So who are the best parents you know? The ones who have a seemingly instinctive ability to say and do the things that result in happy, confident, well-balanced children? Have you ever wondered what makes them so good at it? Now think about the ones you privately think are not capable. Why not?
All the best parents I know have one key thing in common. They’re relaxed about it. And all the worst ones are hung up on something. Maybe they’re not stressed out about how good they are as parents (perhaps they should be), but they’re hung up about something that affects their ability to be a really good parent.
I know a couple of parents who are neurotically clean and tidy. Their children have to take their shoes off at the door or the whole world falls apart — even if the shoes are clean. They get really uptight if their children leave anything out of place or make any kind of a mess (even if it gets cleaned up later). It makes it impossible for the kids just to relax and enjoy themselves, in case they get grass stains on their pants or knock over the ketchup bottle.
The really good parents I’ve encountered, on the other hand, expect their children to be noisy, messy, bouncy, squabbly, whiny, and covered in mud. They take it all in stride. They know they’ve got 18 years to turn these small creatures into respectable grown-ups, and they pace themselves. No rush to get them acting like adults — they’ll get there in good time.
When my oldest children were small, I was always jealous of those other dads who spent hours tossing a football around with their children. I felt slightly guilty that I couldn’t do it for more than a few half-hearted minutes. It just wasn’t me.
Then there was the friend who built a fabulous treehouse for his kids in their back garden (“Dad, why can’t we have a treehouse like theirs?”.) And the mother who created complex and intriguing treasure hunts for every party. And the one who took her daughter to the same ballet class as mine every week but managed to look as if she were actually enjoying it, and…I could go on.
You’re probably ahead of me here. I was focusing on what they could do that I couldn’t, but actually I could do lots of things they couldn’t — all things I took for granted, but just as valuable.
For example, I love reading aloud to children. And being a fairly outgoing kind of a guy (alright, verging on the exhibitionist), I really relished spending hours reading long stories, doing all the voices and accents and characterizations and sound effects and dramatic whispers and all the rest of it. But it seemed so natural that it was years before I realized that it was just as valuable a skill as treehouse — building or playing football.
It’s important to know what you’re good at and to have confidence in your own strengths. That way, you can watch other parents doing things that you never could without feeling inadequate. After all, you and I both know that those other parents can’t do everything either. Whenever you feel a hint of jealousy rising, just stop and remind yourself of what you’re great at.
We all know that there are rules and systems and procedures and policies that must be followed if you’re a parent. You know the sort of thing: Don’t feed them junk food, don’t let them stay up too late, don’t let their eyes cross in front of the TV, don’t allow them to swear until they’re old enough.
What we Rules parents also understand is that there are very few rules that you can’t break with a good enough reason. Okay, you’re supposed to feed them good healthy food and the recommended “5 a day,” but when you get home tired after a long day, it’s not the end of the world to give them fish sticks once in awhile.
It’s just a matter of thinking through what’s the worst that can happen if you break this rule. Sure, if you break the rule about buckling your seat belt up in the car the worst is pretty dire, so best keep to that one. But if you skip the bedtime bath because you’re all exhausted — well, come on, how bad can that be?
Remember, this section is about Rules for staying sane. And the point of this Rule is to recognize that it’s more important for your children to have a sane, relaxed parent than it is never to eat a fish stick. Some parents make life far too difficult for themselves by thinking that it’s essential to stick to every rule at all times. They beat themselves up over some tiny thing.
So what do you want your child to be when she grows up? Champion jockey? Ballerina? Scientist? Professional athlete? Concert violinist? Actor? Hard to be sure when they’re young, so maybe you should keep all their options open by making sure they have extra lessons in everything they show any interest in. That way they can’t complain later that it’s your fault they failed because you didn’t start them young enough.
It does make for a bit of a busy schedule of course. Football on Monday, drama on Tuesday, clarinet on Wednesday — and swimming after that. Thursday is ballet and Friday he goes to the gym. And horse riding lessons on the weekend. And that’s just one child. It gets really fun if you have two or three.
