I haven’t seen one of these for a while, but it popped up on social media the other day. You know the kind of thing – parenting is HARD. Kids are HARD. I hate my life and that is ok. Anyone who suggests their family life is otherwise is a big fat liar. Grin and bear it. It will end.
These posts used to make me feel sad. I don’t feel that anymore. Everyone is living their own reality. I just accept that that isn’t mine. Sure, I have frustrating moments. Bad days. Rough weeks. I need time to nourish myself and my adult relationships. But spending time with my children for me is a choice I have made and one that I enjoy. It isn’t time I wish away. I enjoy doing things with them. I like sharing experiences with them. They are great people.
So, when I read this Facebook tirade the other day, I was curious. Seeing the thousands of likes and shares and hands in the air saying ‘yes, that’s me too!’ made me wonder. My children are amazing and wonderful and unique and all of those things, but I can be objective enough to see that there isn’t anything I can think of that makes them much different from other children their ages.
I started to reflect on ways we operate as a family that make things feel easier, more enjoyable and actually fun. I believe that these five things contribute to a happy and peaceful life with children.
1. Work hard on understanding and accepting the child you have.
Every child is different and understanding the skill level of your child, both physically and emotionally, will help you set realistic expectations. Not what ‘all five year olds’ should do. Not what you can remember being capable of at that age. Not what your friend’s child can manage. Not what you wish they could do. Your beautiful child. Meet them exactly where they are.
My three year old can sit in a restaurant calmly, happily chatting away, charming the waiter, occupying herself with a napkin and a spoon for hours. And she has always been like this. My seven and eight year old children are still hit and miss. They are different kids and we make accommodations for all of them. If I organised a dinner in an environment that didn’t meet their needs at this time, told them they ‘should’ be able to sit there, that I can remember doing it as a kid and it was amazing and their friend John does it every week with their parents, and then got super upset at their inability to live up to my expectations, life would be pretty miserable.
When one of my children was younger, I accepted that he was unable to play with other children successfully without my support. He was still developing the skill set he needed to navigate friendships. When we went to a friend’s house, I would just let them know that he needed me close by and all of my friends were really supportive of that. If instead I had approached that season in our family life by sitting and chatting to my friends and then getting frustrated and angry when my child was unable to match the social skills of those around him, it would have been both unfair to him and very stressful for me. At the same time, if I was missing out on nourishing my adult friendships because of this commitment, it would have felt like a massive burden to me. So during this time, I made other arrangements to go and have a glass of wine or cup of tea with a friend in the evening, go out for a quick dinner or pop out on the weekend for a catch up to make sure my needs were being met. Playdates were not a time when that could happen. And guess what? Seasons change. Children mature. I now sit and chat with my friends while our kids run off into the distance knowing that all will be well. The landscape for navigating all of our needs has changed and continues to evolve all the time.
2. Understand your child is doing the best they can in that moment.
Don’t hold your child to a higher standard than yourself. We all have times where we can’t be our best emotional selves. Our children are not trying to lock themselves into a pattern of pushing our buttons or frustrating us. Quite the opposite. They crave our love and acceptance and if they are communicating with difficult behaviour or unable to cope, understand that they are bringing to the table all that they can manage in that moment.
Changing your mindset from ‘why are they doing this to ME’ to ‘this isn’t about me, they are struggling and need my support’ is a massive shift. You are unable to control the behaviour of another person. Trying to can be incredibly frustrating! It often descends into a spiral of threats and bribes. Rather than calming a situation, this kind of approach usually leads to a child who doesn’t feel heard and either escalates emotions or suppresses them. When you shift the thinking to ‘how can I support my child right now,’ you regain control. Every action you choose to help your child process their emotions is something you are in control of. It is empowering for you and empowering for your child when they see that you trust them to process their emotions in the way they need to in that moment. When a child sees you as an ally, they are able to move with their emotions in a much more confident way and very often peace is restored much sooner.
3. Remove the arbitrary.
Ask yourself why the rules you have set truly matter. Ask yourself why you are saying no. This doesn’t mean that boundaries shouldn’t exist, or that you need to say yes to every single thing. But it does mean that sometimes when you look critically at the situations you are drawing a line in the sand over, you can see that they are making your family life more difficult rather than easier.
Does it really make sense to have family dinner at 7pm every night when everyone is home, or does it make sense to feed hungry kids earlier at this stage in your family life? Will this remove the constant frustration you feel with kids late snacking or low blood sugar reactions at the table? If your child wants to leave the house in freezing weather wearing sandals, why are you saying no? Let them discover for themselves. Save the battle. Pop some boots in a bag just in case and away you go. Unless health or safety are at risk, reassess. Is it important? Who is it important to? Letting go of the need to micromanage and control another person, is liberating for both of you. When you view a child as a whole person, exploring things in their own way, you stop trying to fight their humanity. In war you need an opponent. Drop your weapons. Begin a new journey in partnership.
4. Separate your identity from your child’s.
When your child makes a decision that affects someone else, that is not some proxy for your parenting skills or choices. It is not your shortcoming. It doesn’t reflect badly on you. It is not your situation to remedy. Accept that a child is still developing physically and emotionally, and regardless of how perfectly and peacefully you have imparted knowledge of different skills, they are going to get it wrong. A lot. With decades of life experience and practice, you probably still get it wrong. I know I do. We are all human. Don’t take the weight of their mistakes on board with your own. Empathise with their experience without taking over. Model remedying your own missteps with love and kindness and walk them through their own process. Feeling and reacting with shame to your children’s decisions, distorts the lessons and messages that can come out of these events. Accepting and discussing mistakes without judgment opens the door to emotional growth. It encourages intrinsic motivation to do better. This is the kind of thinking that we want. It is also the kind of thinking that is killed by extrinsic motivators like fear and shame.
5. Work on yourself.
Why do you find certain situations or behaviour stressful? Be mindful of it so you can identify those feelings when they arise. The only person and behaviour you can control is your own. What changes can you make from your side to encourage a more peaceful interaction next time? Model the behaviour you want to encourage. Use a kind voice. Be gentle in your approach. Apologise, make amends and move on if it doesn’t go to plan.
And work out what you need to reenergise. For some people this will look like something simple like a ritual or showering alone. For others this will look like regular time away or outsourcing help. There is absolutely no shame in any form of self care that you need. It is so individual and it is something that shouldn’t be compared. Committing yourself to being present for every single second even when it feels like a burden is often born out of guilt. When this makes you feel like you are drowning or resentful and results in you dealing with situations in a less than ideal way, it becomes unhealthy for you and your family relationships. Being a parent is only one part, albeit a very big part, of who we are. Finding time to nourish the other parts of ourselves is something that will be reflected in your entire parenting experience. When everything feels in balance, everything feels more peaceful and more enjoyable.
I don’t want anyone to think that our life is peaceful all the time. I don’t want anyone to think that there are not days where normal occurrences feel like a grind. But I do want people to know that these feeling don’t dominate my parenting experience. They don’t dominate our family life, and maybe they don’t have to dominate yours. When the foundation of your relationship is built on connection and your children are empowered to have a voice, to make choices for themselves and to feel part of a team, it is hard for your default state to be rooted in misery. We are friends on this adventure. And it is fun. Really fun.