies and decisions. To further complicate matters, there is new information at different developmental stages of our kids' lives, and through various life events (a new sibling, moving, an illness), as well as appropriate approaches for each child's personality and learning style. It's no wonder that we tend to put too much pressure on ourselves and set ourselves up for failure.
So, think of parenting as a process where you continuously have the opportunity to take on a new challenge, acquire knowledge and improve your performance. And this year, instead of promising to transform yourself overnight into a better parent, how about committing to continually improve your parenting little by little, by learning, thinking deeply about, and mastering one skill at a time?
Meg Akabas is the founder of New York City-based Parenting Solutions™, a consultancy designed to help parents discover the joy in parenting, and the author of 52 Weeks of Parenting Wisdom: Effective Strategies for Raising Happy, Responsible Kids. She regularly provides one-on-one consultations and leads workshops for parents and teachers on infancy through pre-adolescence.