By Anne Ream
Parenting is the most difficult and most important job we ever do. Unfortunately, despite the degree of difficulty and importance of the work, no one teaches us how to do it. Fortunately, there are many child raising experts who can help. I will mention a few experts; whose work I believe is valuable, throughout this article and I encourage readers to find experts whose work they like.
• Parents must be healthy, physically and psychologically. When parents feel comfortable with who they are they are free to give their children true, deep, unconditional love. Parenting is not about the parents, no child has ever asked to be born. A child’s very existence is the responsibility of the parents, and it is the parent’s responsibility to raise their children using healthy parenting skills. Parents must be able to understand why children behave as they do and not take a child’s (from 1 day old to 18 years) behaviors personally. Jean Piaget made wonderful progress in the understanding of child development. A child’s behaviors are not about the parent, and it’s the parent’s responsibility to help children learn how to manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, so they can grow up to be healthy members of society. This takes tremendous self-awareness from parents. Self awareness leads to awareness and understanding of others.
• Unconditional love involves praising children as much and often as possible. This does not mean unrealistic praise, because children intuitively know when they have not earned praise. It does mean age appropriate praise. So, when an infant focuses on someone’s face and smiles at the person, praise is appropriate, because the infant is just beginning to learn how to interact. It is appropriate to praise babies when they take their first steps, because walking is a skill they need to learn. Praising a toddler for making scribbles on a piece of paper is appropriate, because the toddler is just learning how to do this. Victor Lowenfeld defined the stages of art development children go through. Praising toddlers for eating a few bites of healthy food, before they get a sweet is appropriate, because although babies crave sugar, it is important for them to learn how to eat healthy food. Praising a three-year-old for learning to use the potty is appropriate. The human brain is not fully formed until we are in our early 20s. Praising children, appropriately and according to their stage of growth, is important throughout childhood. This builds their self esteem and happier children reduce the stress of parenting.
• Playing with children is another way to give them unconditional love. The more you enjoy playing with your children the less stressful your job will be. Playing with your children is bonding with them, which parents and children need. Indeed, there is a book titled; “Play; How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul,” by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughn. One of the chapters is titled “Parenthood is Child’s play.” Doing some research about play with children will help you use approaches to playing with them that are age-appropriate. Learning about age-appropriate play is an investment in your relationship with your children which will help you feel less stressed. It is also important to play with children using a variety of areas of play so they may become well-rounded adults. If you like using art supplies, it is best to start using those supplies with children, early, during their formative years, because they will grow into enjoying that sort of activity. The same is true with physical activity. If that is something you want your children to learn to enjoy, the earlier you begin to teach them how to enjoy physical activity, the better. Play is not something that can be forced. If you want your children to enjoy swimming, don’t try to force them to do it. If they don’t seem to enjoy doing it now, but see that you enjoy doing it (by example) they may take it up later in life. Music is another area of play that can bring great pleasure to most people. However, if it is forced on children they might rebel against it and never get to enjoy it. Parenting is a balancing act!
• Sharing the responsibility of parenting with at least one other person should reduce the stress of parenting. Preferably, both parents are involved, and both are physically and psychologically healthy and mature. When two parents are involved it is important for them to discuss parenting techniques to learn what they can agree on, and where they disagree and need to negotiate. Children are brilliant at splitting parents, if they know their parents disagree about something. For instance, if one parent does not believe it is important for children to eat their vegetables before they get their desert, the children will do their best to get that parent to make decisions over the other parent. That can cause dissension between the parents, and an unhealthy, stressful situation is set up. When parents are in extreme disagreement with each other, about how to raise children, the stress in the family increases tremendously. Parents must learn how to work with one another.
• Rules, limits and boundaries are everywhere in society. Freedom is not free. To have some semblance of order in society, we need rules, limits and boundaries. Raising children without rules, limits or boundaries sets them up to fail in a society where rules, limits and boundaries are necessary and in use. Because it is against our laws to assault another person, children need to learn how to treat other’s with respect. It is imperative for parents to discuss with each other what rules, limits and boundaries they want to use. This can begin with parents writing out a list of what they value in life and what they want their children to value in life. Do you value sharing with others? Then you will want to teach your children how to share. Do you value the earth? You will want to teach your children how to live without polluting too much. Do you value kindness? You will want to teach your children how to be kind. These are just a few of the various areas that parents need to discuss and come to some sort of agreement about. Do you value independence? Then your children need to learn how to take care of their belongings and space, beginning in their toddler years. Putting toys away at the end of playtime is a valuable self care skill that toddlers can do and completing that helps them feel self confident.
• Learning positive discipline techniques is also important for parenting that reduces stress. Many good books about positive behavioral disciplining techniques have been written. My favorite technique is called “extinction.” During the formative years, extinction is done by ignoring behaviors you do not want to continue. Give a behavior that you don’t like, less attention, and it will eventually dissipate. This can be hard for many people, and I have had more luck with that technique than with any other. Another positive technique is to talk about the behavior that you don’t like, instead of the child. For instance, if a child is standing next to you, in the house and is bouncing a ball, it is preferable to say something like, “Bouncing balls is done outside” instead of “You are annoying me!” In the first statement, the parent is talking about the behavior and making a clear rule. In the second statement, the child is held responsible for the parent’s feeling. If parents try to make children responsible for their feelings, children will feel overburdened, defensive and become rebellious. Parents raise the level of stress in the home when they hold children responsible for their own feelings. Children cannot be made responsible for parent’s feelings. Parenting is not about the parents. Haim Ginott wrote about a variety of approaches in three books, “Between Parent and Child” “Between Teacher and Child” and “Between Parent and Teenager.” All three of these books have contributed greatly to positive parenting skills.
