At one point, you were probably feeling pretty optimistic about raising kids, despite the overwhelming evidence that most parents struggle with parenting. Perhaps, like me, you were confident that your kids wouldn’t turn out like the other kids in your extended family or neighbourhood. Maybe you were plucky enough to actually share some parenting advice with other parents who were having a tough time, even though you still didn’t even have children of your own! (I may have done that too!)
But if you’re also like me, it’s likely that your children arrived and showed you that even though you can drive a car, maintain employment, cook, clean, and essentially be an adult reasonably well most of the time, when it comes to raising kids… it could be a step too far.
Parenting is a lot like going on a hike. You can pack all the right gear, read up on the trail, and even hire a guide, but there are always unexpected twists and turns that you can't quite prepare for. As you have already discovered, nothing can quite prepare you for the constant exhaustion that comes with having a tiny human who never seems to sleep. Or the never-ending battle against clutter and mess - from texta scribbled on the wall to Lego pieces scattered all over the floor, it can feel like a never-ending game of cleanup. And trying to reason with a toddler who has decided that they absolutely must wear their superhero cape to bed… wearying. Or the frustration of trying to get out the door on time with a child who insists on wearing their shoes on the wrong feet - or wearing no shoes at all. Potty training and dealing with picky eaters add to the challenge. Big kids offer opportunities for challenges in all kinds of different ways, equally exhausting, and equally tricky.
A 42-nation study published in 2021 shows high levels of stress in parenting is leading to parenting burnout at record levels, with the most individualistic countries showing the highest levels of stress. Society - that is… us - doesn’t support what makes families happy, kids flourish, and parents well.
But there are things we can do. This article outlines three essential elements for creating a happy family. Consider it a ‘back-to-basics’ reminder for those times when you’re over it, befuddled, and just want answers now.
Ok. So it sounds too simple, right? What do I really mean when I speak about ‘love’? There are a couple of sayings I’ve used for decades to outline what this is about. First off,
To a child, LOVE is spelled T-I-M-E.
If this statement is true (and I believe it is universally correct), what does ‘Hurry Up’ say to a child? Or ‘Calm Down’ or ‘Stop it’?
Every one of us has said those things, often on a rushed morning when a child is refusing to cooperate, we’re feeling pressure, and the clock is ticking.
As an adult, if someone said those things to you - hurry up, calm down, stop it - would that improve your relationship and your behaviour? Or is it possible that things might escalate?
Slowing things down is counter-intuitive. However, experience has shown me that in close to 100% of cases, staying calm, pausing, and spending time with a child who’s feeling challenged (or providing you with a challenge!) makes all the difference.
Perhaps the main reason it works so well is because of the second saying I love to share when I talk about this topic:
Just like dollars are the currency of our economy, connection is the currency of our relationships.
Slowing down allows us to connect with our children better. We connect when our child feels seen, heard, and valued. This will typically mean we have stopped what we’re doing, looked them in the eyes, and listened to them with the same intensity we might listen to the broadcast of the lottery numbers when each number corresponds with what’s on our hypothetical lottery ticket!
We’re often inclined to be dismissive, and we turn away with a well-intentioned “you’ll be ok sweetheart.” From time to time we become annoyed and disapproving, turning against our children with anger, saying “that’s it, I’ve had enough! No more screens/time with friends etc. for you till Monday!”
As justified as your anger and frustration towards this inconvenient child feels, as parents, we need to recognise that both of these responses rupture the relationship we have with our children. Our child comes to feel as though we don’t understand (even when they’re in the wrong). They feel stupid and incompetent. And they feel as though we’re always trying to be in control.
Studies indicate that we’ll do better in our family relationships when we (counter-intuitively) show more love when our kids are disobedient, challenging, or overwhelmed. It goes like this:
- Stay level and balanced.
- Name the emotion you’re seeing in your child. (“You’re having a really rough time, huh?”)
- Ask them if they want some space or they want you near them.
- Give them the time they need to feel safe and pull things together.
- Invite them to work with you on a solution. (“What should we do to make this right?”)
Note. This is a super simplified version of the process. It will take some practice. But it outlines a general map of how to get from emotionally overwhelmed to connected and then focused on making things better. And you’ll note that this process keeps the relationship intact, helps the child feel like we believe in them (so they’re feeling capable and competent), and gives them a sense of control (so they don’t feel like they have to fight with you about things).