Whoa. Hold on there. We’re missing something. What about playing happily in the garden? What about learning to find their own entertainment? Where in the weekly schedule do they manage to browse through a comic, or even just lay in the grass staring at the clouds and thinking of nothing in particular? These are all vital parts of growing up, too.
You know all those kids whose life is one long round of lessons and practice and extra tutoring? Have you ever seen what happens when you ask them to fend for themselves for a few days? Suppose they go on a vacation to some beautiful, peaceful place — the mountains, or the coast, or rolling countryside. Clueless, that’s what. They’ve no idea how to enjoy themselves — they’ve never had time to learn. That’s going to make adulthood really tough for them. They can’t ever relax because no one’s ever taught them how to.
Don’t panic; I’m not suggesting you ban your children from all extra-curricular activities. That would just be silly. But I am suggesting you limit them to, say, two activities a week. And let them choose which two. No making them learn the violin just because you learned it as a child and loved it. Or because you never learned it and wished you had. If they want to take up something else, they’ll have to drop one of their current activities to make room. (Yes, they’re allowed to drop ballet if they hate it, even if the teacher did say she thought they had real talent.)
Hey, let’s talk taboos. Death, drugs, dirty dancing…or how about one of the biggest of all: admitting that there are times you wish your kids would just leave you alone.
Of course, it’s strictly forbidden ever to admit that your little darlings can be little monsters. You can joke about it self-deprecatingly, but you can’t actually let on seriously that there are times you just want to escape from them. How could you? Your job is to love them and, if you love them, it follows that you love everything about them. You’re supposed to smile indulgently when you’re expected to read the same tedious story every night for three months, gaze adoringly as they shriek gratingly while racing around wildly, and laugh with them as they repeat the same unfunny joke for the twenty-fifth time — incorrectly.
Funny thing is, it’s considered fine to be irritated by other people’s children (not that you’re supposed to say so to their face). So we all know kids can get on your nerves. Which is why it follows that your own kids can drive you mad at times. And that’s okay.
In fact, they’re very good at it. They start pretty much as soon as they’re born. That newborn cry is meant to bore into your brain until you do something about it. And boy, does it work. From then on, they get on your nerves routinely. Sometimes it’s not even their fault. Actually, the most guilt-ridden thing of all is when you know it’s not their fault. But when they’ve kept you up for three nights in a row teething, it’s hard to be sympathetic. You know you should, but actually you just want them to shut up and let you sleep. It’s only a tooth, after all.
Well, I have news for you. Every parent feels the same now and again. In fact, there’ll be phases when you feel that way 50 times a day, in between the phases where it’s only once or twice a week. Just accept that it’s natural, and any parent who won’t admit to that is lying. You can’t stop your child getting on your nerves, but you don’t have to do the guilt stuff as well.
This Rule is pretty obvious. The tough bit is actually doing it. Lots of parents pay it lip-service, but far fewer make sure it happens. But you and I know that it really is one of the most vital Rules of them all, if you don’t want to end up doing this whole parenting thing on your own.
You loved this person enough to have babies with him. That’s serious stuff. He should still be the most important person in your life. He may take up less time and possibly demand less attention than your children, but he should still be the object of your love. Having children changes your relationship more than you might have thought possible, but 20 years on it’ll be you and your partner again just like it was at the start. And if he’s not the most important thing in your life, you’re going to be screwed when the kids leave home. And so are the kids — leaving home is tough enough without feeling you’re tearing your parents’ world apart in the process. They need to know that you love each other best of all. That frees them up to get on with their lives and, eventually, find a partner they can love even more than they love you.
Part of the solution is logistical. Aim to go out on your own together once a week. If you can’t afford a babysitter, find some other parents and take it in turns to mind each other’s kids. Then just go for a walk or have a picnic in the park. Something. Anything. Just make sure you perpetuate that “just the two of us” life you had before.