• The broken record technique is another positive assertive parenting skill. This involves calm, firm repetition of your boundary. Using the example from above, if the child resists the “balls are for bouncing outside” rule, the parent calmly, steadfastly repeats, “Balls are for bouncing outside,” over and over until the child complies. If a parent can remain calm and firm, the stress level does not have to go up. Parents can outlast children in sort of battle of wills, because parents are, hopefully, more mature.
• Never talk negatively about children to other’s in front of them. One way to understand why this rule is important is to imagine you are with two friends. One of your friends turns to the other one and begins to talk negatively about you, as if you were not there. How would you feel? We need to treat children the way we would like others to treat us. Talking negatively about children to other people in front of the children is shaming the children. If we need to discuss children’s difficult behaviors, we can do so in a different room. When we treat children as well as we would like to be treated, we teach them positive social skills. We can teach children how to use, “Please” and “Thank-you” as soon as they begin to learn how to talk. The most important way to teach children how to be polite is by doing the same for them. When a toddler gives you something, always say “thank you”. You are showing the child appreciation for the generous and thoughtful behavior of giving. If you treat that behavior as if the child is being giving and what they have given you is a gift, the child is learning how to be giving and how to say, “Thank-you.” It is always important for us to treat our children with the utmost of respect, that is how they learn they are worthy of respect and to treat others with respect. Talking about children negatively in front of them is disrespectful. Hitting children is disrespectful. When parents behave this way toward children, they are increasing the stress of parenting.
• Pick and choose your battles. This concept is important to understand. The more you fight against, or criticize your children (you are the leader of the parent/child relationship, so you have the power to decide whether or not to criticize/fight) the more stressful parenting is. Therefore, it makes sense to decide what behaviors are worth fighting to change, what behaviors are worth encouraging or discouraging, and what behaviors are worth leaving alone. When a parent stops to think about it, many behaviors can be left alone. Fortunately, the ability to do this connects with the positive, behavioral, extinguishing technique listed above. So, if you decide that a behavior is not worth the fight, and choose to leave it alone, it will probably diminish. Because it is important to encourage children to eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, share with each other, learn how to resolve conflicts with each other, and go to school; these behaviors are probably worth fighting for. Smaller behaviors that can be left alone might include behaviors that the parent just finds annoying. If a parent finds the behavior annoying, he/she should try to cope with it, instead of criticizing the child. For instance, it is normal for children to make noises. When children make noises it is a sign that everything is okay. Another example; when a child rolls her eyes after being corrected. All human beings, including children, have a right to all their feelings. When a parent scolds or corrects a child, the child will have a feeling in response. It’s important to allow the child to have that feeling. That is especially true if the child follows the parent’s direction. If she followed the parent’s direction, the parent can allow the child to have her feelings and not take it personally. Pick and choose your battles. Relax and allow some things to slide.
• Be consistent and persistent. Children need structure. When children know that a parent is going to consistently follow a schedule and certain rules, they know what to expect next. This gives them the freedom to be creative within the structure created by the parent. They know what to expect, so they can relax and enjoy whatever they are doing. A persistent parent is able to stand by his or her rules firmly. A persistent parent does not allow herself to get frustrated if she has to tell children to do something 3, 5, 10, 20 or more times. This is when a parent can use the broken record technique. A persistent parent does not give in, unless there is a very good reason to do so. Children feel safer when they are with parents who are genuinely, calmly in charge. Parents who are consistent and persistent create a safe haven for their children. Parents who are in charge do not lose their temper or hit their children. When a parent loses his temper, he has raised the stress level for everyone. When a parent feels that angry and frustrated, he needs to take a time out for himself. Dr. Ross Greene is an expert who has developed many good approaches to problem solving with children.
The most important method for reducing the stress of parenting is through loving your children unconditionally. It is a child’s job to grow up and become independent. It is normal for children to resist doing what their parents ask. If parents can be calm, persistent and firm about their most important requests, most children will comply, eventually. Children, who are receiving unconditional love, do not want their parent’s disapproval. At the same time, they want to be independent. Parenting is a balancing act. The more a parent learns to understand children, the easier the job will be. Parents need to read as much as possible about child development.
Understanding children is easier with the help of experts. When parents know how normal children’s behaviors are, they can relax and accept the behaviors that bother them more easily, despite feeling frustrated by those behaviors. Parents can then take care of their own feelings and the stress of parenting is reduced. It is well worth any parent’s time to do some research to find experts they agree with. I believe that we have an inherent desire to be “good enough” parents. Most of us want be good parents and do as good a job, or better than the job our own parents did. That is a very healthy desire. It is well worth taking the time to learn more about it and to confront ourselves, when we are behaving out of feeling stressed, and change for the better.
Anne is a Board Certified Registered art therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor. Anne has been studying human development and relationships for over 45 years. She has been successfully working with families, in various capacities, for over 20 years. Her private practice is in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia PA. She specializes in helping people recover from various types of trauma, difficult changes and loss. Anne has an unusual ability to connect with children and adolescents, along with their parents. Parenting is the most important job we ever do, yet no one shows us how to do it or gives us the support we need. Anne has successfully coached many parents through a variety of critical stages in their children’s lives. Annes greatest joy is helping people understand themselves and each other.