There are other ways that we show love too:
- It’s when we smile when our child enters the room (try it).
- It’s when we squeeze them as we walk by them.
- It’s when we walk to them before we speak, rather than shouting from one room to the next.
- It’s when we see them doing one of their chores and we go and help them with it.
- It’s when we remind them that we love them.
- It’s when we share a joke, text them (if they have a phone) just to say we’re thinking of them, or share a story about our day with them because we know they’ll like it.
- It’s bedtime snuggles, treats at the local cafe on a Saturday morning, a movie night, or a bike ride.
At the heart of all of these are those two critical elements: time and connection; slowing down and seeing, hearing, and valuing.
Next time things are going bonkers, take a beat and try it. You’ll see things change for the better more often than not.
There has been more ink spilt on the topic of kids and limits than almost any other parenting issue. I’ve written entire books on the topic. For now, I’m going to focus on just a couple of things:
- We fundamentally misunderstand what discipline means.
- Our focus should be on helping, not hurting.
- Collaboration is the ultimate way forward.
Let’s start with definitions. Look up discipline in the dictionary and one of the first definitions it will give you is punishment. And… that’s how most parents define discipline. When a child requires ‘discipline’ it means they’re going to experience punishment (often euphemistically called ‘consequences’ - which is the same thing in this case).
However, this hasn’t always been the case. In Webster’s 1828 dictionary, discipline is defined as education; instruction; cultivation and improvement.
In short, discipline is about helping.
Punish is the word we most often associate with discipline, so let’s consider its meaning. The word punish means ‘to subject to pain, loss, confinement… as a penalty for some offence, transgression, or fault.’ Or it means ‘to inflict a penalty’ or ‘to abuse, mistreat, or hurt’.
In a word, to punish is to hurt.
So… what do we do with our children when they require discipline? Do we help them or do we hurt them? What might work best?
If we really want to help our children, we do it best by working with them rather than doing things to them. To help, I’ve developed the 3 Es of Effective Discipline: Explore, Explain, and Empower.
When we explore, we walk through the steps I’ve outlined in ‘Love’, the first section of this article. It’s really about time-in, together, connecting. When we understand where our child is struggling, we move to explain.
When we explain, we keep it short and simple. Most of the time our children already know what is expected. So we restate, “You know, and I know, that hitting your siblings is not ok. We’re always working on managing our feelings and asking for help if we need it.”
Then, assuming they feel understood and we know they get our expectations loud and clear, we empower. This does not mean we let them decide what should happen. It means we invite their ideas on how to move forward, and offer gentle collaboration and guidance to help them figure things out. It might mean they apologise to someone who’s been hurt, make restitution for something lost, broken, or stolen, or simply promise to do better next time.
This process ensures that relationships are kept strong, children know we trust their innate ability to figure things out, and have a sense of control over outcomes. It’s the perfect trifecta.
Plus, discipline decisions developed this way lead to greater buy-in from kids, and a deeper level of intrinsic motivation. Kids feel trusted and capable.
We tend to take parenting pretty seriously a lot of the time. And when that happens, we easily turn into cranky (or tired) parents. Parenting with fun in mind can be tiring. Yet…
Laughter is a great form of stress relief! No joke ;)
A high quality belly laugh stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. It eases your stress/response system and helps you feel more relaxed. And according to the Mayo Clinic the long term benefits of loads of laughter include improved immune function, pain relief, increased life satisfaction, and greater happiness (the last one there is kind of obvious right?).
How do we get more laughter at home? Here are a few of my favourite suggestions:
- Rough and tumble play (but be careful to make sure it doesn’t end in tears!)
- Music and dancing - even in the kitchen, or when cleaning up
- Simple games like ‘spotto’, the yes/no game, or word association games
- Outings like a ride, walk, swim, kicking a ball, etc.
- Concerts at home where the kids are the stars of the show
- Spending time with friends
Most families have something they love to do for fun. Laughter is an umbrella term for not taking life too seriously - and these ideas are just some of the ways that you can make this happen.
Make family life fun
Let’s not pretend… raising a family brings a certain amount of stress and challenge. Kids push boundaries. We feel exhausted and stretched. And sometimes everything simply feels like it demands effort. Building a life full of love and laughter (with appropriate and carefully developed limits) is a recipe for making things that little bit easier, and perhaps feeling optimistic about how things will turn out after all.
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