As the weather turns cooler, and the school year is in full swing, it is time for my office at the group counseling practice where I work to fill up once again with parents complaining about what awful children they have. So many parents feel that their children are rude, lazy, high maintenance, and just not very much fun to be around. Often parents says things like, "You know kids these days," as if today's culture has been raising their children since birth. While it's true that many things about today's culture certainly may make the tricky job of parenting even trickier, the good news is that we, as parents, have a lot more influence over our children than we often give ourselves credit for. Here are a few changes you can make to increase the chance that you will actually want to spend time with you kids.
1. Insist on basic good manners. Teaching your child manners is not just about making him or her a "polite" child. Manners are about treating other people with respect and empathy and being interested in the other person's experience in the interaction. Every time your child demands a glass of milk without saying please and thank you, you may feel disrespected and uncared for, and you also may have negative thoughts about your child like, "What a rude kid." With a toddler or pre-school child, you can use a simple, brief correction like, "Milk, please." With an older child, you may want to say something like, "In this family we use please and thank you when we make requests." Make sure to make your statement calm, brief and uncritical, and, most importantly, make sure to follow the rule yourself.
2. Ask your child to do a few chores around the house. I am always amazed how many parents think it is too much to ask their children to do a few basic chores around the house. Certainly, children today are often loaded with activities and homework, but that doesn't mean they can't manage to squeeze in at least a few minutes of chores each day. It's never too early to give your children the message that being in a family means that everyone pitches in. (My two year old has been putting his clothes in the hamper before his bath for quite a while). Having your child do some chores has many benefits. You can be stretched a bit less thin when you have some extra help, and you may also find watching your child do chores makes you see him or her in a more positive light. Chores also help children build confidence and teach them to start to be responsible for themselves.
3. Avoid over scheduling. As hard as it can be to resist the pressure to make sure your child is "well-rounded" and participates in every possible enriching activity, resisting may be well worth it. Remember that whenever you or your child is spread too thin, the family will inevitably become more stressed. More stress means you are more likely to snap at your kids, and they are more likely to become tired, whiney and irritable. Less time means fewer opportunities for self-care, downtime and relaxed play and conversation between you and your kid.
4. Try to create some balance with the parenting chores. Even if one parent works and one parent stays home full-time, do what you can to have some balance in the parenting activities. Bathing your child every single night can become monotonous (to say the least). Bathing your child every other night can be a fun, quiet time to connect with your child. When one parent is doing almost all of the parenting, that parent can become burnt-out, and the other parent can become disconnected.
5. Do some fun activities without your children around. Remember when you used to go to the movies with friends or wander through the mall all on your own? Having children doesn't mean you have to give up all the activities you used to enjoy. Do what you can to make time for hobbies or just plain fun without your kids. Part of taking good care of our mental health is engaging in activities that bring us pleasure. Sacrificing all of these activities does not benefit us or our children. Children would rather spend a bit less time with a happy, relaxed parent than more time with a cranky, irritable one.
6. Do some fun activities with your child. Remember that one of the best ways to nurture our relationships with our children is to play with them. Do activities outside of the house with your children, where you won't be distracted by chores, phone or email. Pick activities that both you and your children enjoy so that everyone is fully engaged.
7. Take up yoga, meditation or exercise. One of the most key elements to parenting is self-care. Commit to an activity where the main purpose is self-care. Not only will you get the physical and mental benefits of the activity, you will also experience the symbolic meaning of taking time to take care of yourself. This will recharge you for your interactions with your children and also sets a good example for your children about self-care.
8. Focus on other relationships too. Go out on a date with your significant other. Have coffee with your mom. Meet your best friend for a movie. Our children are generally fascinating and demanding people, and it is very easy to get so sucked into their world that you forget to nurture other relationships. This is no fun for your child ("Lay off, Mom or Dad"), and this is clearly no good for your other important relationships.
9. Go to therapy. Therapy can be very useful for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Don't wait until you are feeling awful to go. Also, sometimes a few consultations with a good therapist can help you get clear on those parenting issues where you tend to get stuck over and over.
10. Lighten up. Remember, parenting can get pretty intense, and it is easy to lose perspective. Don't freak out because your child missed his nap, had a temper tantrum, wore an outfit you didn't like, had a fight with a friend, didn't get into an Ivy League college or picked his nose in front of your relatives. None of these situations are life-or-death emergencies, and they are all good learning opportunities. Having a more relaxed and rational attitude about events in your child's life will help your child to feel less pressured, learn to problem solve more independently, and develop a more rational way of looking at life's problems him or herself.