The best thing you can do for your kids is to focus on yourself. Hear me out.
Think of the time spent running kids to and from one event to the next. Days are filled with events geared solely for the kids. American family life has moved from “Children should be seen and not heard” to “No adult conversation possible.”
Who’s in charge? Who gets their way? What is the organizing force in typical American family life: the life of the adults or the kids?
I think it’s absolutely possible to focus too much on our kids. And it’s this over-focus that’s harmful to them, to the family, and to you. Research shows that the people who function best in life—in relationships, in education, in careers—were the ones who were most free (in a healthy way, of course) of child focus during their childhood.
Child focus can be negative: the scapegoated kid who can do nothing right. Sometimes it’s positive: the golden child who can do no wrong. The results of either kind of child focus are a lifetime of struggle. The kid left to find his or her own way (again—in a healthy way) is the one best prepared to deal directly with life.
I was walking down the aisle of Target with my 3-year-old, and something caught her eye. I don’t remember what it was, but it was probably pink and princessey. She made sure I saw it as well, and then the negotiations commenced:
“Honey, put that back, we’re not going to buy that toy.”
“But I need this daddy!”
“No honey, you don’t.”
And we’re off. You know where this is heading. The tears soon follow, and the tantrum pressure cooker is warming up. I’m feeling trapped. I’m a licensed family therapist, and my skills are now on display for all of Target to see.
What kids need at a moment like this is a parent who can keep his cool. A parent who can calm himself down allows a young child to explore his or her full range of emotions without spiraling out of control.
Many blow-ups between a parent and child is the result of parents who lose their cool, as though we’re the child. It’s easy to forget how to be a grownup in a tense situation.
So… the 101s of being the parent in the relationship?
1. Focus more on yourself. This is not at the cost of your children, it’s for your children. When you’re at your best, you’re able to give the best of yourself to others.
2. In tense situations, do what you need to calm down without taking it out on the kids. Take several deep breaths. Get a drink of water. Walk a short distance away your child, or to another room and calm down.
(Not every situation needs to be addressed immediately. In fact, one of the great tools for misbehavior is the delayed consequence. This gives you time to calm down and think things through, and your child can think about what’s to come while the weight of the bad choice increases. This works especially well with older kids and teens.)
3. Let the child handle more of their own problems. Part of growing up is dealing with struggle. The more a parent clears the path for their child, the more that child is unprepared for the real world. It’s important to be alongside them through their struggle, but as a support, not a snowplow.
4. Let natural consequences teach the lessons. Give up being liked by your kids—parenting is not a popularity contest. Let the consequences do the screaming. They didn’t do their homework, so let the low score teach the lesson. Be the understanding and empathetic ear for them to talk to.